Introduction to Philosophy/What is Ethics

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Ethics is a term. Many people think ethics has to do with a set of social conventions or a religious decree. In professional philosophy we do not typically consider this to be the definition of ethics. Philosophical ethics could be called the study of what is good and bad. Generally, philosophical ethics concerns itself with discovering a system one may use to determine who or what is good, or with evaluating systems that others have proposed.

The pursuit of moral knowledge dates back to Ancient Greek philosophers, but it is mostly the influence of Enlightenment moral thought that continues to shape ethics today. There are many well-known figures in the history of ethics, including the Greek philosophers Plato and Aristotle, but some of the most important modern influences include such people as Immanuel Kant, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, D.W. Ross, C.L. Stevenson, Alasdair MacIntyre, and John Rawls.

In ethics, a premium is placed upon defining "the good". Different approaches to defining the good, the nature of moral properties, the source of moral knowledge, and the status of moral facts have played an important role in shaping various branches of moral theory. The three major divisions of ethical philosophy may be called Virtue Ethics, Deontology, and Consequentialism.

Ethical mandates from society and church do not qualify as genuine philosophical ethics.

This last statement causes concern in that it reeks of negative presuppositions. First of all, ethical mandates ALWAYS have ethical undertones. It is inescapable. An ethical mandate may not fit certain schools of thought, but then certain schools of thought can be erroneous. All ethics are religious by nature, if one defines religion as an attempt to discover the good. Ethics stem from the question "What is right?" Whoever decides the answer to that question is a law maker. Laws are always expressions of religious thought be they theonomic or autonomous.

Ethics is the philosophical attempt to answer Socrates' question of how one should live. This is a very general question, which could for any individual translate to "How should I live?" It is important however to note that not all answers to this question are answers of the ethical type. One could conclude that one should live a self-indulgent life without any kind of logical contradiction. Moral philosophers study this idea, known as “egoism,” as well, and the question "Why be moral?" is because of this distinct from Socrates' question.

It is also important to note that Socrates' question not only allows for non-ethical answers but also answers from different ethical theories. His question is not the same as Kant's question "What is my duty?" or the egoist/utilitarian question of "How can we be happy?" There are many different ways of answering Socrates' question, and answers from the Categorical Imperative to the imperative "Sit on the couch and watch television" are equally answers to it, but Ethics attempts to find through reason the best answer to the question.

Ethics, often called Morality interchangeably, tries to answer "How should one live?" given that we already live in a society. Everyone is born with a place in society even if it is only "Stranger," and accordingly everyone has expectations for action placed upon them. One is expected to act a certain way as a brother, a friend, and a passer-by. Ethics primarily concerns itself with this realm of individual action. For the most part, ethical theories attempt to develop a system of obligations that we have towards others. Obligations that are common among different theories are the obligation to tell the truth, the obligation to help those in distress, and the obligation not to murder. Of course, most of the theories allow for flexibility based on the situation such as the ability to help in this circumstance and whether one has any other, higher obligations.

The ethical theories of the past have been of many types. Aristotle proposed a theory of virtue, a notion that was already a part of Greek culture. He espoused the view that the good man is one who lives in a way as to allow him to move towards the goal of man-as-such, the telos, and the way to reach the telos is to live a life of virtue.

Another prominent theory has been consequentialism. This theory includes John Stuart Mill’s utilitarianism, and its focus is, from its name, on the consequences of one’s actions. General consequentialism will say we have obligations to help people because helping people produces a better result than not helping people. Utilitarianism goes beyond this to mathematize ethics. It quantifies the utility, which it defines as “happiness” or “pleasure,” a given action will produce and weighs that number against the amount of utility produced by another action. Whichever action produces the most utility is the one that is obligated.

A third common ethical theory is deontology, and its main supporter has been Kant. Deontology is the study of obligations in a very narrow sense. It attempts to divine from reason alone the obligations every man holds simply because he is a rational being. Kant first argues for what he calls the Categorical Imperative, and from that it is possible to derive other universal maxims, which follow the formula “When in situation X, do Y.” Kant has two formulations of his Categorical Imperative. The first is Act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. The second, which Kant claims carries the same meaning, is "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end."

When considering ethics, it is also important to note that the Enlightenment project of justifying morality is judged by some prominent contemporary moral philosophers to have been a failure. These contemporary philosophers take it to be that morality cannot be grounded in reason alone. Three important alternatives are the philosophies of Alasdair MacIntyre, Richard Rorty, and Bernard Williams. MacIntyre advocates a return to the Aristotelian tradition of living out the virtues in reference to the telos, or goal, of man. Rorty is a pragmatist and argues that the question we must ask of every moral obligation is “Is this useful?” He would argue that treating strangers with distrust and keeping promises are good moral principles because they are primarily useful for building a better society. Finally, Williams critiques ethical theory on the whole and the notion of obligation. He also asks why ethics is taken to be a better answer to Socrates’ question than non-ethical answers.


Normative ethics deals with questions of what we ought to do, or what things are good to do.

  • What behavior (or intentions) are good or bad?
  • What kind of things can be adduced as moral justifications ("justifying reasons") for certain kinds of behavior?
  • Is killing another human being (murder) morally acceptable? Killing an enemy in war? Ethnic cleansing? Killing a person in self-defense? Executing a convicted murderer? Assisting a terminally ill person to die? Killing yourself? Abortion? Abortion of a deformed fetus? Killing of an animal?
  • Do animals have rights? Do women? Children? Mentally handicapped people?
  • Is torture ever justified? Theft? Lying? Promise-breaking?
  • What is the best way for human beings to lead their lives?
  • What are the justifying reasons for war? Is there such a thing as a "just war"?
  • Can the cultural practices of other times and societies be condemned as immoral? How about American slavery? Segregation and apartheid? Chinese footbinding? African female genital mutilation? Mormon or Muslim polygamy?
  • What are the proper bounds for the toleration of diversity, or the respect for personal privacy? Is there a point at which the (proper) toleration of diversity or respect for privacy becomes (improper) passive acceptance of immorality? What is that point?

Meta-ethics deals with questions about the nature of ethics.

  • What do ethical words such as "good", "right", "wrong", "ought" mean?
  • What makes a judgment a moral judgment as opposed to, say, an aesthetic judgment, or an etiquette judgment, or a simple personal preference?
  • What is the basis of moral law? Divine command? Natural law? Human nature? Custom?
  • Why should we be moral? What is the motivational basis of moral behavior? What "motivating reasons" (as opposed to "justifying reasons" can be made for moral behavior?
  • Why do people act morally?
  • Is it possible for some behavior to be right in one society/culture, and wrong in another?
  • What is the moral basis for law? Is there a moral basis for laws? Should there be a moral basis for law? Should we try to enforce moral behavior by legal means?

History of Ethics deals with the study of what philosophers have written in the past on the subject of ethics.

The boundary is not always sharply-drawn between questions of normative ethics and meta-ethics. Ethical questions can easily shade off into other areas of philosophy, for example into philosophy of law and philosophy of religion. And of course the study of the history of ethical thought is inter-twined with all topics in ethics: almost all ethical questions have been discussed in the past, and ethics continues to progress as an ongoing conversation between living and historical thinkers.