What is Ethics?

Ethics is the portion of philosophical thought that considers what is right and wrong. Ethics is broken down into 3 categories: Metaethics, Normative Ethics and Applied Ethics. Metaethics is abstract and related to a wide range of more specific practical questions. Such as “What is truth?” Normative ethics is the study of ethical action and is founded upon metaethical discussions. Simply stated, normative ethics refers to standards of behavior that tell us how human beings ought to act in the many situations in which they find themselves. Applied ethics is a discipline of philosophy that attempts to apply ethical theory to real-life situation. The discipline has many specialized fields, such as biomedical ethics.

It is helpful to identify what ethics is NOT:

  • Ethics is not the same as feelings. Feelings provide important information for our ethical choices. Some people have highly developed habits that make them feel bad when they do something wrong, but many people feel good even though they are doing something wrong. And often our feelings will tell us it is uncomfortable to do the right thing if it is hard.
  • Ethics is not religion. Many people are not religious, but ethics applies to everyone. Most religions do advocate high ethical standards but sometimes do not address all the types of problems we face.
  • Ethics is not following the law. A good system of law does incorporate many ethical standards, but law can deviate from what is ethical. Law can become ethically corrupt, as some totalitarian regimes have made it. Law can be a function of power alone and designed to serve the interests of narrow groups. Law may have a difficult time designing or enforcing standards in some important areas, and may be slow to address new problems.
  • Ethics is not following culturally accepted norms. Some cultures are quite ethical, but others become corrupt -or blind to certain ethical concerns (as the United States was to slavery before the Civil War). “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is not a satisfactory ethical standard.
  • Ethics is not science. Social and natural science can provide important data to help us make better ethical choices. But science alone does not tell us what we ought to do. Science may provide an explanation for what humans are like. But ethics provides reasons for how humans ought to act. And just because something is scientifically or technologically possible, it may not be ethical to do it.

Why Identifying Ethical Standards is Hard

There are two fundamental problems in identifying the ethical standards we are to follow:

  1. On what do we base our ethical standards?
  2. How do those standards get applied to specific situations we face?

If our ethics are not based on feelings, religion, law, accepted social practice, or science, what are they based on? Many philosophers and ethicists have helped us answer this critical question. They have suggested different sources of ethical standards we should use.

There are somethings that all ethical approaches have in common:

  1. Impartiality: weighing interests equally
  2. Rationality: backed by reasons a rational person would accept
  3. Consistency: standards applied similarly to similar cases
  4. Reversibility: standards that apply no matter who makes the rules

What Use is Ethics?

For ethics to be useful, they need to have an effect on the way that people behave. Some philosophers think that ethics do this. They argue that if a person realises that it would be morally good to do something then it would be irrational for that person not to do it. But humans are often irrational. But ethics do provide good tools for thinking about moral issues.

As our world gets “smaller” with more technology allowing cultures to integrate in more ways than ever, more conflicts arise.This is because each culture has a different set of rules and a different way of looking at the world. This is why we often look at each other as being irrational. Ethics will first allow us to pinpoint what the disagree truly is; which is an important start.

Ethics help build a framework for looking at complex problems or ethical dilemmas. An ethical dilemma is a situation in which a choice must be made between two or more potentially justifiable ethical choices. This does not create a “right path” but rather eliminate confusion and clarify the issues.

Sources of Ethical Standards

The Utilitarian Approach

Some ethicists emphasize that the ethical action is the one that provides the most good for the most people. Or does the least harm, or, to put it another way, produces the greatest balance of good over harm. The utilitarian approach deals with consequences; it tries both to increase the good done and to reduce the harm done. The rightness or wrongness of any action must be viewed in terms of the consequences that the action produces. In other words, the consequences are generally viewed according to the extent that they serve some intrinsic good. “The ends justify the mean.” Risk analysis or cost vs benefit analysis is the basis for making ethical decisions.


Actions in and of themselves can be evaluated ethically as being intrinsically right or wrong. This suggests that an act must be performed because the act in some way is characterized by universality (appropriate for everyone) or that it conforms with moral law (formal rules judging right or wrong). The rightness of an act is judged independent of the consequences that it produces. “Lying in always wrong.” Ethical decisions are based on duty and obligation to others, absolute moral principles that are fixed and or not change.

