Ethics can often be an area of dispute and contention. Nevertheless, there are some areas of wide agreement. In the next section of this chapter, I set out some generally accepted principles, to establish ethical common ground for subsequent analysis of obligations we have in various group settings. Such principles include requirements of beneficence, justice and fairness, respect, honesty and good faith. In the following section, I emphasise the fact that sometimes these principles can make others’ expectations of us an important source of our obligations, a point that will be important later, especially when we consider individuals’ role requirements in organisations. I shall then turn to consider some secondary ethical principles, which may modify or refine application of the general principles. These include provisions to do with self-defence, coercion and ‘help and hindrance’. The last will also be important when we examine the responsibilities that individuals have in organisations. Then the chapter will turn to some issues about how these principles figure in decision making, with a basic account of moral conflict and the intuitive processes of ethical decision making. Setting out some general, basic principles will serve to draw our attention

to issues that have sometimes been pushed aside in recent years, in a social and political climate that has moved away from ethical principles and obligations and placed emphasis instead upon processes and outcomes. The last decades of the twentieth century saw a series of connected moves in social and economic policy, often referred to collectively as neoliberalism. These included efforts to extend competition and market mechanisms as widely as possible, with a mistrust of bureaucracy and government. One aspect of these moves has been emphasis on the results of what is done rather than how it is done (see e.g. Osborne and Gaebler, 1992: 14). This approach has had many benefits, but has also taken attention away from ethical demands we have on us in our social lives. Issues of efficiency and effectiveness have overshadowed issues of ethics. Analysis has primarily been about ways to improve competition and eliminate waste, rather than about different types of obligations. It was argued some years ago that modern ethical theory had focussed too

much on obligations (see e.g. Anscombe, 1958; Crisp and Slote, 1997), but it

is also possible to focus too little on our obligations. Such discussion is especially important when there are pressures on us that present themselves as though they are obligations, even though they are not real obligations. Some social pressures are like that. Even though we may feel pressures to conform, nevertheless these pressures have no genuine ethical force. Some allegiances that we feel may not be genuine obligations, whether they be commitments of patriotism or merely allegiances to football teams and sporting clubs. On the other hand, some of the social obligations we feel are quite genuine,

and we ought to make room in our lives to heed them. Most communities in history have believed that people have special obligations to parents and children, and I shall suggest that these relationships do indeed create genuine obligations. But where do they stand in modern times when workers in advanced economies face challenges of ‘work-life balance’? How do we weigh obligations to families against obligations to employers and workmates? The answer is not easy, but the question is more tractable if we can see more clearly what the sources of these obligations are. In seeing the roots of some of those obligations, we may also see more

clearly how genuine obligations emerge from social structures and institutions that we create. If we are not careful, we may create obligations for ourselves that we have difficulty in meeting. In that case we run risks of uncertainty, stress and anxiety, challenges in leading ethical lives, and the temptation to push aside ethical concerns as just too hard to deal with. We shall turn to such issues in some later chapters of the book. The first step, then, is to consider the sources of our social obligations.

I noted that most communities in history have believed that people have special obligations to parents and children, but we cannot rely on common opinion. For example, obligations of patriotism have also been widely accepted, but I shall argue that these are often of questionable force. The fact that communities accept one thing or another does not go very far in helping us to see sources of obligations. The goal of the book is to address prescriptive or normative questions, rather than descriptive questions. In that respect, it must be distinguished from studies in a number of other areas. Historians have given accounts of the norms and values of past societies, their evolution and development; sociologists and anthropologists have considered the mores and customs found in a wide variety of different communities; while psychologists and evolutionary biologists have given explanations about rules of behaviour and moral perceptions. I shall allude to work in some of those areas, but all of those studies are essentially descriptive, in the sense that they address questions about what people do and what they believe or perceive, rather than directly addressing the question of what we ought to do. This book aims directly at prescriptive ethical questions about what we ought to do, and touches on descriptive issues only in order to move towards answers to those prescriptive questions (for useful discussion of the difference between the sorts of questions, see Cohen, 2004: ch. 1). There is room for worthwhile discussion and analysis of prescriptive

issues, and such analysis is essential if we are to distinguish genuine obligations from other pressures on us that masquerade as obligations but have no real moral force. In this chapter I therefore set out some ethical principles that most readers

will agree to, and which can be used as a partial basis for some further discussion. In doing so, I adopt Aristotle’s methodological view that ‘our treatment of this science will be adequate, if it achieves that amount of precision which belongs to its subject matter’ (Aristotle, 1934: I, iii, p. 7). The principles are imprecise, but meaningful enough to allow us to draw worthwhile conclusions in the rest of the book. In setting them out, I emphasise some in particular that will be important later.