General ethical concerns

Ethics or morality is about what one should or should not do. The great classical meta-ethical theories—deontology, utilitarianism, virtue ethics—and other meta-ethical approaches provide different strategies to justify what we should or should not do. These are general justification strategies that can be applied to argue for (or against) any concrete decision or for general ethical principles that prescribe how one should act. However, we can think about ethics not only as a question of justification but also as a question about which kind of behavior people find concerning. Such an empirical or descriptive approach to ethics is realized in this document.

Every ethical concern can be translated into an ethical principle that provides instructions about what we should or should not do to address this concern. For example, if we are concerned about hate speech, we might consider the establishment of a series of ethical principles: do not engage in hate speech; intervene when you observe hate speech; support the creation of social structures, institutions, or laws that allow the prosecution of hate speech; and so on. Since there can be an infinite number of ethical concerns and corresponding principles, an empirical approach to ethical principles will never be able to provide a complete list of ethical concerns or principles. And since the things people find concerning might change over time, might vary in different cultures, or might be controversial within societies, different people will find different sets of concerns and principles important.

It is possible, however, to develop typologies of ethical or moral concerns. In cultural psychology, Shweder, Much, Mahapatra, & Park (1997) distinguished three clusters of moral themes in a large body of interviews: autonomy, community and divinity. Based on this, Jonathan Haidt and colleagues developed a distinction of six “universal cognitive modules upon which cultures construct moral matrices” (Haidt 2012, p. 124):

  1. Care / harm
  2. Fairness / cheating
  3. Loyalty / betrayal
  4. Authority / subversion
  5. Sanctity / degradation
  6. Liberty / oppression

I would suggest a different typology. It starts from a distinction of negative and positive ethical concerns—what should not be done and what should be done—and those that have both a positive and negative dimension. Under each of the three is then a distinction of very general concerns provided, each with more specific concerns. References are either to the literature or to students who provided additional ideas.

As negative ethical concerns are listed: harm; limiting autonomy and liberty; and changing identities and living conditions.

For positive concerns: Improving things; creating fair and just living conditions; worrying about cleanliness or purity; and moral concerns that are driven by certain loyalties.

Both positive and negative concerns include: What is required based on an intrinsic value of things; based on the sanctity of things; and what is required by accepted authority.

1.       Negative ethical concerns: What should not be done

1.1       Harm

  • Annihilating humanity
  • Genocide
  • Crime against humanity (Sands 2016;
  • War or violent conflict
  • “Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length” (Nussbaum 1999, pp. 41-42)
  • Bodily health. “Being able to have good health, including reproductive health” (ibid.)
  • Bodily integrity. “Being able to move freely from place to place, being able to be secure against violent assault, including sexual assault” (ibid.), against harm, pain, and suffering.
  • Excluding people from the community they want to be a part of.
  • Undermining someone’s dignity, social standing, reputation, or honor, or their cultural, religious, social, sexual, or ideological identity and self-perception. As Jeremy Waldron (2012) writes: “A person’s dignity … is their social standing, the fundamentals of basic reputation that entitle them to be treated as equals in the ordinary operations of society. Their dignity is something they can rely on—in the best case implicitly and without fuss, as they live their lives, go about their business, and raise their families” (p. 5)
  • Stealing of property, including data
  • Structural violence. Johan Galtung (1969) originally coined this term to refer to any constraint on human potential due to economic, social, cultural, religious, or political structures. Lacking access to resources, to political power, to education, to health care, or to legal standing, are forms of structural violence. When inner city children have inadequate schools, when gays and lesbians are fired for their sexual orientation, when institutions and customs treat men and women differently, when transgender and non-binary people adequate medical care is denied or they experience a “higher than average likelihood of being murdered” (Chris Thayer), when laborers toil in inhumane conditions, when people of color endure environmental toxins in their neighborhoods, when certain groups of people were able to accumulate wealth, individual, societal, or political power much later in history then others (voting rights or the ability to purchase mortgages) so that they are at a generational disadvantage (Alexandra Erwin), then structural violence exists. Unfortunately, even those who are victims of structural violence often do not see the systematic ways in which their plight might be choreographed by unequal and unfair distribution of society’s resources. Can be applied to individuals, races, classes, groups, and nations (e.g., global economic injustice).
  • Imposing tacit biases on people by the social order or by institutions such as the media so that the awareness of structural violence is prevented and violent social structures reinforced (Paul Demerritt, 2017)
  • Losing the “assurance that there will be no need to face hostility, violence, discrimination, or exclusion.” This is the way Waldron (2012, p. 4) describes the harm done by hate speech. However, having a sense that there is a risk of harm, a sense of insecurity or missing protection and safety can also be caused by direct threats or by gestures and other signs.
  • Having a sense that you cannot be yourself, that there is no space “to test your actions, and potentially fail or make mistakes” (Rainey Jernigan, 2017)
  • Offending people, i.e. causing them to feel threatened in their dignity, reputation, honor,
  • Undermining trust (e.g. by breaking a promise, cheating, or violating rights; this is harm to social relations)

