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edit index Ethics

Ethics (from the Ancient Greek ethikos, the adjective of ethos, "custom, habit"), is a major branch of Philosophy and the study of Value Theory, Customs and Morality of a person or group. It covers the analysis and employment of concepts such as Right and Wrong, Good and Evil, and moral responsibility. Ethics is divided into three primary areas: Metaethics (the of the concept of ethics), Normative Ethics (the study of how to determine ethical values), and Applied Ethics (the study of the use of ethical values).


One strand of Metaethics is called "non-realism", because it suggests moral values are creations, dependent on people's feelings and goals regarding themselves and others (emotivism or prescriptivism) or on their belief systems (cultural or individual relativism). Despite the name, non-realist theories may see reality as important in shaping the human choice of ethical values. This could occur indirectly by, for example, the evolutionary or developmental shaping of human psychology, or directly through, for example, people assessing and debating the likely consequences of their actions.

Another group of metaethical theories, by contrast hold that moral value is a Realism, somehow an intrinsic property of the world and that ethical principles are simply discovered or intuited. Under this view, ethical values held by people can at best reflect an independent Truth by which their validity must be judged. These theories may be derived from Theology or Naturalism.

Most informed Ethics discussions will consider the metaethical position of the participants involved, and the importance of this distinction can be seen clearly when we consider Ethics in Psychology (below). Lawrence Kohlberg's realist theory can be contrasted against Phil Roberts, Jr.'s arguably non-realist theory. Any ethical discussion which does not first consider how participants stand on the question of ethical realism is doomed to frustration.

Normative Ethics

"The Unexamined Life
is not worth living."

- Socrates

Normative Ethics bridges the gap between Metaethics and Applied Ethics. It is the attempt to arrive at general moral standards that tell us how to judge right from wrong, or good from bad, and how to live moral lives. This may involve articulating the character or good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behavior on ourselves and others. There are three main approaches to Normative Ethics. Normative ethicists who follow the first approach are often called virtue ethicists, and articulate the various virtues or good habits that should be acquired. Aristotle is a pioneer virtue ethicist.

Normative ethicists who follow the second approach are often called deontological ethicists. Immanuel Kant set out the large framework for a deontological normative ethical theory. Those who follow the third approach are often called consequentialists or (specifically in regard to the theory of the greatest good for the greatest number) utilitarians; John Stuart Mill set out a large framework for a utilitarian ethic.

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, and which often lead to "Situational Ethics". These philosophers often view Aesthetics, Etiquette, and Arbitration as percolating from the bottom-up, rather than through explicit statements of theory of values of conduct. In these views Ethics is not a top-down a priori "Philosophy", but rather a strictly derived set of observations of actual choices made in practice. Those who embrace such descriptive approaches tend to reject overtly normative ones.

  • 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 - 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, that ethics itself is a matter of balancing "right versus right", or of assigning priorities to rights which must be carefully traded off in each situation. This view "reforms" Ethics as a practice.
  • Observed choices made by ordinary people, without expert aid or advice, who vote, buy, and decide what is worth fighting over. This is a major concern of Sociology, Political Science, and Economics.

Applied Ethics

In 1982, Bernard Crick 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. 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 a medical procedure. The issue also rests on metaethical issues such as, "where do rights come from?" and "what kind of beings have rights?"

Another concept which blurs ethics is "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 equally wrong in each case, but its dependence on chance affects the degree to which the driver is held responsible.

Applications and Questions

Applied Ethics is very often used in determining Public Policy, for example, in asking questions such as "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 a better life than I, is it then a moral choice to sacrifice myself for them?"

Without these questions there is no clear fulcrum on which to balance Law, Politics, or the general practice of arbitrating various matters. But not all questions studied in Applied Ethics concern Public Policy, or at least not directly. For example, making ethical judgments regarding questions such as, "Is lying always wrong?" and, "If not, when is it permissible?" is more of a question of interpersonal morality.

There are several sub-branches of Applied Ethics examining the ethical problems of different professions, such as Business Ethics, Medical Ethics, Journalism 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 arise in the Ethical Codes of the professions, and defines their common responsibility to the public, to preserve its natural capital, or to obey some social expectations of honest dealings and disclosure.

The consequences of our personal choices may impact on other people and any associated responsibilities may extend into a wider society. They are major factors in life, as they determine one's relationships with him/herself and with others. One's choices often affect one's ethics in a much more grand scheme. Negative choices often create a "numbness" due to familiarity with the negativity (A creates B which perpetuates A, with A being the negative choice and B being the "numbness" due to it), furthering one's negativity. This is known as a downward spiral. In the reverse of this, known as an upward spiral, the same thing occurs but it furthers one's positive aspects; these aspects, whether negative or positive, affect one's life and therefore their ethics, and so must be largely considered in this article.

Politics and Economics

Ethics has been applied to family structure, sexuality, and how society views the roles of individuals, with such developments as the Civil Rights Legislation, Feminism, and other movements. Ethics has also been applied to War, leading to Pacifism and Non-Violence. Corporate scandals in recent decades are illustrative of the interplay between Ethics and Business. Ethical inquiries into potential frauds perpetrated by senior executives are a growing trend, as well as the "Situational Ethics" of employees, no matter how junior, who follow such fraudulent directives.

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 of legal and political change happening far in front of actual developments "on the ground". As warfare and weapons technology develop, ethical bases of understanding, or avoiding, conflict become even more challenging. Some, like Bernard Crick, call for redefining and re-aligning Politics away from Ideology, toward better dispute resolutions, on basis of Normative Ethics.

Ethics has more recently been applied to analyze our use of the Earth's fragile and limited resources. This has led to the study of Bioethics, Environmental Ethics and Social Ecology. A growing trend shows efforts to combine the studies Ecology and Economics, to provide a basis for "sustainable growth" decisions and environmental usages. Out of this have come the theories of Ecological Footprint and Bioregional Autonomy. Political and social movements based on such ideas include Eco-Feminism, Eco-Anarchism, Deep Ecology, and the Green Movement.

Medicine and Health Care

One of the major areas where ethicists practice is in the wide field of Medicine. This includes Nursing, Pharmacology], Genetics, Psychiatry, and many other Health Care professions. Example issues are Mental Health, Euthanasia, Animal Rights, Medical Testing, Stem Cell Research, Informed Consent, Patient Rights and the rationing of Health Care in Triage.

Psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg developed theories based on the idea that moral behavior 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 judgment. The first and most famous theory of this type was Kohlberg's stages of moral development. Carol Gilligan, a student of Kohlberg's, argued that Women tend to develop through a different set of stages from Men. Her studies inspired work on an "Ethic of Care", which particularly defines itself against Rawlsian, justice/contract-based approaches.

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", in which it is argued that the highest human need is Self-Actualization, fulfilling one's potential. Carl Rogers 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. Many medical and psychiatric theories with direct implications for Ethics are based on "Evolutionary Psychology". Behavior which Ethics can proscribe could be seen as an evolutionary adaptation. For instance, Altruism towards members of one's own family promotes one's "inclusive fitness". All of these theories recall Plato's quote of Socrates' famous maxim, that "The Unexamined Life is not worth living".

See Also


Further Reading


External Links

Some content adapted from the Pseudopedia article "Ethics" under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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