Introduction to Ethics

Sandra LaFave

Ethics, often called “moral philosophy,” is philosophical thinking about morality, moral problems, or moral judgments. It attempts to arrive at an understanding of how we ought to live and what constitutes right conduct. But ethics is more than the elucidation and justification of particular “moralities”; it is concerned more generally with questions about what would constitute good reasons for acting one way rather than another, and about what constitutes a good life for human beings. It even treats the question of whether a “good life” includes morality!

In philosophy, the study of ethics presupposes that moral rules are not already laid out in advance, e.g., by God; they may be, but the goal of philosophers is to use reason, not revelation. Well-reasoned conclusions are those supported by good arguments. However, some philosophers have tried to establish that there are good arguments for faith, so questions of faith and reason are more complicated than you might think.

Philosophers often distinguish three kinds of thinking about ethics:

1. Descriptive ethics — describes what people actually do, how people think or have thought about morality, e.g., anthropology, history, psychology. Since philosophers are interested in reasons for ethical conclusions, and in the application of these conclusions to the problems of life, descriptive ethics is not ethics in the philosophical sense; you would not necessarily take guidance for your own moral decision-making from your knowledge of what others have thought or done. Naturally, though, philosophers are interested in descriptive ethical data.

2. Normative ethics — tries to figure out what people should do. Normative ethics is ethics construed as action-guiding, or prescriptive. Philosophers have traditionally been interested in normative ethics. Historically, much of moral philosophy has been concerned with developing systems of normative ethics. A system of normative ethics usually consists of some implicit rule or set of rules or decision procedures, such that when you are faced with an ethical decision, you can apply the rule or decision procedure, and thereby get an answer about what to do.

Normative ethics tries to come up with well-reasoned judgments about:

·          Moral obligation (what is “right” or “wrong”).

·          Moral value (what is “good” or “evil”).

3. Metaethics — analytical, critical thinking about the presuppositions of normative ethics. Metaethics asks questions like “What do normative theories mean by ‘good’ and ‘right’?”; “How can moral judgments be proved?”; “Why be moral at all?”, etc. A number of metaethical questions constitute significant challenges to the very enterprise of normative ethics; for example,

  • Is morality merely social convention, and thus relative to culture, and possibly different from culture to culture?

  • Are people really capable of altruistic (non-self-interested) behavior?

  • Even if people are capable of altruistic behavior, is it rational to be altruistic?

  • Is morality merely a system for the manipulation of one social group (for example, working people, women, ethnic minorities) by the dominant group?

  • Is morality possible without religion?

  • Do people have free will, a prerequisite for morality, in the first place?

Ethics in philosophy is mainly normative ethics or metaethics.

A few words more about normative ethics. Normative ethical systems have differed historically in their areas of emphasis. Some have emphasized actions, or consequences of actions, or character.

Normative systems that emphasize performing or (especially) not performing specific actions (such as murder, lying, stealing, etc.) are called deontological systems. Kant's ethical system is deontological. Sometimes deontological systems are called non-consequentialist because the consequences of action or inaction are not considered important in the determination of moral rightness or wrongness.

Normative systems that base their moral evaluation of an act on the consequences of that act — good consequences make an act morally acceptable, bad consequences make an action morally wrong —are called consequentialist or teleological ethical systems. Bentham and Mill's system — utilitarianism (“greatest good of the greatest number”) — is consequentialist.

Both deontological and consequentialist theories are classified as deontic or action-based theories, since their main emphasis is on the question of what actions are morally right or wrong. They ask “What should I do?”

Normative systems that focus on character — not on “What should I do?” but on “What sort of person should I be?” — are called aretaic or virtue-based systems. Aretaic systems assume that few if any acts are by their very nature automatically right or wrong; rather, circumstances count. But consequences alone do not determine morality either. The best way to approach ethics, according to aretaic theorists such as Aristotle, is to begin by asking what makes a person a good person — what qualities of character distinguish good people from others. Once this question is answered, the question of which acts are good is also answered; the good acts are those that the good person would perform.

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