By JOHN SWIFT

Let’s face it, ethics have become increasingly hard to describe. Most people couldn’t define an ethic and often don’t recognize ethics when they bump into them.

Increasingly we think about ethics in rule-bound situations. These are moments when a system of rules apply and essentially the ethical dilemma seems to be whether or not to break the rules. In these moments there is rarely much thought about the reasons for or the logic or objectives behind the rules.

Often there are no articulated rules and we are faced with choices. The common element of these choices may be the degree of social responsibility that we want to exercise. In these cases many play down or even trivialize the choices because the consequences of a failure to act responsibly are distant and difficult to measure. We often ignore consequences which are beyond our immediate world.

For example, many of us will not consider that the history of the goods that we purchase poses ethical questions. Does where goods come from or how they are produced matter morally? The consequences of purchasing only ‘Fair Trade” coffee seem remote and uncertain. Whether or not to purchase goods in recyclable packaging has consequences that are closer to home but somehow which are only slightly more immediate.

The questions ask should we regard ourselves as responsible for actions that we do not commit ourselves, but that we may encourage or support through our choices?

Ethics are supposed to be guides, reflecting principles of right and wrong that are accepted by an individual or a social group in making choices. These principles embody values and priorities. They are rules or standards governing our conduct and in doing that they promote certain abstract values or moral standards or responsibility. An ethical code is a system of principles governing morality and defining, according to certain values, what is acceptable conduct.

I am reminded of a book entitled Everyday Ethics: Inspired Solutions to Real-Life Dilemmas. Ethics pose questions and suggest answers about how we ought to act in relationships and how we should live with one another.

Lets look for a moment, not too seriously, at urinal etiquette. Sometimes we can learn to appreciate something by understanding what it is not.

Urinal etiquette presents us with a well understood if infrequently expressed code of conduct, describing about how we should live with one another in a certain set of circumstances. The Golden Rule and central principle of urinal etiquette is that the first guy picks an end urinal, and every subsequent guy chooses the urinal which puts him furthest from anyone else peeing. At least one buffer urinal is required between any two guys or AWKWARDNESS ensues. This code embodies and promotes as preeminent values, privacy, the importance of the integrity of personal space and the avoidance of AWKWARDNESS, whatever that is.

We think of ethics as promoting positive and significant values. Privacy, the importance of the integrity of personal space and the avoidance of AWKWARDNESS, are for the most part positive and significant values. The jury is out on the avoidance of AWKWARDNESS. As a society, we do recognize widely a declining sense of ethics. Our expectations continue to lower. For example look at what we have come to expect from politicians.

And then there’s catch and release, not in fishing but in relationships with women. Ethical dilemmas seem to be occurring with increasing frequency here, especially with the increasing awareness and public and published focus of women on the conduct of men.

Often these are questions of values, arising from systems of rules and codes for behavior and for responsibility. With women, these kinds of dilemmas depend on what you say, on the terms you become engaged.

The extreme case occurs in marriage. I am not talking here about issues involving children which bring on an entirely new and broad range of responsibilities and issues.

It seems that monogamy isn’t for everyone. Look at divorce rates.

Cheating is a choice. Any reference to ethics would suggest that if you have made promises you should stick to them. There may be more to it than that.

I have been thinking that in relationships with women, whether you know it or not, the Golden Rule may be that in such matters you are playing by the rules or the sense of them of another person. Bad or unethical behavior may be in the eyes of the beholder. Oh, there will be actions so bad or so despicable that you know they will be universally considered to be ethically offensive. But on many other questions, someone else will make the rules, pass the judgments and determine what is bad behavior and what is good behavior.

Sticking to your convictions may not help much and no one will think better of you for doing so. You can imagine the conversations. Deep in the bowels of the locker room. “I showed her who is boss!”

Oh sure.

Of course, by their nature ethics are generalizations. They apply incessantly, like the law of gravity but inconsistently.

Sometimes you are more aware of them than at others. Sometimes in moments of great excitement, temptation or speed, they are the very last thing on your mind. Often you think that they simply do not apply in the circumstances in front of you.

But somehow, with reflection or the passage of time basically ethical conditions always seem to fall back into place. You pay the piper. Sooner or later you review what happened and what you have done from a broader perspective. You think about what Ethic2you should have done.

I’m not helping much. But then ethics pose questions. They do not necessarily provide answers.

Let’s just think about this, shall we?