Ethics is the branch of philosophy that seeks to determine how one ought to act in a particular situation. That is to say, if focuses on how one might be able to determine right or good action in any given situation.
Different schools of ethical thought arise from different areas. Religion often plays a central role in ethics. The ethics of most people come directly from their religious upbringing, or lack thereof. Many people believe that the best forms are at the very least derived from religion, if not identical to the teachings of the religion they subscribe to.
People also derive codes of ethics from several other sources, among them being personal values, personal gain, and what things harm other people. There are many philosophical schools of ethics. Some meta-ethicists deny the objectivity of right and wrong, but more rational schools of thought generally prevail.
Divisions of ethics
As a branch of philosophy, ethics has three main subdivisions:
- meta-ethics asks questions such as: what do ethical statements mean? in what ways are they the same as, and in what way do they differ from, non-ethical statements? do ethical statements have objective truth, or are they merely subjective expressions of opinion or emotion? are ethical statements ultimately reducible to non-ethical statements? how can we know what is ethical and what is not?
- normative ethics asks what are the basic principles of right or wrong: is morality fundamentally about the consequences of our actions, the inherent nature of the acts we perform, or our character as actors?
- applied ethics seeks to apply ethical principles to concerte social issues, such as abortion, euthanasia, human sexuality, animal welfare, the environment, poverty, etc. Applied ethics inevitably depends on the positions one adopts in the areas of normative ethics and meta-ethics
Some of the major positions in meta-ethics include:
- moral subjectivism rejects the idea that ethical statements are objectively true or false. The most basic version is naive subjectivism, in which 'good' is defined as 'what I approve of'. More advanced versions, such as emotivism, do not see that as a proper definition of good as such, but nonetheless see ethical language as having the sole function of expressing one's own feelings about issues, and encouraging similar feelings in others
- moral naturalism believes ethical properties can be identified with non-ethical properties. For example, the word 'good' might be defined as 'whatever causes the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people'. Precisely how a moral naturalist defines good will depend on which particular theory of normative ethics they adopt.
- moral non-naturalists deny that ethical properties can be identified with non-ethical properties. Although it may well be true that whatever causes the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people is good, that itself cannot be a definition of good. G.E. Moore is the most well-known advocate for this position - he believed that, since "Is whatever causes the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people always good?" appears to be a valid question, that cannot be a simple definition of what good is, even if the answer is 'Yes'. He compared it with questions such as 'Are all bachelors unmarried?' and 'Are all the barbers in the village bald?'. Although the answer in both cases could be 'Yes', clearly in the first case the answer has to be 'Yes', whereas in the second case it doesn't have to be, even if it actually is. He saw questions about morals as being like the second rather than the first question ("open" rather than "closed" questions), and hence he concluded the property of being good could never be simply defined. This argument of his is known as the open question argument. He saw 'good' as being like 'yellow' - we cannot give a precise definition of it, but we can indicate what it is by giving examples.
- moral sense theory believes that all human beings have an inner sense, like the external senses of vision or hearing, by which one can directly and immediately ascertain the truth or falsehood of moral propositions - although, just as some people have better vision or hearing than others, this sense may be more accurate for some people than for others
- divine command theory believes that the good is simply whatever God commands; if God had commanded murder instead, then murder would have been good. The problem with this view, is that if 'good' is simply whatever God commands, then to call God himself 'good' is an empty statement (of course God obeys his own commandments).
- divine nature theory sees 'good' as being part of God's perfect and eternal divien nature, which is unchangeable - God could never command murder, since to do so would violate His own nature. This avoids the problem of divine command theory mentioned above.
Conservatives generally prefer meta-ethical theories which see ethics as being objective in nature, especially those theories which see ethics as being based on God - thus divine nature theory, divine command theory, moral sense theory or moral non-naturalism. Many Liberals adopt a position of moral subjectivism - ethics is just a subjective personal expression of like or dislike, and there are no universally applicable moral values.
Some of the major positions in normative ethics include:
- consequentialism, which calls an act good if it produces good consequences. The most famous version is utilitarianism, which believes that the good is whatever leads to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Some versions of utilitarianism are purely hedonistic, seeking whatever will cause the most pleasure; others are more discerning, as exemplified by J.S. Mill's famous words "Better to be Socrates dissatisified, than a pig satisified". Other versions include:
- preference utilitarianism seeks to fulfill as many people's desires as possible, and treats everyone's desires equally
- act utilitarianism judges each act individually for whether it has the best consequences
- rule utilitarianism seeks to establish rules of general application in order to maximise the consequences overall, and then judge individual acts for conformance to those rules, even if in some individual circumstances the results are worse for obeying the rule than they would have been had the rule been violated
- deontology believes that certain acts are wrong in themselves, regardless of how much good it may result. This is particularly associated with Catholic and pro-life thinkers - certain acts, such as taking innocent human life, are wrong, irrespective of how good the consequences might be. This also describes the viewpoint of many Libertarians, followers of Ayn Rand, anarcho-capitalists, etc. - they see violating private property rights as always wrong, no matter how good for society the consequences might be.
- virtue ethics focuses, not on our acts, but on our character. It analyses character into positive traits (virtues) and negative traits (vices). A person with a good character will inevitably do good acts; a person with a bad character will inevitably do bad ones.
Liberals tend to favour consequentialism, while Conservatives tend to favour the deontology or virtue ethics approaches.
Positions in applied ethics inevitably follow from those one adopts in meta-ethics and normative ethics. For example, if someone believes that 'good' is simply an expression of what people like or dislike, their positions on issues such as abortion will inevitably reflect their own personal feelings. Whereas, if they believe that 'good' means obedience to divine commands, they will seek to discover what are God's commands before answering this question.
Similarly, if someone is a utilitarian, their ethical judgements will be driven by whatever they think causes the most pleasure or happiness for the most people. They may well conclude that sexual freedom causes the most pleasure or happiness, and thus adopt liberty as their basic sexual ethic. Whereas, if someone is a deontologist, they may hold that certain sexual acts are wrong, regardless of how much happiness or pleasure results, and thus adopt a sexual ethic which rejects those acts unconditionally.
Applied ethics is an enormously broad field. The following is a necessarily incomplete list of some of the issues it seeks to address:
- human sexuality - what is the moral status of homosexuality? adultery? polygamy? pornography? contraception? etc.
- family issues - what is the best way to raise children? what is the proper role of parents v.s. the state or the wider community?
- life issues - is abortion morally permissible? what about euthanasia?
- the morality of biotechnology - are genetic modification, cloning, stem cells, IVF, artifical insemination & surrogacy moral?
- economic issues - what is the most ethical economic system, capitalism or socialism?
- criminal justice issues - is capital punishment morally permissible? torture? should crime be punished, and if so how? what are the rights of the accused or convicted, and how to balance them with the rights of victims or society?
- environmental issues - what are our ethical obligations to the environment? how do we balance those obligations against the needs of economic development?
- animal welfare and animal rights - is it moral to kill animals for food or clothing? to kill or injure them for scientific research?
- racial equality issues - what are our ethical obligations with respect to racial inequality? what is more important - freedom of speech, or preventing the spread of racial hatred?
- does ethics demand a particular political system (such as democracy?) when is government interference in personal freedom morally permissible, and when is it morally prohibited?
- ethics of warfare - when is war morally permissible? are particular weapons or tactics (such as use of nuclear weapons) moral?