Ethics (from the Greek ethos – custom) in the sense of systems of
value and codes of conduct have always been part of human societies. In
this sense, there are many distinct ethical traditions corresponding to
the major cultural and religious divisions, such as Indian, Buddhist,
Chinese, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic ethics. These are the ethical
traditions that most people in the world look to for guidance about how
In the Western intellectual tradition, philosophical ethics begins with the Greek Sophists of the fifth century B.C.E., who started to reflect on their ethical codes and values, and raised critical questions about morality, such as how it came to exist, and why one should follow its guidelines. Many of the same questions that preoccupied ancient ethical thinkers continue to be debated down to the present day.
Philosophical ethics (also called moral philosophy) is divided into three main areas of inquiry: (1) meta-ethics, (2) normative ethics, and (3) applied ethics. Meta-ethics is a study of the nature of ethics. A meta-ethical study is concerned, amongst other things, with the meaning and objectivity of moral judgments, and how human beings can come to know what is right. By contrast, normative ethics aims to provide specific guidelines for action by constructing theories about what makes actions right and wrong. Applied ethics involves the application of normative ethical theories to particular issues of practical concern such as abortion, euthanasia, criminal punishment, and the treatment of animals.
Meta-ethics is an inquiry into the nature of ethics. The prefix ‘meta’ suggests ‘aboutness’, as for example in the word ‘meta-psychology’, which is the study of psychology—what it is as a discipline—rather than a study in psychology. Simplifying somewhat, we can say that a meta-inquiry is a study of a study. Meta-ethics is then the study of ethics: it is concerned with determining the nature of judgments of moral right or wrong, good and bad. It is not concerned with finding out which actions or things are right and wrong, or which states are good and bad, but with understanding the meaning of concepts of right and wrong, good and bad. Meta-ethics does not ask whether lying is always wrong. Rather, it tries to ascertain whether there really is difference between right and wrong, or tries to clarify what it means to say that an action is right or wrong. A meta-ethical inquiry may ask: What, if anything, makes a judgment that lying is always wrong, true (or false)? One possible answer canvassed by meta-ethics is that moral rules are nothing other than social conventions of particular cultural groups. This entails that the judgment that lying is always wrong is simply an expression of the beliefs of a group of people, and it is their beliefs about the matter that make it true. This view is called moral relativism.
In the Anglophone world, twentieth century philosophers focused tremendously on meta-ethics rather than normative ethics. This meta-ethical agenda was due, firstly, to the enormous influence of G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, and secondly, to the emergence of logical positivism. The logical positivists embraced a theory of the linguistic meaning called the principle of verifiability. This principle says that a sentence is strictly meaningful only if it expresses something that can be confirmed or disconfirmed by empirical observation. For example, the sentence “there are llamas in India” is meaningful because it could be verified or falsified by actually checking whether there are llamas in India. One important implication of the principle of verification is that moral judgments are strictly meaningless. The sentence “murder is wrong” cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed by empirical experience. We may find that people believe that murder is wrong, or disapprove of murder, but there is nothing in world corresponding to ‘wrongness’ that could be investigated by empirical science. Therefore, according to the logical positivists, all evaluative judgments are meaningless. This disturbing conclusion led many philosophers to set aside questions of normative ethics and to concentrate on more fundamental questions of the meaningfulness and objectivity of moral judgments.
Emotivism and prescriptivism are influential meta-ethical theories that may be understood as attempts to make sense of ethical language while adhering to the principle of verification. If all evaluative judgments are meaningless, then what are people doing when they say that kindness is good, or that cruelty is bad? Emotivists such as A.J. Ayer and C.L. Stevenson, hold that evaluations express the speaker’s feelings and attitudes: saying that kindness is good is a way of expressing one’s approval of kindness. Similarly, R.M. Hare argues that evaluations (ethical judgments) are prescriptions (commands): saying that kindness is good is a way of telling people that they should be kind. Evaluative judgments are then understood as emotive or prescriptive, and are contrasted with descriptive judgments. Descriptive judgments are appraisable as true or false; evaluative judgments are not.
