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- Main article: Ethics
Ethics (from Greek ἦθος "ethos" meaning "custom") is the branch of axiology, one of the four major branches of philosophy, which attempts to understand the nature of morality; to distinguish that which is right from that which is wrong. The Western tradition of ethics is sometimes called moral philosophy. Ethics in a basic understanding is differentiating right from wrong; good from bad.
- Main article: Meta-ethics
Meta-ethics is the investigation of the nature of ethical statements. It involves such questions as: Are ethical claims truth-apt, i.e., capable of being true or false, or are they, for example, expressions of emotion (see cognitivism and non-cognitivism)? If they are truth-apt, are they ever true? If they are ever true, what is the nature of the facts that they express? And are they ever true absolutely (see moral absolutism), or always only relative to some individual, society, or culture? (See moral relativism, cultural relativism.)
Meta-ethics studies the nature of ethical sentences and attitudes. This includes such questions as what "good" and "right" mean, whether and how we know what is right and good, whether moral values are objective, and how ethical attitudes motivate us. Often this is derived from some list of moral absolutes, e.g. a religious moral code, whether explicit or not. Some would view aesthetics as itself a form of meta-ethics. Some philosophers, such as Kierkegaard viewed meta-ethics as a pursuit that could only be understood in terms of religion. His Christian derived ethics is seen most clearly in the concept of a 'teleological suspension of the ethical' - a moment when ethical reality is superseded by religious reality, such as Abraham's sacrifice of his son Isaac on Mt. Moriah and its prefiguration of God the father's sacrifice of Christ. Organized religion may be seen as an extension of moral philosophy that seeks a system of thought that transcends accepted ethical norms of a particular time.
Meta-ethics also investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Meta-ethical answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves.
- Main article: Descriptive ethics
Descriptive ethics deals with what the population actually believes to be right and wrong, and holds up as ideals or condemns or punishes in law or politics, as contrasted to normative ethics which deals with what the population should believe to be right and wrong, and such concepts as sin and evil. Society is usually balancing the two in some way, and sociology and social psychology are often concerned with the balance, and more clinical assessments and instruments to determine ethical attitudes.
- Main article: Normative ethics
Normative ethics bridges the gap between meta-ethics and applied ethics. It is the attempt to arrive at practical moral standards that tell us right from wrong, and how to live moral lives. This may involve articulating the good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behavior on others.
- One branch of normative ethics is theory of conduct; this is the study of right and wrong, of obligation and permissions, of duty, of what is above and beyond the call of duty, and of what is so wrong as to be evil. Theories of conduct propose standards of morality, or moral codes or rules. For example, the following would be the sort of rules that a theory of conduct would discuss (though different theories will differ on the merit of each of these particular rules): "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"; "The right action is the action which produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number"; "Stealing is wrong". Theories of moral conduct can be distinguished from etiquette by their concern with finding guidelines for action that are not dependent entirely on social convention. For example, it may not be a breach of etiquette to fail to give money to help those in poverty, but it could still be a failure to act morally.
- Another branch of normative ethics is theory of value; this looks at what things are deemed to be valuable. Suppose we have decided that certain things are intrinsically good, or are more valuable than other things that are also intrinsically good. Given this, the next big question is what would this imply about how we should live our lives? The theory of value also asks: What sorts of things are good? What sorts of situations are good? Is pleasure always good? Is it good for people to be equally well-off? Is it intrinsically good for beautiful objects to exist? Or: What does "good" mean? It may literally define "good" and "bad" for a community or society. [Criticism: Theory of value is not a part of normative ethics, though normative ethics presupposes some theory of value. For example, there are aesthetic values which may be amoral, i.e., neutral in regard to conduct.]
- Main article: applied ethics
One form of applied ethics applies normative ethical theories to specific controversial issues. In these cases, the ethicist adopts a defensible theoretical framework, and then derives normative advice by applying the theory. However, many persons and situations, notably traditional religionists and lawyers, find this approach either against accepted religious doctrine or impractical because it does not conform to existing laws and court decisions.
Casuistry is a completely different form of applied ethics that is widely used in these cases and by these groups. Casuists compare moral dilemmas to well established cases (sometimes called paradigms). The well-established methods for coping with the well-established cases are then adapted to the case at hand.
The special virtue of casuistry over applied moral theory is that groups and individuals often disagree about theories, but may nonetheless have remarkably similar paradigms. Thus, they may be able to achieve substantial social agreement about actions, even though their theories are incompatible. This may be why casuistry is the foundation of many legal systems. Causistry is essentially based on applying paradigms to individual cases on their own merits.
The ethical problems attacked by applied ethicists (of whatever sort) often bear directly on public policy. For example, the following would be questions of applied ethics: "Is getting an abortion ever moral?"; "Is euthanasia ever moral?"; "What are the ethical underpinnings of affirmative action policies?"; "What are human rights, and how do we determine them?"; "Do animals have rights?"
