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What are the Most Common Ethics Issues?

By D. Blake
Updated May 23, 2024
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Some of the most common ethics issues have to do with abortion, euthanasia, human cloning, torture, animal rights and the environment, and corporate fraud. Ethical issues may arise in a variety of circumstances, and what one person sees as an issue isn’t necessarily problematic for others. The most common ethics issues — which is to say, the issues about which there is the most debate and the most tension — tend to arise when a code of ethics is ambiguous about a particular situation, when there's a clash between two codes over a particular ethical dilemma, or when a code doesn't address a scenario whatsoever. The ethical codes that help address these ethics issues can come from a variety of sources. Some are rooted in corporate dealings, medicine, law, or politics. While religions typically provide values and moral standards, some provide ethical codes, too.

“Right to Life” Questions

Questions about the value of human life, particularly debates about when it begins and how it should end, tend to be some of the most common in modern societies. Abortion is perhaps one of the most controversial ethics issues, and the debate tends to have a variety of sub-questions like Is there ever a time that abortion is ethical?, Is abortion ethical if the fetus is a product of rape or incest?, and Does the age of the fetus affect whether an abortion is ethical?. When only one of two lives — the woman or the fetus, but not both — can be saved, still more issues open up.

Euthanasia is the formal term for planned, medically-assisted death, and is most commonly debated in terms of prison inmates sentenced to die and people with chronic and terminal illnesses who want the help of their doctors to end their own lives. Advocates for euthanasia, at least when it comes to illness, often argue that it is a simple matter of mercy. They reason that it is almost an act of kindness to help people who are already dying pass in the most humane way possible. Jurisdictions that have legalized the death penalty for convicts typically rationalize standardized execution as a way that justice is served. Opponents to both execution and physician assisted suicide typically argue that life is sacred despite illness of the body or crimes of the person.


Another common ethics issue deals with how human life is created, more specifically within the parameters surrounding cloning and asexual reproduction. Scientists working in this controversial field look for ways to create organs, muscular tissue, and possibly even life itself entirely within a lab. Proponents argue that this is the next step in human and technological evolution, and cite the benefits, both financial and medical, of being able to replicate and recreate the human form. Those who are against it typically argue that cloning belittles intrinsic human value by treating the body as a disposable set artifacts that can be used for any purpose, arbitrary or otherwise.

Human Rights Issues

Torture, genocide, racial and economic oppression, and child labor are a few examples of the ethical issues that arise under the broad umbrella of human rights. Human rights advocates typically argue that there is a basic minimum standard that governs the freedoms that all people should have and the rights that they should enjoy. Others, however, say that different governments and cultural groups should also be able to organize their economies however they wish. When it comes to torture, some say that it is justified as a matter of national security.

Ethics and the Environment

Issues also arise when it comes to how humans treat the natural world, including animals. People have eaten meat and animal products like eggs and cheese for centuries, and animals are frequently studied and tested in pharmaceutical and medical labs. Animal rights activists, much like human rights activists, say that such activities are unacceptable. The debate here is essentially about whether there is a basic minimum of care and freedom that animals should enjoy, and whether societies have an obligation to prevent cruelty and mistreatment.

Environmental ethics debates typically involve both corporate and individual responsibility to local ecosystems. Environmentalists argue that choices people make every day, as well as the long-term policies of corporations, impact the environment and should be regulated. If the actions of individuals and corporations in one place will affect people in other regions of the world — as is the case with ozone depletion, for instance — there is an argument that there should be more global say when it comes to setting regulations and meting out punishments.

Business and Corporate Concerns

Corporate ethics are in many ways their own subset, but some are wide reaching enough to become large-scale concerns. Financial corruption, extortion, and fraud are some of the biggest issues, but these don’t tend to be as controversial as questions of executive bonuses, shareholder kickbacks, and lobbying practices that privilege certain business interests in legislation. Many of these activities are somewhat murky when it comes to legality, and skeptics are quick to point out that just because something is technically legal doesn’t mean that it is morally right.

Controversy and Ambiguity

Very few things in ethical studies have clear or direct solutions. Not only is there usually controversy about how to settle particular issues, there is almost always dispute about how to set the very boundaries of ethics, too. There is ambiguity about who is supposed to be ethical and exactly when he or she is supposed to act according to those standards. In other words, there is confusion about when the question of ethics is relevant in the first place, which most likely will continue to contribute to the prevalence of these and other questions moving forward.

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Discussion Comments

By anon264716 — On Apr 29, 2012

What do you think would be the social consequences of violation of rights, ethics and principles when regarding abortion?

By BrickBack — On Aug 04, 2010

Cafe41- I also wanted to say that legal ethics issues are settled by Canon law which was established in 1908, by the American Bar Association.

These General rules provide guidance for lawyers in ethics legal issues.

For example, it would be unethical for an attorney to reveal information that was obtained from a client relationship. Such information is confidential and would be in violation of Canon law if the information was revealed.

By cafe41 — On Aug 04, 2010

Subway11- I agree with you. There are so many different sides of this ethical issue that people will never all agree on the same thing.

I also wanted to add that there are many ethics issues in the news. Sometimes it's a corporate executive who was caught stealing from a company.

Other times it may be a politician that evaded taxes or took a bribe from a constituent. Unlike in the abortion dilemma, these integrity issues demonstrate very clear ethics violations. These issues o ethics are very clear.

By subway11 — On Aug 04, 2010

Anon66320- You make a very valid point, however there may be people with a strong Christian faith that may disagree.

The abortion dilemma poses many ethical questions. For example, if a mother's life is in danger as a result of the pregnancy many believe that the mother's life should be saved at the expense of unborn child. But as clear as this dilemma may seem for some, others may still not agree with the abortion.

By anon66320 — On Feb 19, 2010

In my view, the issue of abortion is ethical especially for those who are raped because you cannot care about a pregnancy which you have not intended and of the person whom is not your choice.

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