What is Ethics?

Newman

Member
This is a huge question and one that can lead you down many paths. If I had to guess (as I'm an expert at neither ethics, nor philosophy), ethics is taught early on in any general philosophy education. I've heard about this topic for years and have even tried my hand at studying it for a bit. As I did, I found it fascinating. What I love most about it is all the options available to us, regarding not only how we act, but how we think as well. If you didn't have enough to ponder before, the study of ethics has the potential to keep you busy for quite some time.

Ethics Defined

So what is ethics, anyway? There are many definitions, but they all revolve around a central theme. If the most basic sense, ethics is sort of like an umbrella that covers a system of moral principles. The study of ethics helps us understand what we perceive to be right and wrong. It's a guiding hand that assists in our search for understanding of how humans can make the best possible decisions in a fair and good way for the most fair and just outcome. The idea of ethics isn't only concerned with what's good for the individual, but also what's good for society as a whole. It's a study of morality. A moral philosophy, if you will.

Ethics is the philosophical study of morality. It is a study of what are good and bad ends to pursue in life and what it is right and wrong to do in the conduct of life. It is therefore, above all, a practical discipline. Its primary aim is to determine how one ought to live and what actions one ought to do in the conduct of ones life. - John Deigh.

The study of ethics in Western civilization originated in Greece thousands of years ago. The first considered to be moral philosophers were Socrates and a group of teachers in Athens. The term ethics is actually derived from the Greek word ethos, which can be translated as disposition, custom, habit, or character.

The study of ethics isn't straightforward. There are no solid answers, mostly just questions. And when one question is answered, others arise. The goal of ethics is to guide those who study it toward what's best with the given knowledge at hand. Or, what's perceived to be best. Oftentimes, those who study this topic refer to questions as dilemmas. The word dilemma more accurately describes the situation because, again, there's no straightforward path. Only optional paths that each have consequences.

When studying ethics, you'll face the following dilemmas. You may ask yourself: How can I, or we, live a good life? What should our rights be and what are our responsibilities? What is right and wrong? What do these things mean? And, what is good and bad? Again, what do these things mean?

The concepts commonly studied have come from a variety of sources; from religions, various philosophies, and different cultures. The study spans all types of issues, such as those found in current events, human rights, and what's commonly referred to as professional conduct.

Approaches to Ethics

The study of ethics is generally divided into various areas. These approaches are:

Meta-ethics: studies the more nuanced nature of moral judgement. How has moral judgement arisen and what it is, exactly. This area primarily focuses on the origins of current principles and what they actually mean.

Normative ethics: focuses on what should or should not be. Ethics is primarily concerned with prescribing action, meaning, it's more of a study of what humans might want to consider given a certain set of circumstances, rather than a study of what individuals and groups have already done. The latter would fall under the realm of Anthropology. With normative ethics, we study the specifics of what makes right right and wrong wrong. The specific criteria for both.

Applied ethics: this area concerns itself with the practical application of what's been generally decided upon. Every scenario consists of moral considerations and applied ethics covers the moral implications of decisions regarding these scenarios.

Why Should We Bother Studying Ethics?

As humans, we rarely do things for no reason. There is only a certain amount of time each of us spend on this planet and given that time, what we pursue should be practical and applicable. When it comes to the study of ethics, we should get something out of it. Our studies should be fruitful. If we are interested in making decisions that lead to good and just outcomes for both the individual and the group, the ethical theories we study should have an impact when put into practice and should alter the behavior of the humans involved.

Ethics is oftentimes referred to as a moral toolbox. If offers those who care a set of tools that can guide them in a rational way. If someone knows that's right and wrong, and if they're rational beings, they'll likely choose the right course of action. This isn't always the case though as people quite often act in irrational ways. They tend to lean toward what culture and experience has taught them, rather than what their moral mind has decided given the current circumstances they find themselves in.

Ethics Can Act as a Moral Guide

So often in today's world, we act with emotion rather than rationality. We base our decisions on how we think the desired outcome will affect our mood or how it will help us in some way in the short term. We allow emotional issues get the better of us. We succumb to poor judgement, even when we know there's a better way. The better way comes from a framework that ethics can provide. If we learn about ethics and understand its principles, we can use a formulated set of rules to guide us in a way that more conducive to more rational decisions. We can consider that ethics provides us with a set of practical paths that will assist us as we navigate life.

