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Thinking hard, or
hardly thinking?


Icon philosophy.svg
Major trains of thought
The good, the bad
and the brain fart
Come to think of it

Ethics generally refers to:

  • The rules of proper conduct within a group or organization: business ethics, medical ethics, etc. In theory, these rules are created in order to ensure that people are treated fairly. In actual practice, however, these rules have very little to do with acting "properly," and everything to do with avoiding lawsuits.
  • A (not necessarily logical) system or collection of principles, such as one's personal ethics or the famed "protestant work ethic."
  • The branch of philosophy (also known as moral philosophy) that deals with the moral dimensions of human conduct. Ethics asks "What is the best way to live?" and "What is the best thing to do in this situation?"


[edit] Ethics versus morality

In English, the word ethics is usually synonymous with the word morality, and in most cases the two terms can be used interchangeably without fear of contradiction. However, there are some instances in which an important distinction exists:

  • In philosophy, some ethical theorists argue that morality applies to principle or rule-based systems such as Kant's, and ethics applies to practical or virtue-based system's such as Aristotle's.
  • In common usage, some people prefer to make an "internal/external" distinction, or associate ethics with ideas such as fairness and legality while restricting morality to questions of good and evil. For example, most companies have rules in place regarding the "ethical" use of corporate email accounts- but there is generally no question of good or evil involved (regardless of how much spam they send), so we usually don't talk about "immoral" use of email.

In short, if you're going to have a discussion about ethics, it's probably a good idea to make sure everyone has their definitions straight beforehand.

[edit] Common types of ethics

In philosophy, most of the work in ethics falls into two categories: normative ethics and applied ethics. However, there are other branches worth noting.

[edit] Normative ethics

Normative ethics is the field of ethics that explores what should be considered right and wrong. In other words, when a philosopher asks "how should we live our lives?" or "what is the morally right way to act in this situation?", she is engaging in normative ethics. Generally speaking, if a philosopher proposes an ethical code, rule, or principle (such as Kant's categorical imperative), it is an example of normative ethics.

Ethical theories are most often described according to several broad categories defined by what gives the theory its ethical force.

While these three are the largest (and broadest) categories, they are by no means inclusive of all ethical theories. More recently (that is, within the last century or two, which is how philosophers define recent), several new approaches, including Pragmatic Ethics, Feminist Ethics, Role Ethics, and Care Ethics, have attempted to reframe or reorganize ethical investigations.

[edit] Applied ethics

Applied ethics examines ethical concerns in various aspects of human activity. Examples include:

  • Bioethics - concerned with issues of health science and biology, such as abortion, cloning, and euthanasia.
  • Business ethics - concerned with issues that occur in business practice, such as privacy, exploitation of labor, and whistleblowing.
  • Environmental ethics - concerned with human attitudes towards the environment, such as animal rights, conservation, and climate change.
  • Ethics of science and technology - concerned with issues such as artificial intelligence, conduct of research, or the use and spread of information.

[edit] Descriptive ethics

Descriptive ethics is the study of people's moral beliefs, that is, what things people believe are right and wrong. As such, it is more of a Social science than a branch of philosophy, and scholars in fields that deal with human development (such as evolutionary biology or sociology), may use descriptive ethics to study the development of moral ideas. An early example of descriptive ethics would be Auguste Comte's Course on Positive Philosophy, which describes humanity's development in three stages, the "theological," the "metaphysical," and the "positive," with transitions from each stage to the next being accompanied by corresponding changes in moral beliefs. Modern descriptive ethics are much more empirical.

[edit] Metaethics

Metaethics is a branch of study that focuses on the “whys” and “hows” of ethical theory: Is there such a thing as objective good or evil? Are moral rules culturally relative? This relatively new (it has existed for only about 50 years) branch of ethics encompasses a large number of issues that have been around since the first philosophies were written. It includes:

  • Cognitivism (and non—cognitivism) - argues whether ethical statements can be true or false. If you like your philosophy with a heavy dose of linguistics, these are for you.
  • Moral absolutism - argues that certain actions are intrinsically right or wrong.
  • Moral relativism - argues that in disagreements about moral issues, nobody is objectively right or wrong.
  • Moral realism - argues that ethical statements refer to an objective feature of the world.
  • Moral skepticism - argues that people have no moral knowledge, or even that moral knowledge is impossible.
  • Rationalism - argues that moral truths are a priori (i.e., may be determined through reason alone).

And many, many other flavors, all of which make for exciting reads.

[edit] Ethics without religion

Fundamentalist Christians often claim that ethics are bunk without The One And Only True God as a starting point from which right and wrong can be derived. However, these claims seem implausible in the face of ethical studies, as most ethical theories derive "good" from other things, which is actually much easier than trying to figure out why we should believe that something is "good" if and only if a religious deity says so.[1] Such theories, known as Secular Ethics and praised by people as diverse as Richard Dawkins and the Dalai Lama, pose a serious challenge to claims that only religiously motivated individuals can behave well. The social contract, utilitarianism/prioritarianism, Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative, ethical egoism and moral intuitionism are sufficient motivational substitutes for divine command. Many secular ethical theories go along very well with Secular Humanism, a much broader philosophy, or with Effective Altruism, a social movement.

[edit] See also

[edit] Footnotes

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