A more specific question could be: "If someone else can make better out of his/her life than I can, is it then moral to sacrifice myself if needed?"
Without these questions there is no clear fulcrum on which to balance law, politics, and practice of arbitration – in fact no common assumptions of all participants – so the ability to formulate the questions are prior to rights balancing.
But not all questions studied in applied ethics concern public policy. For example: Is lying always wrong? If not, when is it permissible? The ability to make these ethical judgments is prior to any etiquette.
Ethics in politics and economics
Ethics has been applied to family structure, sexuality, and how society views the roles of individuals; leading to several distinct and unrelated fields of applied ethics, including feminism.
Often, such efforts take legal or political form before they are understood as works of normative ethics. The UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights of 1948 and the Global Green Charter of 2001 are two such examples. However, as war and the development of weapon technology continues, it seems clear that no non-violent means of dispute resolution is accepted by all.
Ethics has been applied to analyze human use of Earth's limited resources. This has led to the study of environmental ethics and social ecology. A growing trend has been to combine the study of both ecology and economics to help provide a basis for sustainable decisions on environmental use. This has led to the theories of ecological footprint and bioregional autonomy. Political and social movements based on such ideas include eco-feminism, eco-anarchism, deep ecology, the green movement, and ideas about their possible integration into Gaia philosophy.
Ethics in religion
Ethics in the professions
There are several sub-branches of applied ethics examining the ethical problems of different professions, such as business ethics, medical ethics, engineering ethics and legal ethics, while technology assessment and environmental assessment study the effects and implications of new technologies or projects on nature and society.
Each branch characterizes common issues and problems that arise in the ethical codes of the professions, and defines their common responsibility to the public, e.g. to preserve its natural capital, or to obey some social expectations of honest dealings and disclosure.
Ethics in health care
One of the major areas where ethicists practice is in the field of health care. This includes medicine, nursing, pharmacy, genetics, and other allied health professions. Example issues are euthanasia, abortion, medical research, vaccine trials, stem cell research, informed consent, truth telling, patient rights and autonomy, rationing of health care (such as triage).
Ethics in psychology
By the 1960s there was increased interest in moral reasoning. Psychologists such as Lawrence Kohlberg developed theories which are based on the idea that moral behavior is made possible by moral reasoning. Their theories subdivided moral reasoning into so-called stages, which refer to the set of principles or methods that a person uses for ethical judgment. The first and most famous theory of this type was Kohlberg's theory of moral development.
Carol Gilligan, a student of Kohlberg's, argued that women tend to develop through a different set of stages from men. Her studies inspired work on an ethic of care, which particularly defines itself against Rawlsian-type justice- and contract-based approaches.
Another group of influential psychological theories with ethical implications is the humanistic psychology movement. One of the most famous humanistic theories is Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Maslow argued that the highest human need is self-actualization, which can be described as fulfilling one's potential, and trying to fix what is wrong in the world. Carl Rogers's work was based on similar assumptions. He thought that in order to be a 'fully functioning person', one has to be creative and accept one's own feelings and needs. He also emphasized the value of self-actualization. A similar theory was proposed by Fritz Perls, who assumed that taking responsibility of one's own life is an important value.
R.D. Laing developed a broad range of thought on interpersonal psychology. This deals with interactions between people, which he considered important, for an ethical action always occurs between one person and another. In books such as The Politics of Experience, he dealt with issues concerning how we should relate to persons labeled by the psychiatric establishment as "schizophrenic". He came to be seen as a champion for the rights of those considered mentally ill. He spoke out against (and wrote about) practices of psychiatrists which he considered inhumane or barbaric, such as electric shock treatment. Like Wittgenstein, he was frequently concerned with clarifying the use of language in the field -- so, for example, he suggested that the effects of psychiatric drugs (some of which are very deleterious, such as tardive diskensia) be called just that: "effects", and not be referred to by the preferred euphemisms of the drug companies, who prefer to call them "side effects". Laing also did work in establishing true asylums as places of refuge for those who feel disturbed and want a safe place to go through whatever it is they want to explore in themselves, and with others.
A third group of psychological theories that have implications for the nature of ethics are based on evolutionary psychology. These theories are based on the assumption that the behavior that ethics prescribe can sometimes be seen as an evolutionary adaptation. For instance, altruism towards members of one's own family promotes one's inclusive fitness.
- Main article: legal ethics
Ethics by cases
A common approach in applied ethics is to deal with individual issues on a case-by-case basis.
Casuistry is the application of case-based reasoning to applied ethics. Almost all American states have tried to discourage dishonest practices by their public employees and elected officials by establishing an Ethics Commission for their state.
Bernard Crick in 1982 offered a socially-centered view, that politics was the only applied ethics, that it was how cases were really resolved, and that "political virtues" were in fact necessary in all matters where human morality and interests were destined to clash.