Ethics Helps Uncover the Truth

When thinking rationally and when taking advantage of the road map ethics can provide, it becomes exponentially easier to uncover important issues that may be buried in an argument. In general, people agree on much more than they disagree. Oftentimes those who are debating a topic will agree with 90%of what the other person is saying. Because ethics is to logically based, using the tools offered by this area of study can help in uncovering the points of disagreement to focus the argument on what matters.

Ethics Doesn't Always Give the Answer

As alluded to above, ethics is more of a moral framework than anything else. It's not something that will offer a definitive answer to a question at hand. To come to a sensible conclusion, those who study ethics will need to rely what reducing confusion and clarifying a topic to such a degree that something sensible emerges. And even then, the correct answer may not be obvious. There may not even be a correct answer.

Ethics May Often Give Several Answers

Many of us like order and direction in life and can become very uncomfortable when more than one right answer is given for a situation. Unfortunately, this is the way of ethics. And not only that, sometimes a right answer isn't possible. Sometimes, there are only less bad answers. Certain types of people prefer to avoid these types of situations because when faced with a multitude of less wrong answers, nothing will turn out positively. These types of things are oftentimes referred to as hard decisions. Most of us don't like to face these decisions because we feel the weight of responsibility bearing down on us. It's much more comforting to rely on what others have told us to do via the rule of law or through religion and custom.

How Ethics Relates to People

It's About Your Impact on Others

It really isn't about you. In general, when pondering how ethics can affect your life, you're actually pondering how your decisions will impact others and then how those others will impact your life. Let's say you want something and you're wondering if you should steal it or not. You wouldn't attempt to utilize ethics in your decision making and expect your ultimate decision to affect only you. You'd have to realize that your theft would have an impact on the life of the person you're stealing from and then would most likely impact you either directly or indirectly. Perhaps you'll get caught and will be punished or perhaps you'll get away with it and live with guilt for all of eternity. If you were the only person on earth and stole something that wasn't yours, you may not be stealing at all because there's no other person to affect. To put this more simply, ethics governs decision making by us that has an impact on others.

Ethics Used Mischievously

When groups judge something as either right or wrong, they can weaponize their alleged right answer against the group who prefers the supposed wrong. This happens every day and can oftentimes manifest itself in interpersonal relationships where one party attempts to use guilt as a method of persuasion. Or, one group in society can attempt to gain power over another due to their self-perceived virtue. Oftentimes, using ethical interpretation as a means to control another individual or group can spell disaster because rarely is one person or group always right. They may be right in some cases, but if they're attempting to gain control, they're likely more wrong than right.

Ethics Covers Individuals as Well as Actions

It's often assumed that ethics is the study of how a course of action can be as good as it can possibly be or whether it's right or wrong, but in actuality, it's about the study of people as well. Ethics concerns itself with the goodness, or virtue, of the individual as well as how they can live a good life.

What's the Source?

Today, as well as in the past, people of all types have attempted to take the easy way out of virtuous decision making. When faced with tough decisions, they relied on either religion to provide them answers to challenges or deep thought about the principles of morality. People who felt as though they engaged in this type of activity properly felt that the answers they came up with were the only correct ones. Unfortunately, life isn't so straightforward and rarely is there a preconceived answer to a question that has yet to be asked.

In today's world, some of our best thinkers have concluded that it may actually be impossible to create a satisfactory theory of ethics that provides answers. They claim that philosophy doesn't provide answers at all, only sets of principles that lead individuals to decisions that can be made based on the situations they find themselves in. If ethics is interpreted in this way, it can be perceived as being limited to what's at stake when pondering a dilemma rather than what one should do about it. And as stated above, philosophy and ethics are merely frameworks to help guide individuals who are faced with making various decisions that may have an impact on others.

Ethical Realists vs. Ethical Non-Realists

The question is, can an idea exist independently of humans in nature? Some say it can and some say it can't. Those who say it can are considered ethical realists and those who say it can't are considered ethical non-realists. Ethical realists claim that natural ethical truths simply exist in the world around us and it's our job to discover them. They exist independently of the human species and would exist in the universe whether we were here with them or not. Conversely, ethical non-realists think that we as humans invent ethical truths that are based on our experiences and core values. Without us, those values and experiences wouldn't be in existence and there would be no need for a natural ethical truth.

