What is Ethics?

  • Ethics is primarily a philosophy of right and wrong. Moral questions about actions and philosophies are ethics.
    • How should we live and treat one another?
    • What are right and wrong?
    • How can we know or decide?
    • Where do our ethical ideas come from?
    • What are rights? Who or what has them?
    • Should we coerce one another?
    • Can we find an ethical system that applies to everyone?
    • What do we mean by duty, justice and other similar concepts?

Branches of Ethics

      • Metaethics: the study of where ethical notions came from and what they mean; in particular, whether there is an ethical system independent of our own opinions that could be applied to any situation at any time or place.
      • Normative ethics: the search for a principle (or principles) that guide or regulate human conduct—that tell us what is right or wrong. A norm is just another way of saying “standard”, so normative ethics is the attempt to find a single test or criterion for what constitutes moral behavior—and what does not.
      • Applied ethics: the study of specific problems or issues with the use or application of moral ideas investigated in normative ethics and based on the lessons of metaethics. Applied ethics may sometimes coincide with political or social questions but always involves a moral dimension.

Origins of Ethics: The Greeks

  • As you might imagine, our friends, the Greek Philosophers offer some of the most important origins of our study of ethics.
    • Plato believed that people were inclined to be good and desired happiness; the problem was to know what good was. He suggested four virtues: wisdom, courage, justice and temperance.
    • Aristotle added additional virtues like generosity, truthfulness, friendliness and prudence, However, he believed that goodness is in the actor, not the action. For Aristotle, an act is virtuous because of the manner in which a person has chosen it—having done so through sound knowledge and by holding oneself in a kind of equilibrium, making the decision for specific reasons and not at a whim—and thus not because the act is good in itself.

Two Primary Schools of Ethics


  • Teleological ethics are results-oriented, based on weighing outcomes.
  • Cost Benefit Analysis
    • One decides if a decison is ethical based on weighing the potential good versus the potential harm.
  • Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are two of the most important telelogical thinkers.

Deontological (Value or act oriented)

  • For deonotological thinkers, actions are inherently moral or immoral.
  • They believe in universal standards of conduct.
  • The primary deontological thinker is Immanuel Kant.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email