AskDefine | Define ethics

Dictionary Definition



1 motivation based on ideas of right and wrong [syn: ethical motive, morals, morality]
2 the philosophical study of moral values and rules [syn: moral philosophy]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. The study of principles relating to right and wrong conduct.
  2. Morality.
  3. The standards that govern the conduct of a person, especially a member of a profession.


study of principles governing right and wrong conduct
standards of conduct

Extensive Definition

Ethics is a major branch of philosophy, encompassing right conduct and good life. It is significantly broader than the common conception of analyzing right and wrong. A central aspect of ethics is "the good life", the life worth living or life that is satisfying, which is held by many philosophers to be more important than moral conduct.


see also Morality Morals are a practice of different sorts of ethics (or Weltanschauung).

Greek philosophy


Socrates was one of the first Greek philosophers to encourage both scholars and the common citizen to turn their attention from the outside world to the condition of man. Knowledge having a bearing on human life was placed highest, all other knowledge being secondary. Self-knowledge was considered necessary for success and inherently an essential good. A self-aware person will act completely within their capabilities to their pinnacle, while an ignorant person will flounder and encounter difficulty. To Socrates, a person must become aware of every fact (and its context) relevant to his existence, if he wishes to attain self-knowledge. He posited that people will naturally do what is good, if they know what is right. Evil or bad actions, are the result of ignorance. If a criminal were truly aware of the mental and spiritual consequences of his actions, he would neither commit nor even consider committing them. Any person who knows what is truly right will automatically do it, according to Socrates. While he equated knowledge with virtue, he similarly equated virtue with happiness. The truly wise man will know what is right, do what is good and therefore be happy.


Aristotle posited an ethical system that may be termed "self-realizationism". When a person acts in accordance with his nature and realizes his full potential, he will do good and be content. At birth, a baby is not a person, but a potential person. In order to become a "real" person, the child's inherent potential must be realized. Unhappiness and frustration are caused by the unrealized potential of a person, leading to failed goals and a poor life. Aristotle said, "Nature does nothing in vain." Therefore, it is imperative for persons to act in accordance with their nature and develop their latent talents, in order to be content and complete. Happiness was held to be the ultimate goal. All other things, such as civic life or wealth, are merely means to the end. Self-realization, the awareness of one's nature and the development of one's talents, is the surest path to happiness.
Aristotle asserted that man had three natures: vegetable (physical), animal (emotional) and rational (mental). Physical nature can be assuaged through exercise and care, emotional nature through indulgence of instinct and urges, and mental through human reason and developed potential. Rational development was considered the most important, as essential to philosophical self-awareness and as uniquely human. Moderation was encouraged, with the extremes seen as degraded and immoral. For example, courage is the moderate virtue between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. Man should not simply live, but live well with conduct governed by moderate virtue. This is regarded as difficult, as virtue denotes doing the right thing, to the right person, at the right time, to the proper extent, in the correct fashion, for the right reason.


Hedonism posits that the principal ethic is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. There are several schools of Hedonist thought ranging from those advocating the indulgence of even momentary desires to those teaching a pursuit of spiritual bliss. In their consideration of consequences, they range from those advocating self-gratification regardless of the pain and expense to others, to those stating that the most ethical pursuit maximizes pleasure and happiness for the most people.

Cyrenaic hedonism

Founded by Aristippus, Cyrenaics supported immediate gratification. "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die." Even fleeting desires should be indulged, for fear the opportunity should be forever lost. There was little to no concern with the future, the present dominating in the pursuit for immediate pleasure. Cyrenaic hedonism encouraged the pursuit of enjoyment and indulgence without hesitation, believing pleasure to be the only good.


The Stoic philosopher Epictetus posited that the greatest good was contentment and serenity. Peace of mind was of the highest value. Self-mastery over one's desires and emotions leads to spiritual peace. The "unconquerable will" is central to this philosophy. The individual will should be independent and inviolate. Allowing a person to disturb the mental equilibrium is in essence offering yourself in slavery. If a person is free to anger you at will, you have no control over your internal world, and therefore no freedom. Freedom from material attachments is also necessary. If a thing breaks, the person should not be upset, but realize it was a thing that could break. Similarly, if someone should die, those close to them should hold to their serenity because the loved one was made of flesh and blood destined to death. Stoic philosophy says to accept things that cannot be changed, resigning oneself to existence and enduring in a rational fashion. Death is not feared. People do not "lose" their life, but instead "return", for they are returning to God (who initially gave what the person is as a person). Epictetus said difficult problems in life should not be avoided, but rather embraced. They are spiritual exercises needed for the health of the spirit, just as physical exercise is required for the health of the body. He also stated that sex and sexual desire are to be avoided as the greatest threat to the integrity and equilibrium of a man's mind. Abstinence is highly desirable. Epictetus said remaining abstinent in the face of temptation was a victory for which a man could be proud.