The Rights Approach

Other philosophers and ethicists suggest that the ethical action is the one that best protects and respects the moral rights of those affected. This approach starts from the belief that humans have a dignity based on their human nature per se or on their ability to choose freely what they do with their lives. On the basis of such dignity, they have a right to be treated as ends and not merely as means to other ends. The list of moral rights -including the rights to make one’s own choices about what kind of life to lead, to be told the truth, not to be injured, to a degree of privacy, and so on-is widely debated; some now argue that non-humans have rights, too. Also, it is often said that rights imply duties-in particular, the duty to respect others’ rights.

The Fairness or Justice Approach

Aristotle and other Greek philosophers have contributed the idea that all equals should be treated equally. Today we use this idea to say that ethical actions treat all human beings equally-or if unequally, then fairly based on some standard that is defensible. We pay people more based on their harder work or the greater amount that they contribute to an organization, and say that is fair. But there is a debate over CEO salaries that are hundreds of times larger than the pay of others; many ask whether the huge disparity is based on a defensible standard or whether it is the result of an imbalance of power and hence is unfair.

The Common Good Approach

The Greek philosophers have also contributed the notion that life in community is a good in itself and our actions should contribute to that life. This approach suggests that the interlocking relationships of society are the basis of ethical reasoning and that respect and compassion for all others-especially the vulnerable-are requirements of such reasoning. This approach also calls attention to the common conditions that are important to the welfare of everyone. This may be a system of laws, effective police and fire departments, health care, a public educational system, or even public recreational areas.

The Virtue Approach

A very ancient approach to ethics is that ethical actions ought to be consistent with certain ideal virtues that provide for the full development of our humanity. These virtues are dispositions and habits that enable us to act according to the highest potential of our character and on behalf of values. Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, tolerance, love, fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are all examples of virtues. Virtue ethics asks of any action, “What kind of person will I become if I do this?” or “Is this action consistent with my acting at my best?”

Natural Law

This theory is based upon Christian faith historically, but has since been expanded to a non secular view. The eternal law is the rational plan by which all creation is ordered (by God or science). Humans, as rational beings, have the power to participate in the natural or eternal law. While non rational beings can only be effected by it. Thus, this law is universally knowable and universally binding.This means that we as humans have an inherent ability to actualize our potential and ethical decisions should be based upon supporting that actualization.

Ethical Relativism

This theory holds that morality is relative to the norms of one’s culture. Ethical concepts cannot be considered apart from the social contextual environment in which they occur. Factors of family, religious, and cultural standards and beliefs are important determinants of ethical standards. Expected socialized behaviors of a culture serve to influence the individual’s understanding of ethical behavior.The theory states that before decisions are made, the context of the decision must be examined. The doctrine states that there are no absolute truths in ethics and that what is morally right or wrong varies from person to person or from society to society. The theory believes that variances in culture and society influence whether an act is moral.

Ethical Universalism

This is in direct opposition to ethical relativism. It states that there is a system of norms and values that is universally applicable to everyone, everywhere at every time. Absolutism makes no exceptions: a rule is a rule. Under this theory, there are certain human truths that apply to all people simply by nature of being human. The 10 commandments is an example of this. It gives a list of things that a person should never do.

Putting the Approaches Together

Each of the approaches helps us determine what standards of behavior can be considered ethical. There are still problems to be solved, however. there is no generally accepted ethical theory. And, different ethical theories might very well result in different judgments. So what should we do if we run into a new case? Well, we can apply our ethical theories to it. But we should be open to the possibility that the new case might reveal a flaw in our theory. Therefore, you should never blindly apply an ethical theory and rely on the outcome.

The first problem is that we may not agree on the content of some of these specific approaches. We may not all agree to the same set of human and civil rights. We may not agree on what constitutes the common good. We may not even agree on what is a good and what is a harm.

The second problem is that the different approaches may not all answer the question “What is ethical?” in the same way. Nonetheless, each approach gives us important information with which to determine what is ethical in a particular circumstance.

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