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Introduction | Ancient Greek Ethics | Normative Ethics | Meta-Ethics | Descriptive Ethics | Applied Ethics | Major Doctrines
Introduction Back to Top

Ethics (or Moral Philosophy) is concerned with questions of how people ought to act, and the search for a definition of right conduct (identified as the one causing the greatest good) and the good life (in the sense of a life worth living or a life that is satisfying or happy).

The word "ethics" is derived from the Greek "ethos" (meaning "custom" or "habit"). Ethics differs from morals and morality in that ethics denotes the theory of right action and the greater good, while morals indicate their practice. Ethics is not limited to specific acts and defined moral codes, but encompasses the whole of moral ideals and behaviors, a person's philosophy of life (or Weltanschauung).

It asks questions like "How should people act?" (Normative or Prescriptive Ethics), "What do people think is right?" (Descriptive Ethics), "How do we take moral knowledge and put it into practice?" (Applied Ethics), and "What does 'right' even mean?" (Meta-Ethics). See below for more discussion of these categories.

Ancient Greek Ethics Back to Top

Socrates, as recorded in Plato's dialogues, is customarily regarded as the father of Western ethics. He asserted that people will naturally do what is good provided that they know what is right, and that evil or bad actions are purely the result of ignorance: "There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance". He equated knowledge and wisdom with self-awareness (meaning to be aware of every fact relevant to a person's existence) and virtue and happiness. So, in essence, he considered self-knowledge and self-awareness to be the essential good, because the truly wise (i.e. self-aware) person will know what is right, do what is good, and therefore be happy.

According to Aristotle, "Nature does nothing in vain", so it is only when a person acts in accordance with their nature and thereby realizes their full potential, that they will do good and therefore be content in life. He held that self-realization (the awareness of one's nature and the development of one's talents) is the surest path to happiness, which is the ultimate goal, all other things (such as civic life or wealth) being merely means to an end. He encouraged moderation in all things, the extremes being degraded and immoral, (e.g. courage is the moderate virtue between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness), and held that Man should not simply live, but live well with conduct governed by moderate virtue. Virtue, for Aristotle, denotes doing the right thing to the right person at the right time to the proper extent in the correct fashion and for the right reason - something of a tall order.

Cynicism is an ancient doctrine best exemplified by the Greek philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, who lived in a tub on the streets of Athens. He taught that a life lived according to Nature was better than one that conformed to convention, and that a simple life is essential to virtue and happiness. As a moral teacher, Diogenes emphasized detachment from many of those things conventionally considered "good".

Hedonism posits that the principal ethic is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. This may range from those advocating self-gratification regardless of the pain and expense to others and with no thought for the future (Cyrenaic Hedonism), to those who believe that the most ethical pursuit maximizes pleasure and happiness for the most people. Somewhere in the middle of this continuum, Epicureanism observed that indiscriminate indulgence sometimes results in negative consequences, such as pain and fear, which are to be avoided.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus posited that the greatest good was contentment, serenity and peace of mind, which can be achieved by self-mastery over one's desires and emotions, and freedom from material attachments. In particular, sex and sexual desire are to be avoided as the greatest threat to the integrity and equilibrium of a man's mind. According to Epictetus, difficult problems in life should not be avoided, but rather embraced as spiritual exercises needed for the health of the spirit.

Pyrrho, the founding figure of Pyrrhonian Skepticism, taught that one cannot rationally decide between what is good and what is bad although, generally speaking, self-interest is the primary motive of human behavior, and he was disinclined to rely upon sincerity, virtue or Altruism as motivations.

Humanism, with its emphasis on the dignity and worth of all people and their ability to determine right and wrong purely by appeal to universal human qualities (especially rationality), can be traced back to Thales, Xenophanes of Colophon (570 - 480 B.C.), Anaxagoras, Pericles (c. 495 - 429 B.C.), Protagoras, Democritus and the historian Thucydides (c. 460 - 375 B.C.). These early Greek thinkers were all instrumental in the move away from a spiritual morality based on the supernatural, and the development of a more humanistic freethought (the view that beliefs should be formed on the basis of science and logic, and not be influenced by emotion, authority, tradition or dogma).

