Ethics is a general term for what is often described as the "science of morality". In Philosophy, ethical behavior is that which is "good". The Western tradition of ethics is sometimes called moral philosophy. This is one of the three major branches of philosophy, alongside Metaphysics and Logic.
'The goal of a theory of ethics is to determine what is good, both for the individual and for the society as a whole. Philosophers have taken different positions in defining what is good, on how to deal with conflicting priorities of individuals versus the whole, over the universality of ethical principles versus "situation ethics" in which what is right depends upon the circumstances rather than on some general law, and over whether goodness is determined by the results of the action or the means by which results are achieved.' (Jennifer P. Tanabe, Contemplating Unification Thought)
__The history of ethics__
The formal study of ethics in a serious and analytical sense began with the early Greeks, and later Romans. Important Greek ethicists include the Sophists and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who developed ethical naturalism. The study of ethics was developed further by Epicurus and the epicurean movement, and by Zeno and the stoics.
Although not developed in a formal and analytical sense, the subject of ethics was of great concern to the writers of the Hebrew Bible, and centuries later, the New Testament and the Apocrypha. A survey of ethics in these subjects can be found in the article Ethics in the Bible; a related article, Ethics in religion covers the more extended topic of how the subject of ethics has developed in major world religions.
The formal study of philosophy stagnated until the medieval era, when it gained new strength through the writings of Maimonides, Saint Thomas Aquinas and others. It was at this time that the debate between ethics based on natural law and divine law gained a new importance.
Modern Western philosophy began with the work of greats such as Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Their work was followed up by the utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Friedrich Nietzsche has little patience for previous views of ethics, and launched an assault on such theories. The study of Analytic Ethics took off with G. E. Moore and W. D. Ross, followed by the emotivists, C. L. Stevenson and A. J. Ayer. Existentialism was developed by writers such as Jean Paul Sartre. Some modern philosophers who have done serious philosophical writing on ethics include John Rawls, Elliot N. Dorff, Christine Korsgaard and Charles Hartshorne.
__Disputes of definition__
There are at least four well-recognized ways to approach this subject. From the most studious to the most active:
1. Philosophers often call it the "science of morality" and emphasize its empirical character, but also the difficulty of imposing any single answer. To them, ethics has its roots in paradox (unresolvable questions) and, with Epistemology and Metaphysics (or just Ontology), is one of the three major branches of Philosophy.
2. Ethics is considered a branch of theology, especially in Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, Roman Catholicism and some Fundamentalist Protestant sects. In at least these traditions, ethics is not "Science" but a question of applying imperfect human reason to interpreting revealed truth from divine sources. Theology, not philosophy, was considered to be the "science of sciences" in Roman Catholic thought, and this involves not just study but activism and evangelism to actively promote these views as "gospel".
3. Ethics is inseparable from Economics in some theories, notably Marxism and Social Ecology, from family duties in Feminism, and from gender in Queer studies. These views are said to represent workers, women, and sexual outcasts who have historically been degraded by traditional ethics. Because these groups exist everywhere humans do, globally, and because there are also clear material constraints on human existence on Earth that impose constraints also on behaviour, these views are usually now integrated with planet-wide, or "global" issues of Human Rights and conduct. The "Global Ethics" which emerges is generally rooted in the social sciences, and generally does try to advance its ethical "answers" into public policy.
4. Professionals usually use or interpret "ethics" to refer to elements of professional practice that are part of dispute resolution or which have some great potential for bodily harm: Urban Planning, Medicine, Law, Politics and theories of civics. Business Ethics and Bioethics are specialized studies of decisions which likewise affect people everywhere - and which are undertaken every day. This is thus a very "doing" focused view.
5. A fifth, less well-recognized way, derives from theories of Pacifism, Nonviolence, Secession and Anarchism as a route to peace. In this view, ethics is simply the de-escalation and mediation of conflicts.
Because they are older and more traditional, this article focuses on the more studious views of ethics. The simple view of ethics and morals focuses on the more active and political view, most likely to be taken by problem solvers.
__The first social science__
Assumptions about ethical underpinnings of human behaviour are reflected in every social sciences, including: in Economics because of its role in the distribution of scarce resources, in Political Science because of its role in allocating power, in Sociology because of its roots in family, in Law because of its role in codifying ethical constructs like mercy and punishment, in Criminology because of its role in rewarding ethical behaviour and discouraging unethical behaviour, in Psychology because of its role in defining, understanding, and treating unethical behaviour or of labelling it madness.
However, hard science needs ethics too. It is also important in Biology (as Bioethics) and Ecology (as Environmental Ethics).
As these fields become more complex, and deal with more situations, ethics too tends to become complex.
__Ethics vs. politics vs. religion vs. practice__
Many questions in ethics are deeply concerned with the claiming of Rights, especially when authority is present. The potential to invoke authority and force of arms lies heavy over all ethical decisions in all but an anarchy:
When balances between rights are considered, especially in public policy, ethics becomes politics. When religious concepts are considered to dominate over human conceptions of right and wrong, ethics are often presumed to derive from a moral code - usually divinely inspired or revealed.
