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Distinguishing Ethics from Other Domains of Thinking

In addition to understanding how to identify ethical concepts and principles relevant to ethical issues, skilled ethical reasoners must be able to distinguish between ethics and other domains of thinking such as social conventions, religion, and the law. Too often, ethics is confused with these other modes of thinking. It is not uncommon, for example, for social values and taboos to be treated as if they define ethical principles.

Thus, religious ideologies, social "rules," and laws are often mistakenly taken to be inherently ethical in nature. If we are to accept this amalgamation of domains, by implication every practice within any religious system is necessarily ethical, every social rule is ethically obligatory, and every law is ethically justified. We could not judge, then, any religious practices—such as torturing unbelievers—as unethical.

In the same way, if ethics and social conventions were one and the same, every social practice within any culture would necessarily be ethical—including social conventions in Nazi Germany. We could not, then, ethically condemn any social traditions, norms, mores, and taboos—however ethically bankrupt we think them to be. What's more, if ethics and the law were inextricable, by implication every law within any legal system would be ethical by definition—including laws that blatantly violate human rights.

It is essential, then, to learn to routinely differentiate ethics and other modes of thinking commonly confused with ethics. This will enable us to criticize commonly accepted, yet unethical, social conventions, religious practices, political ideas, and laws. No one lacking in this ability can truly live a life of integrity.

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