Normative Ethics Back to Top

Normative Ethics (or Prescriptive Ethics) is the branch of ethics concerned with establishing how things should or ought to be, how to value them, which things are good or bad, and which actions are right or wrong. It attempts to develop a set of rules governing human conduct, or a set of norms for action.

Normative ethical theories are usually split into three main categories: Consequentialism, Deontology and Virtue Ethics:

  • Consequentialism (or Teleological Ethics) argues that the morality of an action is contingent on the action's outcome or result. Thus, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome or consequence. Consequentialist theories must consider questions like "What sort of consequences count as good consequences?", "Who is the primary beneficiary of moral action?", "How are the consequences judged and who judges them?"
    Some consequentialist theories include:
    • Utilitarianism, which holds that an action is right if it leads to the most happiness for the greatest number of people ("happiness" here is defined as the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain). The origins of Utilitarianism can be traced back as far as the Greek philosopher Epicurus, but its full formulation is usually credited to Jeremy Bentham, with John Stuart Mill as its foremost proponent.
    • Hedonism, which is the philosophy that pleasure is the most important pursuit of mankind, and that individuals should strive to maximize their own total pleasure (net of any pain or suffering). Epicureanism is a more moderate approach (which still seeks to maximize happiness, but which defines happiness more as a state of tranquillity than pleasure).
    • Egoism, which holds that an action is right if it maximizes good for the self. Thus, Egoism may license actions which are good for the individual, but detrimental to the general welfare. Individual Egoism holds that all people should do whatever benefits him or her self. Personal Egoism holds that each person should act in his own self-interest, but makes no claims about what anyone else ought to do. Universal Egoism holds that everyone should act in ways that are in their own interest.
    • Asceticism, which is, in some ways, the opposite of Egoism in that it describes a life characterized by abstinence from egoistic pleasures especially to achieve a spiritual goal.
    • Altruism, which prescribes that an individual take actions that have the best consequences for everyone except for himself, according to Auguste Comte's dictum, "Live for others". Thus, individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve or benefit others, if necessary at the sacrifice of self-interest.
    • Rule Consequentialism, which is a theory (sometimes seen as an attempt to reconcile Consequentialism and Deontology), that moral behavior involves following certain rules, but that those rules should be chosen based on the consequences that the selection of those rules have.
    • Negative Consequentialism, which focuses on minimizing bad consequences rather than promoting good consequences. This may actually require active intervention (to prevent harm from being done), or may only require passive avoidance of bad outcomes.
  • Deontology is an approach to ethics that focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions. It argues that decisions should be made considering the factors of one's duties and other's rights (the Greek 'deon' means 'obligation' or 'duty').
    Some deontological theories include:
    • Divine Command Theory: a form of deontological theory which states that an action is right if God has decreed that it is right, and that an act is obligatory if and only if (and because) it is commanded by God. Thus, moral obligations arise from God's commands, and the rightness of any action depends upon that action being performed because it is a duty, not because of any good consequences arising from that action. William of Ockham, René Descartes and the 18th Century Calvinists all accepted versions of this moral theory.
    • Natural Rights Theory (such as that espoused by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke), which holds that humans have absolute, natural rights (in the sense of universal rights that are inherent in the nature of ethics, and not contingent on human actions or beliefs). This eventually developed into what we today call human rights.
    • Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, which roots morality in humanity's rational capacity and asserts certain inviolable moral laws. Kant's formulation is deontological in that he argues that to act in the morally right way, people must act according to duty, and that it is the motives of the person who carries out the action that make them right or wrong, not the consequences of the actions. Simply stated, the Categorical Imperative states that one should only act in such a way that one could want the maxim (or motivating principle) of one's action to become a universal law, and that one should always treat people as an end as well as a means to an end.
    • Pluralistic Deontology is a description of the deontological ethics propounded by W.D. Ross (1877 - 1971). He argues that there are seven prima facie duties which need to be taken into consideration when deciding which duty should be acted upon: beneficence (to help other people to increase their pleasure, improve their character, etc); non-maleficence (to avoid harming other people); justice (to ensure people get what they deserve); self-improvement (to improve ourselves); reparation (to recompense someone if you have acted wrongly towards them); gratitude (to benefit people who have benefited us); promise-keeping (to act according to explicit and implicit promises, including the implicit promise to tell the truth). In some circumstances, there may be clashes or conflicts between these duties and a decision must be made whereby one duty may "trump" another, although there are no hard and fast rules and no fixed order of significance.
    • Contractarian Ethics (or the Moral Theory of Contractarianism) claims that moral norms derive their normative force from the idea of contract or mutual agreement. It holds that moral acts are those that we would all agree to if we were unbiased, and that moral rules themselves are a sort of a contract, and therefore only people who understand and agree to the terms of the contract are bound by it. The theory stems initially from political Contractarianism and the principle of social contract developed by Thomas Hobbes, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and John Locke, which essentially holds that people give up some rights to a government and/or other authority in order to receive, or jointly preserve, social order. Contractualism is a variation on Contractarianism, although based more on the Kantian ideas that ethics is an essentially interpersonal matter, and that right and wrong are a matter of whether we can justify the action to other people.
  • Virtue Ethics, focuses on the inherent character of a person rather than on the nature or consequences of specific actions performed. The system identifies virtues (those habits and behaviors that will allow a person to achieve "eudaimonia", or well being or a good life), counsels practical wisdom to resolve any conflicts between virtues, and claims that a lifetime of practicing these virtues leads to, or in effect constitutes, happiness and the good life.
    • Eudaimonism is a philosophy originated by Aristotle that defines right action as that which leads to "well being", and which can be achieved by a lifetime of practicing the virtues in one's everyday activities, subject to the exercise of practical wisdom. It was first advocated by Plato and is particularly associated with Aristotle, and became the prevailing approach to ethical thinking in the Ancient and Medieval periods. It fell out of favor in the Early Modern period, but has recently undergone a modern resurgence.
    • Agent-Based Theories give an account of virtue based on our common-sense intuitions about which character traits are admirable (e.g. benevolence, kindness, compassion, etc), which we can identify by looking at the people we admire, our moral exemplars.
    • Ethics of Care was developed mainly by Feminist writers, and calls for a change in how we view morality and the virtues, shifting towards the more marginalized virtues exemplified by women, such as taking care of others, patience, the ability to nurture, self-sacrifice, etc.
Meta-Ethics Back to Top

