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Ethics is a general term for what is often described as the "science (study) of morality". In philosophy, ethical behavior is that which is "good" or "right." The Western tradition of ethics is sometimes called moral philosophy. This is one part of value theory (axiology) – the other part is aesthetics – one of the four major branches of philosophy, alongside metaphysics, epistemology, and logic.


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 Hindu people in Ancient India. For the first time in world history, they described the highest ethical standards called "absolute ethics" by Albert Schweitzer. Millennia later, the Society of Friends or the Quakers reached as high as the Jinas. See also Ethics in religion

In Europe, the formal study of philosophy stagnated until the era of Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas and others. It was in those days 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, William Godwin and John Stuart Mill. Arthur Schopenhauer must be mentioned here because of his Preisschrift ber die Grundlage der Moral. He was the first European philosopher to start out from the ethical achievements of Ancient India. The study of analytic ethics went on with G. E. Moore and W. D. Ross, followed by the emotivists, C. L. Stevenson and A. J. Ayer. Existentialism was mainly developed by Jean-Paul Sartre. Some modern philosophers who have done serious philosophical writing on ethics include John Rawls, Elliot N. Dorff, Jrgen Habermas, Christine Korsgaard, Charles Hartshorne and to a lesser extent Ayn Rand.

Disputes of definition

There are at least five well-recognized ways to approach this subject:

The first social science

Assumptions about ethical underpinnings of human behaviour are reflected in every social science, including: anthropology because of the complexities involved in relating one culture to another, economics because of its role in the distribution of scarce resources, political science because of its role in allocating power, sociology because of its roots in the dynamics of groups, law because of its role in codifying ethical constructs like mercy and punishment, criminology because of its role in rewarding ethical behaviour and discouraging unethical behaviour, and psychology because of its role in defining, understanding, and treating unethical behaviour.

Ethics has also been extended to the hard sciences, such as biology (as bioethics) and ecology (as environmental ethics). As these fields become more complex and deal with more situations, the application of ethics in those fields can also become more complex.

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 (see cognitivism and non-cognitivism)? If they are truth-apt, are they ever true? If they are ever true, what is the nature of the facts that they express? And are they ever true absolutely (see moral absolutism), or always only relative to some individual, society, or culture? (See moral relativism, cultural relativism.) 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

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.

  • 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". Theories of moral conduct can be distinguished from etiquette by their concern with finding guidelines for action that are not dependent entirely on social convention. For example, it may not be a breach of etiquette to fail to give money to help those in poverty, but it could still be a failure to act morally.
  • 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? 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? Or: What does "good" mean? It may literally define "good" and "bad" for a community or society. [Criticism: Theory of value is not a part of normative ethics, though normative ethics presupposes some theory of value. For example, there are aethetic values which may be amoral, i.e., neutral in regard to conduct.]

Applied ethics or casuistry

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.

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.

Moral 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

A common approach in applied ethics is to deal with individual issues on a case-by-case basis.

Casuistry is one such application of case-based reasoning to applied ethics. Almost all American states have tried to discourage dishonest practices by their public employees and elected officials by establishing an Ethics Commission for their state.

Bernard Crick in 1982 offered a 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 below 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?"

Descriptive ethics

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.

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:

  • "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 agreement is possible. And since agreement is possible, ethics is possible.

The term ethics is actually derived from the ancient Greek ethos, meaning moral character [1] ( 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 "science" and morals referring to one's conduct and character. But it is significant that the origins of the words reflect the tension between an inner-driven (character) and an outer-driven (conduct) view of what constitutes morality.

Ethics in religion

See Ethics in religion and Ethics in the Bible.

Ethics in medicine

One of the major areas where ethics and ethicists practice is in the field of medicine. Example issues are euthanasia, medical experiments, genetic modification of organisms and humans, vaccine trials, triage and others.

Ethics in psychology

By the 1960s there was increased interest in moral reasoning. Psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan developed theories which are based on the idea that moral behaviour is made possible by moral reasoning. Their theories subdivided moral reasoning into so-called stages, which refer to the set of principles or methods that a person uses for ethical judgement. The first and most famous theory of this type was Kohlberg's theory of moral development..