Meta-ethics is concerned primarily with the meaning of ethical judgments and/or prescriptions and with the notion of which properties, if any, are responsible for the truth or validity thereof. Meta-ethics as a discipline gained attention with G.E. Moore's famous work Principia Ethica from 1903 in which Moore first addressed what he referred to as the naturalistic fallacy. Moore's rebuttal of naturalistic ethics, his Open Question Argument sparked an interest within the analytic branch of western philosophy to concern oneself with second order questions about ethics; specifically the semantics, epistemology and ontology of ethics.
The semantics of ethics divides naturally into descriptivism and non-descriptivism. The former position advocates the idea that prescriptive language (including ethical commands and duties) is a subdivision of descriptive language and has meaning in virtue of the same kind of properties as descriptive propositions, whereas the latter contends that ethical propositions are irreducible in the sense that their meaning cannot be explicated sufficiently in terms of truth-conditions.
Correspondingly, the epistemology of ethics divides into cognitivism and non-cognitivism; a distinction that is often perceived as equivalent to that between descriptivists and non-descriptivists. Non-cognitivism may be understood as the claim that ethical claims reach beyond the scope of human cognition or as the (weaker) claim that ethics is concerned with action rather than with knowledge. Cognitivism can then be seen as the claim that ethics is essentially concerned with judgments of the same kind as knowledge judgments; namely about matters of fact.
The ontology of ethics is concerned with the idea of value-bearing properties, i.e. the kind of things or stuffs that would correspond to or be referred to by ethical propositions. Non-descriptivists and non-cognitivists will generally tend to argue that ethics do not require a specific ontology, since ethical propositions do not refer to objects in the same way that descriptive propositions do. Such a position may sometimes be called anti-realist. Realists on the other hand are left with having to explain what kind of entities, properties or states are relevant for ethics, and why they have the normative status characteristic of ethics.

Descriptive ethics

Descriptive ethics is a value-free approach to ethics which examines ethics not from a top-down a priori perspective but rather observations of actual choices made by moral agents in practice. 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 can lead to situational ethics and situated ethics. These philosophers often view aesthetics, etiquette, and arbitration as more fundamental, percolating "bottom up" to imply the existence of, rather than explicitly prescribe, theories of value or of conduct. The study of descriptive ethics may include examinations of the following:
  • 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"). According to this view, ethics is more a summary of common sense social decisions.
  • Practices in arbitration and law, e.g. the claim 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.
  • Observed choices made by ordinary people, without expert aid or advice, who vote, buy, and decide what is worth valuing. This is a major concern of sociology, political science, and economics.

Applied ethics

Applied ethics is a discipline of philosophy that attempts to apply ethical theory to real-life situations. The lines of distinction between meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics are often blurry. For example, the issue of abortion can be seen as an applied ethical topic since it involves a specific type of controversial behaviour. But it can also depend on more general normative principles, such as possible rights of self-rule and right to life, principles which are often litmus tests for determining the morality of that procedure. The issue also rests on meta-ethical issues such as, "where do rights come from?" and "what kind of beings have rights?"
Another concept which blurs ethics is moral luck. A drunk driver may safely reach home without injuring anyone, or he might accidentally kill a child who runs out into the street while he is driving home. The action of driving while drunk is usually seen as equally wrong in each case, but its dependence on chance affects the degree to which the driver is held responsible.