Meta-Ethics is concerned primarily with the meaning of ethical judgments, and seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments and how they may be supported or defended. A meta-ethical theory, unlike a normative ethical theory (see below), does not attempt to evaluate specific choices as being better, worse, good, bad or evil; rather it tries to define the essential meaning and nature of the problem being discussed. It concerns itself with second order questions, specifically the semantics, epistemology and ontology of ethics.

The major meta-ethical views are commonly divided into two camps: Moral Realism and Moral Anti-Realism:

  • Moral Realism:
    Moral Realism (or Moral Objectivism) holds that there are objective moral values, so that evaluative statements are essentially factual claims, which are either true or false, and that their truth or falsity are independent of our beliefs, feelings or other attitudes towards the things being evaluated. It is a cognitivist view in that it holds that ethical sentences express valid propositions and are therefore truth-apt.
    There are two main variants:
    • Ethical Naturalism
      This doctrine holds that there are objective moral properties of which we have empirical knowledge, but that these properties are reducible to entirely non-ethical properties. It assumes cognitivism (the view that ethical sentences express propositions and can therefore be true or false), and that the meanings of these ethical sentences can be expressed as natural properties without the use of ethical terms.
    • Ethical Non-Naturalism
      This doctrine (whose major apologist is G. E. Moore) holds that ethical statements express propositions (in that sense it is also cognitivist) that cannot be reduced to non-ethical statements (e.g. "goodness" is indefinable in that it cannot be defined in any other terms). Moore claimed that a naturalistic fallacy is committed by any attempt to prove a claim about ethics by appealing to a definition in terms of one or more natural properties (e.g. "good" cannot be defined in terms of "pleasant", "more evolved", "desired", etc).
      Ethical Intuitionism is a variant of Ethical Non-Naturalism which claims that we sometimes have intuitive awareness of moral properties or of moral truths.
  • Moral Anti-Realism:
    Moral Anti-Realism holds that there are no objective moral values, and comes in one of three forms, depending on whether ethical statements are believed to be subjective claims (Ethical Subjectivism), not genuine claims at all (Non-Cognitivism) or mistaken objective claims (Moral Nihilism or Moral Skepticism):
    • Ethical Subjectivism, which holds that there are no objective moral properties and that moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes and/or conventions of the observers, or that any ethical sentence merely implies an attitude, opinion, personal preference or feeling held by someone.
      There are several different variants:
      • Simple Subjectivism: the view that ethical statements reflect sentiments, personal preferences and feelings rather than objective facts.
      • Individualist subjectivism: the view (originally put forward by Protagoras) that there are as many distinct scales of good and evil as there are individuals in the world (effectively a form of Egoism).
      • Moral Relativism (or Ethical Relativism): the view that for a thing to be morally right is for it to be approved of by society, leading to the conclusion that different things are right for people in different societies and different periods in history.
      • Ideal Observer Theory: the view that what is right is determined by the attitudes that a hypothetical ideal observer (a being who is perfectly rational, imaginative and informed) would have.
    • Non-Cognitivism, which holds that ethical sentences are neither true nor false because they do not express genuine propositions, thus implying that moral knowledge is impossible. Again there are different versions:
      • Emotivism: the view, defended by A.J. Ayer and C. L. Stevenson (1908 - 1979) among others, that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions, and ethical judgments are primarily expressions of one's own attitude, although to some extent they are also imperatives meant to change the attitudes and actions of other listeners.
      • Prescriptivism (or Universal Prescriptivism): the view, propounded by R.M. Hare (1919 - 2002), that moral statements function as imperatives which are universalizable (i.e. applicable to everyone in similar circumstances) e.g. "Killing is wrong" really means "Do not kill!"
      • Expressivism: the view that the primary function of moral sentences is not to assert any matter of fact, but rather to express an evaluative attitude toward an object of evaluation. Therefore, because the function of moral language is non-descriptive, moral sentences do not have any truth conditions.
      • Quasi-Realism: the view, developed from Expressivism and defended by Simon Blackburn (1944 - ), that ethical statements behave linguistically like factual claims, and can be appropriately called "true" or "false" even though there are no ethical facts for them to correspond to. Blackburn argues that ethics cannot be entirely realist, for this would not allow for phenomena such as the gradual development of ethical positions over time or in differing cultural traditions.
      • Projectivism: the view that qualities can be attributed to (or "projected" on) an object as if those qualities actually belong to it. Projectivism in Ethics (originally proposed by David Hume and more recently championed by Simon Blackburn) is associated by many with Moral Relativism, and is considered controversial, even though it was philosophical orthodoxy throughout much of the 20th Century.
      • Moral Fictionalism: the view that moral statements should not be taken to be literally true, but merely a useful fiction. This has led to charges of individuals claiming to hold attitudes that they do not really have, and therefore are in some way insincere.
    • Moral Nihilism, which holds that ethical claims are generally false. It holds that there are no objective values (that nothing is morally good, bad, wrong, right, etc.) because there are no moral truths (e.g. a moral nihilist would say that murder is not wrong, but neither is it right).
      Error Theory is a form of Moral Nihilism which combines Cognitivism (the belief that moral language consists of truth-apt statements) with Moral Nihilism (the belief that there are no moral facts).
    • Moral Skepticism, which holds that no one has any moral knowledge (or the stronger claim that no one can have any moral knowledge). It is particularly opposed to Moral Realism (see above) and perhaps its most famous proponent is Friedrich Nietzsche.

An alternative division of meta-ethical views is between:

  • Moral Absolutism:
    The ethical belief that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged, and that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of the context of the act.
  • Moral Universalism:
    The meta-ethical position that there is a universal ethic which applies to all people, regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality or other distinguishing feature, and all the time.
  • Moral Relativism:
    The position that moral or ethical propositions do not reflect objective and/or universal moral truths, but instead make claims relative to social, cultural, historical or personal circumstances.
Descriptive Ethics Back to Top

Descriptive Ethics is a value-free approach to ethics which examines ethics from the perspective of observations of actual choices made by moral agents in practice. It is the study of people's beliefs about morality, and implies the existence of, rather than explicitly prescribing, theories of value or of conduct. It is not designed to provide guidance to people in making moral decisions, nor is it designed to evaluate the reasonableness of moral norms.