Non-philosophers may wish to review the article simple view of ethics and morals, which deals with ethics in much simpler language. That article focuses on how people who make ethical decisions see things, while this one focuses on how people who study ethical decisions see things. The two are typically not the same, as much more doubt and deliberation is involved in coming to agreement about principles that are to apply for a long time or for a whole society, and those who make decisions see things more simply.
__Divisions of Ethics__
In Analytic Philosophy, ethics is traditionally divided into three fields: Metaethics, Normative ethics (including value theory and the theory of conduct) and applied ethics - which is seen to be derived, top-down, from normative and thus meta-ethics.
Metaethics is the investigation of the nature of ethical statements. It involves such questions as: Are ethical claims truth-apt, i.e., capable of being true or false, or are they, for example, expressions of emotion? If they are truth-apt, are they ever true? (The position that all ethical statements are false is known as moral nihilism.) If they are ever true, what is the nature of the facts that they express? And are they ever true absolutely, or always only relative to some individual, society, or culture? Metaethics is one of the most important fields in philosophy.
Metaethics studies the nature of ethical sentences and attitudes. This includes such questions as what "good" and "right" mean, whether and how we know what is right and good, whether moral values are objective, and how ethical attitudes motivate us. Often this is derived from some list of moral absolutes, e.g. a religious moral code, whether explicit or not. Some would view aesthetics as itself a form of meta-ethics.
Metaethics also investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Metaethical answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves.
Normative ethics bridges the gap between metaethics and applied ethics. It is the attempt to arrive at practical moral standards that tell us right from wrong, and how to live moral lives. This may involve articulating the good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behavior on others.
1. One branch of normative ethics is theory of conduct; this is the study of right and wrong, of obligation and permissions, of duty, of what is above and beyond the call of duty, and of what is so wrong as to be evil. Theories of conduct propose standards of morality, or moral codes or rules. For example, the following would be the sort of rules that a theory of conduct would discuss (though different theories will differ on the merit of each of these particular rules): "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"; "The right action is the action that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number"; "Stealing is wrong". Here is where it is difficult to distinguish a theory from practice of etiquette.
2. Another branch of normative ethics is theory of value; this looks at what things are deemed to be valuable. Suppose we have decided that certain things are intrinsically good, or are more valuable than other things that are also intrinsically good. Given this, the next big question is what would this imply about how we should live our lives? The theory of value also asks: What sorts of things are good? Or: What does "good" mean? It may literally define "good" and "bad" for a community or society.
Theory of value asks questions like: What sorts of situations are good? Is pleasure always good? Is it good for people to be equally well-off? Is it intrinsically good for beautiful objects to exist?
Applied ethics applies normative ethics to specific controversial issues. Many of these ethical problems bear directly on public policy. For example, the following would be questions of applied ethics: "Is getting an abortion ever moral?"; "Is euthanasia ever moral?"; "What are the ethical underpinnings of affirmative action policies?"; "Do animals have rights?"
Without these questions there is no clear fulcrum on which to balance law, politics, and practice of arbitration - in fact no common assumptions of all participants - so the ability to formulate the questions are prior to rights balancing.
But not all questions studied in applied ethics concern public policy. For example: Is lying always wrong? If not, when is it permissible? The ability to make these ethical judgements is prior to any etiquette.
There are several sub-branches of applied ethics examining the ethical problems of different professions, such as business ethics, medical ethics, engineering ethics and legal ethics, while technology assessment and environmental assessment study the effects and implications of new technologies or projects on nature and society.
Each branch to characterize common issues and problems that arise in the ethical codes of the professions, and define their common responsibility to the public, e.g. to preserve its natural capital, or to obey some social expectations of honest dealings and disclosure.
*Abortion, Legal And Moral Issues
*Just War Theory
Ethics has been applied to economics, politics and political science, leading to several distinct and unrelated fields of applied ethics, including Business ethics and Marxism.
Ethics has been applied to family structure, sexuality, and how society views the roles of individuals; leading to several distinct and unrelated fields of applied ethics, including feminism.
Ethics has been applied to war, leading to the fields of pacifism and nonviolence.
Ethics has been applied to analyze human use of Earth's limited resources. This has led to the study of environmental ethics and social ecology. A growing trend has been to combine the study of both ecology and economics to help provide a basis for sustainable decisions on environmental use. This has led to the theories of ecological footprint and bioregional autonomy. Political and social movements based on such ideas include eco-feminism, eco-anarchism, deep ecology, the green movement, and ideas about their possible integration into Gaia philosophy.
Ethics has been applied to criminology leading to the field of criminal justice.
There are several sub-branches of applied ethics examining the ethical problems of different professions, such as business ethics, medical ethics, engineering ethics and legal ethics, while technology assessment and environmental assessment study the effects and implications of new technologies or projects on nature and society. Each branch characterizes common issues and problems that may arise, and define their common responsibility to the public, e.g. to preserve its natural capital, or to obey some social expectations of honest dealings and disclosure.