Specific questions

Applied ethics is used in determining public policy. For example, 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?"
A more specific question could be: "If someone else can make better out of his/her life than I can, is it then moral to sacrifice myself for them if needed?" Without these questions there is no clear fulcrum on which to balance law, politics, and the 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, making ethical judgments regarding questions such as, "Is lying always wrong?" and, "If not, when is it permissible?" is prior to any etiquette.
Post-Critique Ethics
The 20th Century saw a remarkable expansion of critical theory and its evolution. The earlier Marxist Theory created a paradigm for understanding the individual, society and their interaction. The Renaissance Enlightened Man had persisted up until the Industrial Revolution when the romantic vision of noble action began to fade. Humanism, which enshrined the nobility of man, lost validity particularly after the Great War and the Nazi Holocaust.
Modernism, exemplified in the literary works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce wrote out God, then anti-humanists such as Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault and structuralist such as Roland Barthes presided over the death of the author and man himself. As critical theory developed in the later 20th century post-structuralism queried the very existence of reality. Jacques Derrida placed reality in the linguist realm stating ‘There is nothing outside the text’ while Jean Baudrillard theorised that signs and symbols or simulacra had usurped reality, particularly in the consumer world. This concept is explored in the postmodernist film Blade Runner.
Post-structuralism and postmodernism are both heavily theoretical and follow a fragmented, anti-authoritarian course which is absorbed in narcissistic and near nihilistic activities. Normative issues are generally ignored. This has led to some opponents of these later movements echoing the critic Jurgen Habermas who fears ‘that the postmodern mood represents a turning away from both political responsibilities and a concern for suffering’(cited in Lyon, 1999, p.103).
David Couzens Hoy says that Emmanuel Levinas’s writings on the face of the Other and Derrida’s mediations on the relevance of death to ethics are signs of the ‘ethical turn’ in Continental philosophy that occurs in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Hoy clarifies post-critique ethics as the ‘obligations that present themselves as necessarily to be fulfilled but are neither forced on one or are enforceable’ (2004, p.103).
This aligns with Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s thoughts on what ethics is not. He firstly claims it is not a moral code particular to a sectional group. For example it has nothing to do with a set of prohibitions concerned with sex laid down by a religious order. Neither is ethics a ‘system that is noble in theory but no good in practice’ (2000, p.7). For him it would be more of the reverse. He agrees that ethics is in some sense universal but in a utilitarian way it affords the ‘best consequences’ and furthers the interests of those affected (2000, p.15).
Hoy in his post-critique model uses the term ethical resistance. Examples of this would be an individual’s resistance to consumerism in a retreat to a simpler but perhaps harder lifestyle, or an individual’s resistance to a terminal illness. Hoy describes it in his book Critical Resistance as an individual’s engagement in social or political resistance. He provides Levinas’s account as ‘not the attempt to use power against itself, or to mobilise sectors of the population to exert their political power; the ethical resistance is instead the resistance of the powerless’(2004, p.8).
Hoy concludes that The ethical resistance of the powerless others to our capacity to exert power over them is therefore what imposes unenforceable obligations on us. The obligations are unenforceable precisely because of the other’s lack of power. That actions are at once obligatory and at the same time unenforceable is what put them in the category of the ethical. Obligations that were enforced would, by the virtue of the force behind them, not be freely undertaken and would not be in the realm of the ethical (2004, p.184).
In present day terms the powerless may include the unborn, the terminally sick, the aged, the insane, and animals. It is in these areas that ethical action will be evident. Until legislation or state apparatus enforces a moral order that addresses the causes of resistance these issues will remain in the ethical realm. For example, should animal experimentation become illegal in a society, it will no longer be an ethical issue. Likewise one hundred and fifty hundred years ago, not having a black slave in America may have been an ethical choice. This later issue has been absorbed into the fabric of a more utilitarian social order and is no longer an ethical issue but does of course constitute a moral concern. Ethics are exercised by those who possess no power and those who support them, through personal resistance.

See also


Further reading

  • The London Philosophy Study Guide offers many suggestions on what to read, depending on the student's familiarity with the subject: Ethics
  • , Butchvarov, Panayot. Skepticism in Ethics (1989).
  • Encyclopedia of Ethics. Lawrence C. Becker and Charlotte B. Becker, editors. Second edition in three volumes. New York: Routledge, 2002. A scholarly encyclopedia with over 500 signed, peer-reviewed articles, mostly on topics and figures of, or of special interest in, Western philosophy.
  • Derrida, J 1995, The gift of death, translated by David Wills, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
  • Levinas, E 1969, Totality and infinity, an essay on exteriority, translated by Alphonso Lingis, Duquesne University Press, Pittsburgh

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Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

aesthetics, allegiance, assigned task, axiology, bounden duty, burden, business, call of duty, casuistry, charge, commitment, cosmology, dedication, deference, devoir, devotion, duties and responsibilities, duty, epistemology, fealty, first philosophy, gnosiology, homage, imperative, line of duty, logic, loyalty, mental philosophy, metaphysics, mission, moral philosophy, must, obligation, ontology, onus, ought, phenomenology, philosophastry, philosophic doctrine, philosophic system, philosophic theory, philosophical inquiry, philosophical speculation, philosophy, place, respect, school of philosophy, school of thought, science of being, self-imposed duty, sophistry, theory of beauty, theory of knowledge, value theory
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