Another group of influential psychological theories with ethical implications is the humanistic psychology movement. One of the most famous humanistic theories is Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued that the highest human need is self-actualization, which can be described as fulfilling one's potential, and trying to fix what is wrong in the world. Carl Rogers's work was based on similar assumptions. He thought that in order to be a 'fully functioning person', one has to be creative and accept one's own feelings and needs. He also emphasized the value of self-actualization. A similar theory was proposed by Fritz Perls, who assumed that taking responsibility of one's own life is an important value.

A third group of psychological theories that have implications for the nature of ethics are based on evolutionary psychology. These theories are based on the assumption that the behaviour that ethics prescribe can sometimes be seen as an evolutionary adaptation. For instance, altruism towards members of one's own family promotes one's inclusive fitness.

Ethics in politics

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.

The origins of Ethics

When did ethics begin and how did it originate? If we are referring to ethics proper -i.e., the systematic study of what we ought to do- it is clear that ethics can only have come into existence when human beings started to reflect on the best way to live. Virtually every human society has some form of myth, religion, to explain the origin of morality. This link between morality and religion has been so firmly forged that it is still sometimes asserted that there can be no morality without religion. According to this view, ethics ceases to be an independent field of study. It becomes, instead, moral theology.

Can we do better than the religious accounts of the origin of morality? Because, for obvious reasons, we have no historical record of a human society in the period before it had any standards of right and wrong, history cannot tell us the origins of morality. There is another mode of inquiry open to us. Knowing that human beings are social animals, the origins of morality can be explained by the social behaviour of nonhumans animals through the evolutionnary theory that explains such a behaviour. In this perspective, altruism is based either on Kinship or Reciprocity.

Research in evolutionary theory applied to social behaviour, shows that evolution of species take into account altruism as a positive factor for the survival of the species. Some of this altruistic behaviour is explained by kin selection. Hamilton's rule describes the benefit of such altuism in terms of the product of the sacrificer's relatedness to the beneficiary and the benefit granted to the beneficiary minus the cost to the sacrificer. Should this sum be greater than zero a fittness gain will result from the sacrifice. When apparent altruism is not between kin, it may be based on reciprocity. A monkey will present its back to another monkey, who will pick out parasites; after a time the roles will be reversed. Such reciprocity will pay off, in evolutionary terms, as long as the costs of helping are less than the benefits of being helped and as long as animals will not gain in the long run by cheating - that is to say, by receiving favours without returning them.

Ethology give us examples of nonhuman animals ethics :

  • Dolphins support sick or injured animals, swimming under them for hours at a time and pushing them to the surface so they can breathe,
  • Wolves and wild dogs bring meat back to members of the pack not present at the kill,
  • Male baboons threaten predators and cover the rear as the troop retreats,
  • Gibbons and chimpanzees with food will, in response to a gesture, share their food with others of the group,
  • Vervet monkeys give alarm calls to warn fellow monkeys of the presence of predators, even though in doing so they attract attention to themselves, increasing their personal chance of being attacked,
  • In social insect colonies (ants, wasps, bees and termites), sterile workers devote their whole lives to caring for the queen, constructing and protecting the nest, foraging for food, and tending the larvae. Such behaviour is maximally altruistic: sterile workers obviously do not leave any offspring of their own (so have personal fitness of zero) but their actions greatly assist the reproductive efforts of the queen.

Any account of the origins of morality will necessarily remain to some extent speculative. It seems likely that morality is the gradual outgrowth of forms of altruism that exist in some social animals and that are the result of the usual evolutionary processes of natural selection. No myths are required to explain its existence.

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:

Other major differences concern altruism vs ethical egoism and the role of social contracts.

See also


  • Cornman, James, et al. 1992 Philosophical Problems and Arguments - An Introduction, 4th edition Indianapolis: Hackett.
  • Singer, P., Ed. (2001). A Companion To Ethics. Blackwell Companions to Philosophy. Malden, Massachusetts, Blackwell Publishers.

External links

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