Ethics: Overview

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From the perspective of science, technology, and ethics, ethics itself—that is, critical reflection on human conduct—may be viewed as a science, as a technology, and as providing multidimensional independent perspectives on science and technology. The encyclopedia as a whole constitutes manifold illustrations for each of these possibilities. It is nevertheless appropriate to provide in a separate entry some orientation within the manifold.

Ethics as Theory and Practice

In the works of Plato (c. 428–347 b.c.e.), dialogues rather than treatises, ethics is interwoven with logical analysis and theories of knowledge, reality, and political affairs so as to resist clearly distinguishing these different branches of philosophy. What came to be called ethics nevertheless clearly serves as first or primary philosophy. In Socrates's autobiography (Phaedo 96a ff.) it is not the foundations of nature but the ideas of beauty, goodness, and greatness that act as the basis of philosophical inquiry. The search for a full account of ethical experience calls forth an appreciation of different levels of being and different forms of knowing appropriate to each—although the highest reality is once again ethical, the good, which is beyond being (Republic 509a–b).

According to Aristotle (384–322 b.c.e.), however, philosophy originates when discourse about the gods is replaced with discourse about nature (compare, e.g., Metaphysics 1.3.983b29 and 1.8.988b27). It is the study of natures, as distinguishing functional features of the world, that both constitutes natural science and provides insight into the telos or end of an entity. For Aristotle the various branches of philosophy themselves become more clearly distinguished, and ethics functions as the systematic examination of ethos, as constituted by the customs or behaviors of human beings. More than any other type of entity, humans have a nature that is open to and even requires further determinations. At the individual level these supplemental determinations are called character; at the social level, political regimes. Their very multiplicity calls for systematic (that is, in the classical sense, scientific) analysis and assessment.

Such analysis and assessment takes place on three levels. In the first instance it is descriptive of how human beings in fact behave. As Aristotle again notes, human actions by nature aim at some end, and the end pursued can be of three basic types, defining in turn the lives of physical pleasure, of public honor, and of intellectual investigation.

In the second instance, ethics compares and contrasts these ends and seeks to identify which is superior and for what reasons. For Aristotle the life of reason is superior because it is that which humans by nature do only or best, and is itself the most autonomous way of life. Humans share with other animals the pursuit of pleasure; the pursuit of honor is dependent on recognition by others and the historical contingency of having been born into a good regime.

Finally, in the third instance the ethical life itself becomes a striving simply for knowledge of human behavior. It seeks conceptual clarification regarding different forms of perfection (virtue) and imperfection (vice), synthetic appreciation of the relations between human nature and other forms of nature, and ultimately a transcendence of the subordinate dimensions of human experience. Ethics in this final form becomes science in the most general sense, concerned not with the part (humans) but the whole (cosmos).

Yet as Aristotle also notes, humans undertake ethical inquiry not simply to know about the good but also to become good (Nicomachean Ethics 2.2). Ethics is not just a science but a practice, a technique for self- and social improvement. Insofar as this is the case, ethics provides guidelines for development of character and counsel for political organization and rule. Ethics leads to politics, meaning not just political action but political philosophy (Nicomachean Ethics 10.9).

Roman philosophers, continuing the Greek tradition, likewise examined the mores (Latin for ethoi, the plural of ethos) of peoples, in what came to be called moral theory. Thus ethics is to ethos as moral theory is to morals. Ethics and moral theory are but two terms for the same thing: systematic reflections on human conduct that seeks to understand more clearly and deeply the good for humans.

During the Middle Ages these articulations of ethics or moral theory (science) and ethical or moral practice (technique) were enclosed within the framework of revelation. For instance, according to the argument of Augustine (354–430 c.e.) in On True Religion, revelation takes the truths of philosophy, known only by the few, and makes them publicly available to the many. By so doing religion makes the practical realization of the good more effective than was previously possible, at both personal and political levels.