1.2       Limiting autonomy and liberty

  • Slavery
  • Coercion
  • Limiting people’s freedom of making informed decisions
  • Manipulating people so that they make decisions against their own interests (Christopher Cook, 2017)
  • Diminishing people’s responsibility or accountability (e.g., in paternalism)
  • Limiting access to information and knowledge, including transparency of decision making
  • Overburdening control by governments or governance structures
  • Making private information accessible to others (privacy)

1.3       Change of identities and living conditions

  • Changing what it means to be human or to live in human societies, for example by certain technological innovations or substantial societal changes (Bauman 2004; Economist 2016; Ford 2015; Frey & Osborne 2013; Kaplan 2015; Peck 2010; Rifkin 1995; Susskind & Susskind 2015)
  • Changing living conditions (e.g. by excessive taxation)
  • Diminishing diversity of life styles (e.g., totalitarianism)

2.       Positive ethical concerns: What should be done

2.1       Improving things

  • Helping others in need
  • Supporting others, caring for others
  • Developing one’s own talents
  • Developing certain attitudes or character traits such as generosity
  • Developing general happiness, quality of life, self-confidence, , pride in one’s achievements, and conviviality, acknowledgement of one’s way of life
  • Actively preventing harm or reducing harmful realities (see 1.1)
  • Promoting social relations or a sense of community
  • Promoting virtues (truthfulness, trust, prudence, bravery, altruism, politeness, etc.)
  • Advancement of knowledge
  • Development of new or better technologies
  • Inclusion of everybody in decision or policy making, especially of those whose voice, needs, interests, or values have traditionally been marginalized. Whereas related ideas have been discussed above under “structural violence” in the section on “harm,” they should also be discussed under the mission of “improving things.” “Historically, societies have privileged select few members of society, who have disproportionately held positions of power socially, politically, and economically. To this day, such power dynamics are still in existence and are readily discernable along the lines of race, ethnicity, culture, gender, socio-economic status, religion, ability, etc…  I argue that an ethical responsibility lies in promoting and furthering inclusion as to increase the voices among the aforementioned groups such that they achieve adequate representation among the public and political spheres of society” (Darian Agnew, 2017)

2.2       Creating fair and just living conditions

  • Equals should be treated equally (Schick & Vaughn 2013, p. 338)
  • “Just” and “fair” are properties of social relations, or of activities that promote social relations, or of people who perform those activities. Social relations are just and fair if and only if they realize a system of rights and obligations that both protects the weak and arbitrarily disadvantaged and guarantees that everybody gets what he or she deserves in the distribution of social and economic goods and in the adjudication of socially imposed burdens on individuals such as taxation and punishment. Attempts to determine what someone deserves focus on principles that are justified based on either (a) the assumption that they are universally true and binding; (b) their usefulness for the sustainability of social relations; (c) an agreement—hypothetical or real—among the people who constitute these social relations; or (d) on any combination of the other possibilities. (My own definition)
  • Injustice: unequal distribution of benefits and burdens (e.g. discrimination; Tuskegee syphilis experiments)

2.3       Worrying about cleanliness or purity of

  • one’s own body and thoughts
  • community (e.g., social order)
  • natural environment
  • actions with regard to a divine entity

2.4       Moral concerns that are driven by certain loyalties and respect to

  • family
  • in-group (community, social class, race, nation, etc.)
  • ideas or traditions
  • leaders or representatives of groups
  • divine entities

3.       Both positive and negative ethical concerns

3.1       What is required based on an intrinsic value of things

  • Respect for things as valuable in themselves

3.2       What is required based on a sanctity of things

  • Reverence for sacred places, times, events, rituals, actions, persons, entities, etc.

3.3       What is required by accepted authority

  • Parents
  • Tradition, culture
  • Religious authoritative texts (e.g. the Bible; Quran)
  • Accepted leaders


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Economist. (2016). Artificial intelligence: The return of the machinery question. Economist, 11; Special Report 11-16. Retrieved from

Ford, M. (2015). Rise of the robots : technology and the threat of a jobless future. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.

Frey, C. B., & Osborne, M. A. (2013). The Future of Employment: How susceptible are jobs to computerization? Retrieved from

Galtung, J. (1969). Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. [Article]. Journal of Peace Research(3), 167-191.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion (1st ed.). New York: Pantheon Books.

Kaplan, J. (2015). Humans need not apply : a guide to wealth and work in the age of artifcial intelligence. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Nussbaum, M. C. (1999). Sex & social justice. New York: Oxford University Press.

Peck, D. (2010). How a New Jobless Era Will Transform America. The Atlantic, (March). Retrieved from

Rifkin, J. (1995). The end of work : the decline of the global labor force and the dawn of the post-market era. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

Sands, P. (2016). East West Street : on the origins of genocide and crimes against humanity. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Schick, T., & Vaughn, L. (2013). Doing philosophy : an introduction through thought experiments (5th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Shweder, R. A., Much, N. C., Mahapatra, M., & Park, L. (1997). The ‘‘big three’’of morality (autonomy, community and divinity) and the ‘‘big three’’explanations of suffering. In A. M. Brandt & P. Rozin (Eds.), Morality and health (pp. 119-169). New York: Routledge.

Susskind, R., & Susskind, D. (2015). The future of the professions: How technology will transform the work of human experts. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Waldron, J. (2012). The harm in hate speech. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Michael H.G. Hoffmann

 Last update: January 4, 2018