__Ethics by cases__
By far the most common way to approach applied ethics is by resolving individual cases. This is, not coincidentally, also the way business and law tend to be taught. Casuistry is one such application of case-based reasoning to applied ethics.
Bernard Crick in 1982 offered a more socially-centered view, that politics was the only applied ethics, that it was how cases were really resolved, and that "political virtues" were in fact necessary in all matters where human morality and interests were destined to clash. This and other views of modern universals is dealt with under Global Ethics.
The lines of distinction between metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics are often blurry. For example, the issue of abortion is an applied ethical topic since it involves a specific type of controversial behavior. But it also depends on more general normative principles, such as the right of self-rule and the right to life, which are litmus tests for determining the morality of that procedure. The issue also rests on metaethical issues such as, "where do rights come from?" and "what kind of beings have rights?"
Some philosophers rely on descriptive ethics and choices made and unchallenged by a society or culture to derive categories, which typically vary by context. This leads to situational ethics and situated ethics. These philosophers often view aesthetics and etiquette and arbitration as more fundamental, percolating 'bottom up' to imply, rather than explicitly state, theories of value or of conduct. In these views ethics is not derived from a top-down a priori "philosophy" (many would reject that word) but rather is strictly derived from observations of actual choices made in practice:
Ethical codes applied by various groups. Some consider aesthetics itself the basis of ethics - and a personal moral core developed through art and storytelling as very influential in one's later ethical choices.
Informal theories of etiquette which tend to be less rigorous and more situational. Some consider etiquette a simple negative ethics, i.e. where can one evade an uncomfortable truth without doing wrong? One notable advocate of this view is Judith Martin ("Miss Manners"). In this view, ethics is more a summary of common sense social decisions.
Practices in arbitration and law, e.g. the claim by Rushworth Kidder that ethics itself is a matter of balancing "right versus right", i.e. putting priorities on two things that are both right, but which must be traded off carefully in each situation. This view many consider to have potential to reform ethics as a practice, but it is not as widely held as the 'aesthetic' or 'common sense' views listed above.
Observed choices made by ordinary people, without expert aid or advice, who vote, buy and decide what is worth fighting about. This is a major concern of sociology, political science and economics.
Those who embrace such descriptive approaches tend to reject overtly normative ones. There are exceptions, such as the movement to more moral purchasing.
__The analytic view__
The descriptive view of ethics is modern and in many ways more empirical. But because the above are dealt with more deeply in their own articles, the rest of this article will focus on the formal academic categories, which are derived from classical Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle.
First, we need to define an ethical sentence, also called a normative statement. An ethical sentence is one that is used to make either a positive or a negative (moral) evaluation of something. Ethical sentences use words such as "good," "bad," "right," "wrong," "moral," "immoral," and so on. Here are some examples:
"Sally is a good person."
"People should not steal."
"The Simpson verdict was unjust."
"Honesty is a virtue."
"One ought not to break the law."
In contrast, a non-ethical sentence would be a sentence that does not serve to (morally) evaluate something. Examples would include:
"Sally is a tall person."
"Someone took the stereo out of my car."
"Simpson was acquitted at his trial."
"Many people are dishonest."
"I dislike it when people break the law."
__Is ethics futile?__
The whole assumption of the field of ethics is that consistent description, consistent deliberation, and consistent and fair application of authority is possible. However, the more case-based views seem to suggest that a great deal of judgement is required, and that for instance one could never train a robot to do ethics, as it requires Empathy and Wisdom. However, one might be able to teach an artificial intelligence with empathy and wisdom to do ethics.
Is each case unique? Possibly. The view that ethics is innate and tied to a personal moral core or aesthetics is harder to relate to the formal categories above other than as a meta-ethics in itself.
It is considered by some ethicists to be just a variant of mysticism or narcissism, permitting those who avow aesthetic choices as being 'above ethics' to justify anything.
However, the term ethics is actually derived from the ancient Greek ethos, meaning moral character. Mores, from which morality is derived, meant social rules or etiquette or inhibitions from the society. In modern times, these meanings are often somewhat reversed, with ethics being the external "science" and morals referring to one's inmost character or choices. But it is significant that the origins of the words reflect the tension between an inner-driven and an outer-driven view of what makes moral choices consistent.
By the 1960s there was increased interest in moral reasoning. Psychologists Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan and others began to try to codify rational ethics, and try to express, as Confucius had universal levels of moral awareness and capacity. Many viewed rational principles as 'higher' than relationships, but others did not.
Often, such efforts take legal or political form before they are understood as works of normative ethics. The UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights of 1948 and the Global Green Charter of 2001 are two such examples. However, as war and the development of weapon technology continues, it seems clear that no non-violent means of dispute resolution is accepted by all.
The need to redefine and align politics away from ideology and towards dispute resolution was a motive for Bernard Crick's list of political virtues.
__Major doctrines of ethics__
Philosophers have developed a number of competing systems to explain how to choose what is best for both the individual and for society. No one system has gained universal assent. The major philosophical doctrines of ethics include:
*Divine Command Ethics
*Social Contract Theory
*Non-Hedonistic Ethical Egoism
__Related Topics In Philosophy__