The lines of distinction between meta-ethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics are often blurry. For example, the issue of abortion is an applied ethical topic since it involves a specific type of controversial behavior. But it also depends on more general normative principles, such as the right of self-rule and the right to life, which are litmus tests for determining the morality of that procedure. The issue also rests on metaethical issues such as, "where do rights come from?" and "what kind of beings have rights?"
Another concept which blurs ethics is moral luck. A drunk driver may safely reach home without injuring anyone, or he might accidentally kill a child who runs out into the street while he is driving home. How bad the action of driving while drunk is in that case depends on chance.
Some philosophers rely on descriptive ethics and choices made and unchallenged by a society or culture to derive categories, which typically vary by context. This leads to situational ethics and situated ethics. These philosophers often view aesthetics and etiquette and arbitration as more fundamental, percolating 'bottom up' to imply, rather than explicitly state, theories of value or of conduct. In these views ethics is not derived from a top-down a priori "philosophy" (many would reject that word) but rather is strictly derived from observations of actual choices made in practice:
- Ethical codes applied by various groups. Some consider aesthetics itself the basis of ethics – and a personal moral core developed through art and storytelling as very influential in one's later ethical choices.
- Informal theories of etiquette which tend to be less rigorous and more situational. Some consider etiquette a simple negative ethics, i.e. where can one evade an uncomfortable truth without doing wrong? One notable advocate of this view is Judith Martin ("Miss Manners"). In this view, ethics is more a summary of common sense social decisions.
- Practices in arbitration and law, e.g. the claim by Rushworth Kidder that ethics itself is a matter of balancing "right versus right", i.e. putting priorities on two things that are both right, but which must be traded off carefully in each situation. This view many consider to have potential to reform ethics as a practice, but it is not as widely held as the 'aesthetic' or 'common sense' views listed above.
- Observed choices made by ordinary people, without expert aid or advice, who vote, buy and decide what is worth fighting about. This is a major concern of sociology, political science and economics.
Those who embrace such descriptive approaches tend to reject overtly normative ones. There are exceptions, such as the movement to more moral purchasing.
The analytic view
The descriptive view of ethics is modern and in many ways more empirical. But because the above are dealt with more deeply in their own articles, the rest of this article will focus on the formal academic categories, which are derived from classical Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle.
First, we need to define an ethical sentence, also called a normative statement. An ethical sentence is one that is used to make either a positive or a negative (moral) evaluation of something. Ethical sentences use words such as "good," "bad," "right," "wrong," "moral," "immoral," and so on. Here are some examples:
- "Sally is a good person."
- "People should not steal."
- "The Simpson verdict was unjust."
- "Honesty is a virtue."
- "One ought not to break the law."
In contrast, a non-ethical sentence would be a sentence that does not serve to (morally) evaluate something. Examples would include:
- "Someone took the stereo out of my car."
- "OJ Simpson was acquitted at his trial."
- "Many people are dishonest."
- "I dislike it when people break the law."
- Comparative ethics
- Comparative religious ethics
- Core Values
- Moral absolutism
- Prima Facie ethics (See W. D. Ross)
- Ethical relativism
- Ethical nihilism
- Ethical skepticism
- Global ethics
- Liberal humanist ethics
- Altruism (ethical doctrine)
- Altruism in animals
- Ethical egoism
- Social contracts.
- Evolutionary ethics
- Goodness and value theory
- Human rights
- Is-ought problem
- Kohlberg's stages of moral development
- List of ethicists
- List of ethics topics
- Naturalistic fallacy
- Perfection ("Moral perfection")
- Religious beliefs
- Social influences
- The Golden Rule
- Virtue ethics
- Blackburn, S (1996). Dictionary of Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0192831348.
- Cornman, James; et al (1992). Philosophical Problems and Arguments - An Introduction, 4th ed., Indianapolis: Hackett. ISBN 0872201244.
- MacIntyre, A (2002). A Short History of Ethics, Routledge. ISBN 0415287499.
- Singer, P. (Ed.) (1993). A Companion To Ethics, Massachusetts: Blackwell. ISBN 0631187855.
- Roderick Hindery, Propaganda vs. Critical Thought, Lists ethical works by Roderick Hindery in Muslim, Confucian, Catholic,& other traditions.
- Roderick Hindery, Comparative Religious Ethics in Hindu and Buddhist Traditions
- Ethics Updates mega-list of ethics resources maintained by Lawrence Hinman of the University of San Diego.
- Moral Philosophy Research and Economics Public service publication on moral philosophy research
- rsrevision.com UK website with summaries and criticisms on:
- C. D. Broad, Five Types of Ethical Theory (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1930).
- W. D. Ross, The Right and the Good (1930)
- The Josephson Institute of Ethics An organization aimed to improve the ethical quality of society by changing personal and organizational decision making and behavior.
- An Introduction to Ethics by Paul Newall, aimed at beginners.
- Descriptive, Normative and Analytic Ethics: Categorizing Ethics & Morality, at About.com
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
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