It is more likely to be investigated by those working in the fields of evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology, history or anthropology, although information that comes from descriptive ethics is also used in philosophical arguments.

Descriptive Ethics is sometimes referred to as Comparative Ethics because so much activity can involve comparing ethical systems: comparing the ethics of the past to the present; comparing the ethics of one society to another; and comparing the ethics which people claim to follow with the actual rules of conduct which do describe their actions.

Applied Ethics Back to Top

Applied Ethics is a discipline of philosophy that attempts to apply ethical theory to real-life situations. Strict, principle-based ethical approaches often result in solutions to specific problems that are not universally acceptable or impossible to implement. Applied Ethics is much more ready to include the insights of psychology, sociology and other relevant areas of knowledge in its deliberations. It is used in determining public policy.

The following would be questions of Applied Ethics: "Is getting an abortion immoral?", "Is euthanasia immoral?", "Is affirmative action right or wrong?", "What are human rights, and how do we determine them?" and "Do animals have rights as well?"

Some topics falling within the discipline include:

  • Medical Ethics: the study of moral values and judgments as they apply to medicine. Historically, Western medical ethics may be traced to guidelines on the duty of physicians in antiquity, such as the Hippocratic Oath (at its simplest, "to practice and prescribe to the best of my ability for the good of my patients, and to try to avoid harming them"), and early rabbinic, Muslim and Christian teachings. Six of the values that commonly apply to medical ethics discussions are: Beneficence (a practitioner should act in the best interest of the patient), Non-maleficence ("first, do no harm"), Autonomy (the patient has the right to refuse or choose their treatment), Justice (concerning the distribution of scarce health resources, and the decision of who gets what treatment), Dignity (both the patient and the practitioner have the right to dignity), Honesty (truthfulness and respect for the concept of informed consent).
  • Bioethics: concerns the ethical controversies brought about by advances in biology and medicine. Public attention was drawn to these questions by abuses of human subjects in biomedical experiments, especially during the Second World War, but with recent advances in biotechnology, bioethics has become a fast-growing academic and professional area of inquiry. Issues include consideration of cloning, stem cell research, transplant trade, genetically modified food, human genetic engineering, genomics, infertility treatment, etc, etc
  • Legal Ethics: an ethical code governing the conduct of people engaged in the practice of law. Model rules usually address the client-lawyer relationship, duties of a lawyer as advocate in adversary proceedings, dealings with persons other than clients, law firms and associations, public service, advertising and maintaining the integrity of the profession. Respect of client confidences, candor toward the tribunal, truthfulness in statements to others, and professional independence are some of the defining features of legal ethics.
  • Business Ethics: examines ethical principles and moral or ethical problems that can arise in a business environment. This includes Corporate Social Responsibility, a concept whereby organizations consider the interests of society by taking responsibility for the impact of their activities on customers, employees, shareholders, communities and the environment in all aspects of their operations, over and above the statutory obligation to comply with legislation.
  • Environmental Ethics: considers the ethical relationship between human beings and the natural environment. It addresses questions like "Should we continue to clear cut forests for the sake of human consumption?", "Should we continue to make gasoline powered vehicles, depleting fossil fuel resources while the technology exists to create zero-emission vehicles?", "What environmental obligations do we need to keep for future generations?", "Is it right for humans to knowingly cause the extinction of a species for the (perceived or real) convenience of humanity?"
  • Information Ethics: investigates the ethical issues arising from the development and application of computers and information technologies. It is concerned with issues like the privacy of information, whether artificial agents may be moral, how one should behave in the infosphere, and ownership and copyright problems arising from the creation, collection, recording, distribution, processing, etc, of information.
  • Media Ethics: deals with the specific ethical principles and standards of media in general, including the ethical issues relating to journalism, advertising and marketing, and entertainment media.
Major Doctrines Back to Top

Under the heading of Ethics, the major doctrines or theories include:

Ethical Naturalism
Ethical Non-Naturalism
Ethical Subjectivism
Moral Absolutism
Moral Anti-Realism
Moral Nihilism
Moral Realism
Moral Relativism
Moral Skepticism
Moral Universalism
Virtue Ethics

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