According to Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274), the supernatural perspective allows Christians to provide more accurate descriptions, more sure assessments, and more perfect insight into the ultimate nature of reality and the human good than was possible for pagans. What for Aristotle could be no more than the counsels of practical wisdom became for Thomas natural laws of human conduct, laws that gear down the cosmic order and are manifest in human reason as a "natural inclination to [their] proper act and end" (Summa theologiae I–II, ques. 91, art. 2). The self-evident first principle of ethics that "good is to be done and promoted and evil is to be avoided" is given content by the natural inclinations to preserve life, to raise a family, and to live in an intelligence-based community (Summa theologiae I–II, ques. 94, art. 3).

The traditional forms of ethics as science and as technique acted to restrain the independent pursuit of science and technics. As entries on "Plato," "Aristotle," "Augustine," and "Thomas Aquinas" further suggest, these traditions provide continuing resources for the critical assessment of modern science and technology. Indeed, the contentious character of these often alternative assessments may be one of their most beneficial aspects, in that they call for reconsidering the assumptions that now animate scientific and technological activity.

Ethics as Science and Technology

In the modern period a basic transformation occurs in the understanding of ethics, one related to a transformation in science and technology. The scientific understanding of nature came to focus no longer on the natures of different kinds of entities, but on laws that transcend all particulars and kinds. The knowledge thus promoted the merger of technics into technology, the systematic power to control or reorder matter and energy. Technological knowledge became the basis for a technological activity that produced artifacts in greater regularities and quantities than ever before possible.

In like manner, the science of ethics sought to elucidate rules for human action. Divides emerged in the details of different ethical systems, but the major approaches nevertheless all pursued ethical decision-making processes that could be practiced with competence and regularity on a scale to cope with the new powers first of industrialization and then of globalization. The modern period thus witnessed the development of ethics as a science with a unique intensity and scope.

From their origins science and technology were supported with fundamentally ethical arguments—by Francis Bacon (1561–1626), René Descartes (1596–1650), and others—for a new vision of human beings as deserving to control the natural world and dominate it. The Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution flourished in conjunction with the progressive articulation of ideas about how humans might, through science and technology, remake both the physical and social worlds. Romanticism served as a critical response to the difficulties, threats, and complications inherent in such a reshaping of human experience, but in ways that were ultimately incorporated into the emerging cultural transformation. (Encyclopedia entries on "Bacon, Francis," "Descartes, René," and the "Industrial Revolution," among others, explore such issues in more detail.)

The systematic development of the modern science of ethics itself emerged in two major traditions. One was the consequentialist utilitarian tradition as elaborated by Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), John Stuart Mill (1806–1873), and their followers. The other was a deontological or duty-focused tradition with roots in the thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) but most closely associated with the work of Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). For consequentialists, rules for ethical decision-making are best determined by end uses or the effects of actions; for deontologists rules are grounded in the intentional properties of the actions themselves. Leading twentieth-century representatives of these two traditions include Peter Singer (b. 1946) and John Rawls (1921–2002), respectively. Both traditions are efforts to deal with the moral challenge created by the loss of nature as a normative reality within and without human beings. (Encyclopedia entries on the traditions of "Consequentialism" and "Deontology" are complemented by separate entries on such thinkers as "Rousseau, Jean-Jacques," "Kant, Immanuel," and "Rawls, John.")

Prior to the modern period, natural entities were understood as possessed of functional tendencies toward internal and external harmonies. When they function well and thereby achieve their teloi, plural of telos or ends, acorns grow up into oak trees, human beings speak and converse with one another in communities. Furthermore, both oak trees and humans fit in with larger natural orders. Because these harmonies are what constitutes being itself, they are also good, which is simply the way that reality manifests itself to, draws forth, and perfects the appetite. Although the first name of the good may be that which is one's own, a second and superior name is form or being, the different instances of which themselves come in an ascending order. For the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions, ethics as practice was thus constituted by the teleological perfection of human nature, realizing ever-higher states of functional potential. Such a view has obvious affinities with religious traditions as diverse as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity. But insofar as nature comes to be seen as composed not of entities with natures to be realized, but as constructions able to be used one way or another and modified at will, fundamental questions arise about the foundations of the good as an end to be pursued as well as the rightness of any means to be employed in such pursuit.

