Ethics: An Overview

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Ethics is the study of questions of morality, the search to understand what is right, wrong, good, and bad. It is the branch of philosophy that systematically studies moral ideals and goals, motives of choice, and patterns of good and bad conduct. The word ethics is derived from the Greek ethikos, meaning "character." Issues of personal character, and the search for the best patterns for living, were at the core of Greek ethical philosophy. In contrast, the word moral is from the Latin more (MOR-ay). The Romans used this term to describe the customary ways that people tended to act. Thus, though the two terms are often used interchangeably today, morality has evolved to mean the social norms that people are taught and conditioned to follow, while ethics has come to refer to the rational investigating and questioning of these norms. This view of ethics is said to be normative, since it assumes the existence of at least some universal moral principles and standards.

Ethics tends to be a cross-disciplinary field of study. Theologians study ethics and morality in light of religious teachings and divine commands. Psychologists seek to understand how people's values influence their thinking, behavioral motivations, and personal development. Sociologists attempt to identify and explain varying cultural norms and practices. Business educators try to help companies, employees, and professionals avoid expensive and counterproductive ethical misdeeds. However, the study of normative ethics has historically been dominated by philosophers, who have applied rules of reason and logic to find answers to humanity's perplexing moral questions.

One apparent obstacle to this process is that logical reasoning, at least at first glance, does not seem to lead different people to the same ethical conclusions and answers. If people, ideally, used reason correctly, what would it tell us about ethics? This search for the best, most logical principles to follow is the realm of general ethics. The end results of this search are ethical systems or theoriesgroups of systematically related ethical principles that attempt to describe and prescribe human morality. Scholars in applied ethics then take these ethical systems and principles and apply them to contemporary moral questions, dilemmas, and life-situations. Examples of specific studies in applied ethics include business, government, and professional ethics (medical, legal, etc.).


Perhaps the greatest continual struggle related to ethics throughout history has been between followers of religious ethics and proponents of philosophical ethics. Religious ethics gives preeminence to divine authority. Actions that conform to the will or teachings of this authority are considered good or right; actions that do not conform are seen as bad, wrong, or evil. It is believed that people can find or discover this divine will through sacred scriptures, the teachings of religious leaders, prayer, and personal revelation. On the other hand, philosophical ethics places its primary emphasis on rational thought and the rules of logic. This view assumes that individuals can use reason to find answers to moral questions, making religious authority unnecessary.

This conflict can reach critical proportions. Many philosophers who have challenged the religious authorities of their times have been branded as dangerous heretics. Foreshadowing the pattern that would repeat itself for centuries, the central charge leading to the conviction and eventual execution of Socrates was that he questioned the gods of Athens and taught others to do the same. However, it is also worth noting that some of history's most influential ethical thinkers have argued that the perceived conflict between reason and faith may only be illusionary and that faith and reason need not be adversaries, but can support and even validate each other.


There have been about as many different philosophical viewpoints on ethics as there have been people thinking about them. However, these can be roughly grouped into three main families of ethical systems. The first are virtueethics

theories, founded on the teachings of the three great lights of ancient Greek philosophySocrates (c. 469399 b.c.e.), Plato (427?347? b.c.e.), and Aristotle (384322 b.c.e.). Most attempts to chronicle Western ethical thinking begin with these three men because of their emphasis on reason and logic as essential tools for finding answers to ethical questions. This assumption has been the cornerstone of philosophical thinking ever since. The central focus in virtue-ethics is personal character. The ancient Greeks believed it was a mandate from nature itself that the purpose of life for humans was to achieve happiness and fulfillment. The goal of ancient Greek ethics, then, was the search for "the good life," the pattern of specific character traits (virtues) that people should integrate into their lives to make happiness and fulfillment most likely. Plato and Aristotle wrote that the virtues of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice were the most logical choices to help people achieve this goal.

One evidence of the profound influence of these Greek thinkers is that so many other philosophers have adopted and adapted their approach. Cicero (10643 b.c.e.), the most well known of the Roman intellectuals, leaned heavily on Aristotle's principles and concepts. The Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225?1274) took Aristotle's writings about the essential roles of reason and nature in ethics and integrated them with medieval Roman Catholic dogma. In doing so, he helped to usher in the Enlightenment, revolutionizing Catholic thinking and doctrine in ways still evident today. Aquinas's ethical system (natural law) remained the most influential view throughout much of the Middle Ages, supported in no small part by the power of the Church. This domination continued until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when philosophers began attempting to restore the preeminence of reason over religious authority, perhaps the most significant event in the development of ethical thinking since the time of Plato.

One early leader was the British philosopher John Locke (16321704). Locke stretched natural law's tenets to include the assumption that all humans are endowed by nature (or God) with certain basic human rights. This fact gives people a clear moral duty to respect the rights of others. Thus, violating the rights of others becomes the only real moral wrong, and all actions that do not violate the rights of other persons must be ethically permissible. Among the most ardent supporters of Locke's natural rights system were the founders of the United States, who viewed his principles and assumptions as the moral bedrock of their new republic. These principles, evident throughout the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, remain at the heart of the American legal system.

The second family of ethical systems is made up of deontology theories. These approaches share the view that ethics should be based primarily on moral duty. This approach is probably best exemplified by the writings of the great German philosopher and writer Immanuel Kant (17241804). Kant maintained that at the heart of ethics lies the moral duty to obey the dictates of reason. People can know what reason commands through intuition and moral reason. Kant's central ethical principle is the categorical imperative, which says that the only moral actions are those consistent with the moral standards that we would want everyone else to follow. For example, Kant argued that lying is always wrong, since no rational person would want lying to become the moral standard for everyone. (Kant recognized no exceptions, arguing that even lying to save a life was immoral.) A corollary to this principle is Kant's respect for persons, the maxim that it is always wrong to exploit others. People, he argued, must be treated as ends (goals) in themselves, not merely as means to our own ends.

The third major family of ethical systems comprises the utilitarian theories. This approach sees the proper goal of ethics as producing good, pleasure, or happiness. Early proponents of utilitarianism were the British philosophers Jeremy Bentham (17481832) and John Stuart Mill (18061873). According to utilitarian reasoning, the morally right (or best) action is the one that produces the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number. Thus, behaviors are not always moral or always immoral. Instead morality is based on specific variables unique to each situation. In some situations, lying might produce more overall good than telling the truth (e.g., deceiving a kidnapper to save a child). In other situations, truth would clearly produce more good.


These classical ethical systems are expressed and affirmed in contemporary society in many ways. Codes of ethics are practical examples. A code of ethics is a written document intended to serve as a guideline to those who would follow it. Most larger businesses and corporations have codes of ethics for their employees, as do most professions for their members. Professional codes are usually written by members of the profession through a central national organization. For example, it is generally understood that American doctors are subject to the American Medical Association code of ethics, and American lawyers follow their bar association codes. But many other professions have codes of ethics as well, including such diverse fields as journalism, pharmacy, business management, education, accounting, engineering, nursing, law enforcement, and psychology. Even the best codes of ethics cannot guarantee ethical behavior. Indeed, many codes do not even contain methods of enforcement, but merely express the ideals and values of their respective corporations and professions. The decision to act ethically or unethically is, as it has been through the ages, up to the individual.


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Keith Goree

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Ethics: An Overview

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