Some Ethical Definitions

There are a few must-know definitions when it comes to ethics. These definitions will help clarify some of what's happening when you or someone else attempts to apply the principles of ethics in life.

Let's use an example to help explain the four definitions that follow. Let's pretend that someone utters the sentence, "Stealing is wrong." What type of ethical statement is this person making? What is this person doing when making this statement?

If they're making a statement about an ethical fact, then they're engaging in ethical realism.
"It is absolutely wrong to steal in any case whatsoever."

If they're making a statement that describes how they feel, they're engaging in ethical subjectivism.
"I don't think stealing is right."

If they're expressing their current feelings about something, they're engaging in ethical emotivism.
"I really can't stand thieves!"

If they're attempting to control someone based on the activity taking place, they're engaging in ethical prescriptivism.
"In no way shall you ever become a thief."

Moral Realism: Incontrovertible ethical laws and rules of the universe. These laws and rules are objective moral facts and can't be disputed.

Subjectivism: Describes feelings that someone has about something. Their statements regarding the ethical dilemma may or may not contain actual facts or truths, but they share their judgements anyway. The person speaking may not even know about what's good or bad, but they comment based on their experiences and beliefs.

Emotivism: Moral expressions of either approval or disapproval. These types of expressions oftentimes don't include any information as to why someone may or may not believe something or feel a certain way. It's merely the expression one way of the other. A frowning face would be a good example.

Prescriptivism: Commands, instructions, and recommendations. These are based on the ethical interpretation someone has. If they claim that someone is either good or bad, they're essentially ordering you to act accordingly. The sentence, "Stealing is wrong," means, "You better not steal."

What's the Source of Ethics?

The question is, where does ethics come from? There are a few answers to this, depending on who you talk to. Or, several answers to this, no matter who you talk to.

Supernaturalism: Some say that God makes all the rules and therefor, in order to discover whether or not something is ethical, all you need to do is ask God. It is only there that you will find the answer. In this case, ethics is religion based.

Intuitionism: These types of folk just know something is good or bad by the way they feel. It's in their intuition. They feel as though good, bad, moral, just, and others have inherit properties that make them so. There's no justification necessary and no one needs to prove anything. It is what it is. If you're the type of person who thinks of morals, ethics, and philosophy, then you should be able to pick up on these things by virtue of your thought process.

Consequentialism: The greatest good for the greatest number. This theory bases what people think of as moral on the actions that result from an act. So if a group of people do something that they feel benefits more people than not, then it must have been ethical.

Non-Consequentialism (Deontological Ethics): Unlike directly above, this type of theory is more concerned with the act itself, rather than its outcome. It claims that whether the act is heinous or virtuous, it being good or bad is ingrained in the act itself.

Virtue Ethics: This theory relies on how people live their overall lives, rather than focusing on individual acts that a person may or may not partake in. Those who subscribe to this way of thinking will say that an act much have been moral if a virtuous person of good character would have made the same decision under the same or similar circumstances.

Situation Ethics: This theory relies on the fact that each and every situation is different and unique and decisions that stem from those situations should rely on the circumstances at hand.

Ethical Ideology: This ethical ideology is tethered to politics. It states that ethics were created to protect political beliefs. Some people claim that certain powerful forces use this type of ideology to maintain control over individuals and society as a whole. An example of this would be confusing law and morality.

Do Universal Moral Rules Exist?

Are there moral rules that remain unchanged no matter where they reside and who uses them? Are these rules unchanging no matter what?

Moral Absolutism: If you believe that there can be one set of moral rules for everyone on earth to follow, no matter where they're from, how diverse they are, what they believe, and how they act, you may be a moral absolutist. This type of person believes that some rules are always true, no matter the circumstances. They apply to everyone, no matter what. Examples of these rules might be a Declaration of Human Rights. Or something like what larger religions teach. No matter where you are, the same ethics apply if you are of such and such a religion.

Moral Relativism: These types of people claim that morals and ethics depend on what's going on in a certain society and when that society existed. This theory of ethics relies of those who are present at the time to make the decisions for what is good and just for those involved.

Well, that about wraps it up. I did a lot of research to put this together, so I hope you enjoy it. If you have any questions about this Ethics 101 post, please ask down below. I'd be happy to help. There's more to come so stay tuned!
 
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