The fundamental problem for modern ethics is not just what the good is, but its basis. In simplified terms, for the consequentialist tradition the good is what human beings need or want, and there are no limits on actions as means other than what might be at odds with perceived wants; for the deontological tradition right means are those whose intentions may be consistently pursued or universalized, with no limits on the goods that might flow from them.

Efforts to make consequentialist and deontological systems truly scientific have been pursued both formally and substantively. In the first half of the twentieth century a pursuit of formal rigor led to the development of metaethics. Eschewing any normative goals, metaethics simply aspires to clarify the structure of ethical language and reasoning. In its radical form metaethics has tended to reduce the meaning of ethical statements to forms of emotional approval; in more moderate forms it has simply disclosed the complexities of ethical judgments, sometimes pointing up and seeking to rectify inconsistencies. In the second half of the twentieth century the inadequacies of metaethical analysis for the substantive issues faced in the creation and use of science and technology brought about development of applied ethics. The term is somewhat anomalous, because all traditional ethics applied to real life. Applied ethics is applied only in contrast to metaethical formalist aspirations.

Across the twentieth century efforts to make ethics scientific in more substantive ways developed in two tracks. One was to try to base ethics on evolutionary theory. This approach commonly takes those behaviors that are descriptively given moral value (such as altruism) and shows how and why such approval could have been the outgrowth of the processes of evolutionary selection.

Another effort to make ethics substantively scientific has been to elucidate the rationality of ethical behavior through the mathematics of game and decision theory. In the same spirit as game and decision theory, parallel efforts to supply practical wisdom with the strengths of quantitative methods have given rise to operations research and risk–cost–benefit analysis. Much more than evolutionary theory, such efforts have produced ethical techniques for dealing with the complexities of the advanced scientific and technological world, especially in relation to public policy analysis.

Continuing efforts to model ethics on the authority of modern science and the powers of technology, including the computer modeling of artificial ethics, have proved selectively suggestive and insightful. Despite significant achievements, however, neither scientific nor technological ethics has proved able to capture the richness of ethical reflection that is spread across the diversity of ethical traditions, ancient and modern.

Ethical Perspectives on Science and Technology

A different approach to the ethics of science and technology eschews making ethics into a science or a technology but to consider science and especially technology as new fields requiring ethical analysis and reflection. Here there has been a divide between those who seek to bring ethics to bear on science and technology as a whole, and those who choose to limit their ethical reflection to specific sciences or technologies.

With regard to the holistic approach, the work of Hans Jonas (1903–1993) may be taken as representative. For Jonas the powers of modern technology, which are more extensive across space and time, on the macro- and the microscale, than all previous human abilities, require a new ethics of responsibility. In his words, "Modern technology has introduced actions of such novel scale, objects, and consequences that the framework of former ethics can no longer contain them" (Jonas 1984, p. 6). In response Jonas formulated the new imperative of responsibility as: "Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life"
(p. 11). (For more detail, see the entry on "Jonas, Hans.")

With regard to approach that focuses on specific technologies, this is well represented by the various fields of applied ethics such as agricultural ethics, bioethics, business ethics, computer ethics, engineering ethics, environmental ethics, and more (each of which is given its own entry). Further specificity can be found in many of the case studies included in the encyclopedia, from "Abortion" to "Zoos."

In both holistic and particularist approaches, however, there are at least two common themes. One is whether on balance science and technology—or some particular science or particular technology—should be encouraged or in any way restrained. Another is whether existing ethical traditions are adequate to deal with the ethical challenges of science and technology, or whether instead wholly new ethical concepts and frameworks need to be developed.

Finally, even when the adequacy of existing traditions is assumed or defended, there are a number of distinctive concepts and principles that tend to recur in the ethical examinations of science and technology—or particular fields therein. Examples include the principles of respect for human autonomy and the exercise of responsibility and public participation, along with the concepts of safety and risk, the environment, and expertise. Each of these, along with a number of closely related terms, are thus also accorded encyclopedic entries.

