From the forthcoming book, “Critical Thinking for Nurses: Cases and Concepts,” by Chris MacDonald and Nancy Walton (Oxford University Press, 2014). Chapter title: “Thinking Critically About Ethics.”
In terms of behaviour, ethics is about deciding what it is right to do. It is about deciding between how we should behave, and what kinds of people we want to be. Ethics as a field of study can be defined as the critical, structured examination of standards of conduct for people and organizations. It is worth pausing for a moment to look at several elements of that definition. First, ethics is a critical field of study, in the same sense of the word “critical” as we see that word used in critical thinking. In other words, ethics is not just a matter of stating our view about right and wrong, or describing the patterns of such beliefs within society. Ethics, instead, is about examining such beliefs with a critical eye in order to determine which beliefs about right and wrong behaviour can be supported by strong arguments.
Second, ethics is a structured examination of right and wrong. It is not, in other words, just a matter of examining one’s own feelings or relying on intuition. It is a matter of looking carefully at the foundations of our ethical beliefs in a systematic way. It is a matter of asking not just, “What do I believe?” but also “Why do I believe that?” and “Can I provide good reasons for other people to adopt my point of view?”