Theory of right action
Normative ethics is concerned with moral norms in the sense of standards with which moral agents ought to comply. “Thou shall not murder” is an example of a moral norm. Normative ethics aims to identify principles of right action that may be used to guide human beings in their lives. These principles will (normally) be of the type that can be used to decide whether particular courses of action, or particular types of action, are right or wrong. This aspect of normative ethics, the theory of right action, is an investigation and an attempt to answer the question: “what ought I to do?” or “what is the right thing to do?” It tries to answer this question by identifying a set of principles that may be used to determine right actions, or alternatively, as with Aristotle, showing that no such principles are available and that rightness must be perceived in a situational context. Besides the already mentioned terms, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, and ‘ought’, other important normative concepts relating to action include ‘obligatory’, ‘forbidden’, ‘permissible’, and ‘required’.
Four normative theories currently dominate the philosophical terrain. These are utilitarianism, Kantianism, Intuitionism, and virtue ethics. (See also the articles on teleological ethics; deontological ethics; natural law ethics.) According to classical utilitarianism, an action is right if and only if it produces the greatest balance of overall happiness. Recent versions of utilitarianism tend to replace happiness with more economically respectable notions such as desire or preference satisfaction. Contemporary discussions also recognize a distinction between utilitarianism and consequentialism. Consequentialism is a general theory that makes rightness (or justifiability) depend on the value of consequences brought about, but is independent of any account as to what consequences these may be. By contrast, utilitarianism supports a particular subjectivist account of value—the consequences to be maximized—that emphasizes human welfare.
Kantian ethics derives from the work of the Immanuel Kant. The fundamental principle of Kant’s ethics is the Categorical Imperative, which is said to underlie all commonly recognized moral principles. The Categorical Imperative is a principle of consistency, demanding that we act on reasons which all rational agents could endorse, i.e., universally acceptable reasons. Kantian ethics emphasizes respect for persons, and holds that there are (in contrast with utilitarianism) certain actions that should never be done. Kant’s ethics has also had an important influence on political philosophers such as John Rawls.
Intuitionism is another name for pluralism. The best-known form of intuitionism is probably that presented by W.D. Ross in The Right and the Good. Ross argues that we are able to intuit a number of irreducible prima facie duties (to keep our promises, to refrain from harming the innocent, etc.), none of which take precedence over any other. In this respect, Ross accepts a form of moral pluralism, since he does not think that right action can be reduced to a single criterion. Here he sets himself up against Utilitarianism and Kantianism, which are both versions of monism because they recognize a single basic moral principle. Ross thinks that the right action (one’s duty proper) in a given situation is determined by a careful weighing of various moral principles that apply in the context.
Virtue ethics, following Aristotle, downplays or even denies the existence of universal rules to which actions must conform. According to virtue ethics, morality is not fundamentally about following rules, but rather about cultivating virtuous dispositions of character. A disposition is a tendency to have certain responses in particular situations: responses such as emotions, perceptions, and actions. The virtuous person is someone who acts rightly in response to requirements that are unique to the situation. He or she is someone who is able to perceive what the situation requires and act accordingly. People who have the virtue of courage, for example, are those with the disposition to ‘stand fast’ under trial, where this includes a complex of attitudes and emotions, behavior, and perceptions.
Theory of value
The two central concepts of normative ethics are the ‘right’ and the ‘good’. The concept of the ‘right’, discussed in the previous section, is the concept of duty, of actions we ought to perform, and which it would be wrong not to perform. The concept of the good, the target of the theory of value, or axiology (from the Greek axios = worth; logos =science), aims to explain what sort of property goodness is, and to determine what things are good. Goodness is not equivalent to moral goodness. Works of art have value, but not moral value. Or again, relaxation may be good for a person, but there is nothing morally good about taking a walk. The theory of value is concerned with the nature of goodness in general, of which moral goodness is one species.