The Limitations of Ethics

Any overview of ethics, especially one that highlights the way ethics attempts to deal with the dangers and challenges of science and technology, should not fail to mention the danger of ethics itself. These dangers come in three forms: economic, personal, and philosophical.

First, the economic danger in bringing ethics to bear on science and technology will limit scientific and technological progress, which in turn will limit economic development.

Second, there is what may be called the personal temptation to false righteousness. Turning a technical problem into an ethical one can make it more difficult to discuss, because the discussants now address it in terms of emotionally loaded senses of right and wrong or good and bad rather than the less loaded senses of more or less efficient or effective. Because of such emotional investments, social and political discussions can become intractable when ethical principles are invoked and people become unwilling to compromise. When the NIMBY ("not in my backyard") syndrome is justified not simply on the basis of practical concerns but by appeal to fundamental rights or other principles, it can become almost impossible to find common ground solutions. The opposition between fundamentalist religious beliefs about abortion and zealous commitments to women's rights provide another example of the problems that can be created by assessing science or technology in ethical terms.

Third, philosophers from Karl Marx to Michel Foucault have argued that morality is often simply a disguised form of self-interest. A modern tradition of the philosophical criticism of ethics has highlighted numerous ways that morality has been used to justify human oppression and exploitation, from racism to gender discrimination. Ethics can be simply another name for lack of self-knowledge, a kind of false consciousness.

Finally, another philosophical issue with ethics is that to define a problem as one of ethics can obscure not only its scientific and technical aspects but also its epistemological, metaphysical, aesthetic, and even theological dimensions. As philosopher Robert Frodeman (2003) has argued with regard to an extended examination of problems in the geosciences, environmental ethics is not enough. The issues of environmental ethics are often as much aesthetic and ontological as they are ethical. The category of the ethics must not be allowed to obscure other equally significant categories of reflection that are called forth by efforts to understand and assess science and technology.


SEE ALSO Consequentialism;Cosmology;Deontology;Humanization and Dehumanization;Nature;Virtue Ethics.


Chadwick, Ruth, ed. (2001). The Concise Encyclopedia of the Ethics of New Technologies. San Diego, CA: Academic Press. Thirty-seven articles on various technologies (biotechnology, genetic engineering, nuclear power) and related issues (brain death, intrinsic and instrumental value, precautionary principle) selected from the Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics (1998).

Frodeman, Robert. (2003). Geo-Logic: Breaking Ground between Philosophy and the Earth Sciences. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Jonas, Hans. (1984). The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age, trans. Hans Jonas and David Herr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Combines two German books published first in 1979 and 1981.

Kaplan, David M., ed. (2004). Readings in the Philosophy of Technology. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. Includes substantial sections on ethics and politics.

Keulartz, Jozef, Michiel Korthals, Maartje Schermer, and Tsjalling Swierstra, eds. (2002). Pragmatist Ethics for a Technological Culture. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic. A collaborative argument for pragmatism as the best ethical tradition for dealing with science and technology.

Mitcham, Carl, and Robert Mackey, eds. (1983). Philosophy and Technology: Readings in the Philosophical Problems of Technology. New York: Free Press. The "Ethical-Political Critiques" section includes a number of classic texts; other articles in this early collection are also relevant.

Scharff, Robert C., and Val Dusek, eds. (2003). Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition. Malden, MA: Blackwell. Part V, "Technology and Human Ends," includes thirteen relevant contributions.

Scott, Charles E. (1990). The Question of Ethics: Nietzsche, Foucault, Heidegger. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. A critical and sympathetic examination of the modern tradition of the ethical questioning of ethical thought.

Tavani, Herman T. (2003). Ethics and Technology: Ethical Issues in an Age of Information and Communication Technology. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Winner, Langdon. (1986). The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


"The Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science." Case Western Reserve University. Available from

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Ethics: Overview

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