What is the relationship between the theory of right action and the theory of value? The answer depends on the normative theory concerned. As indicated above, classical utilitarianism aims to account for right action in terms of the promotion of human good. In this respect, utilitarianism requires an account of human good in order to specify just what sort of good consequences must be maximized. By contrast, deontological theories, of which Kant’s ethics is the best-known example, do not explain right action in terms of the promotion of good. Many deontologists would argue that it is wrong to kill an innocent person no matter what the value of the consequences might be. So whereas the utilitarian defines right action in terms of the promotion of goodness, the deontologist holds that, for example, respecting people’s rights is more important that increasing the amount of value in the world. This is sometimes expressed by saying that deontology makes the right prior to the good.
Theories of value are often classified in terms of the subjective-objective distinction. Subjectivist theories hold that value is dependent on producing pleasure, being desired, or preferred, or more abstractly, on what would be preferred in certain ideal conditions. Utilitarianism theories of value, such as hedonism and its descendents, desire and preference satisfaction theories, are paradigmatic subjectivist accounts of value. By contrast, objectivist theories of value say that certain things and states are valuable independently whether they produce pleasure, are desired, or preferred. Perfectionism is an objectivist theory of value according to which goodness depends on the actualization or perfection of human nature. According to Aristotle, for instance, fulfilling the function (ergon) of a human being involves the exercise and perfection of its rational capacities. It follows that the good life for man involves the attainment of virtue or excellence (arête) in reason.
Meta-ethics and normative ethics are abstract areas of inquiry. The third main branch of philosophical ethics—applied ethics—is very practical, aiming to apply the results of normative ethics to everyday life. Many great ethical thinkers have been concerned with such questions. For example, Aristotle claimed that studying ethics is beneficial only insofar as it makes a practical difference to how one lives; Thomas Aquinas’ masterwork, Summa Theologiae offers a great deal of practical counsel on marriage and family (amongst other things); and Kant and Hume wrote directly on whether suicide is ever morally justifiable. Today, after a period of relative neglect in the first half of the twentieth century, interest in applied ethics enjoys tremendous growth. Practical issues such as abortion, euthanasia, criminal punishment, and the treatment of animals, continue to be the subject of vigorous debate.
Recent philosophical discussion of the treatment of animals provides a clear example of the practical value of applied ethics. In the Western world (and in contrast with certain Eastern traditions) animals have long been excluded from the domain of moral concern. They have been bred up and killed for food and clothing, captured and dissected in the name of science, and sometimes hunted for pure pleasure. This treatment has been justified in several ways. Within the Jewish and Christian religious context, for example, it is taught that God created animals for human use, and so we are entitled to do to them as we please.
This long established tradition was challenged in the eighteenth century by one of the founders of utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham. According to utilitarianism, morality is fundamentally a matter of promoting happiness (pleasure) and preventing suffering (pain). This implies that moral concern is not limited to creatures with reason—as Aristotle had thought—but has application to all sentient creatures. Bentham writes:
Insofar as one agrees that sentience (rather than rationality) is the criterion of moral significance, and agrees that it is wrong to cause suffering unnecessarily, then many accepted practices of (e.g.) meat production are clearly immoral. This easy argument shows how philosophical reasoning can generate important ethical conclusions. Similarly controversial results have been obtained in other areas, and by the application of different ethical theories such Kantianism and Virtue Ethics. Indeed, the development of applied ethics has been so great in the last three decades that a systematic overview is impossible. The reader is referred to the article entries on the important topics of applied ethics. These include but are not limited to medical ethics, abortion, euthanasia, bioethics, suicide; reproduction ethics; environmental ethics], animal rights, vegetarianism, ecological philosophy; professional ethics, business ethics; pornography, sexuality, paternalism; just war theory, punishment, capital punishment; famine and poverty.The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire the rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate…. The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they ‘’suffer’’? (1789, 311)
Determinism and Free Will
Ethics is not independent of other branches of inquiry. One important point of contact between ethics and metaphysics is the problem of free will. It is often argued that ethics presupposes that human agents have free will, for if it is true to say that someone should not have acted in a way that violated a moral obligation, then they must have been able to do something else instead. So it seems that ethics, especially in the sense of moral obligation, presupposes that human beings have free will.
However, many philosophers have worried that free will is an illusion because of universal determinism. Determinism is the thesis that all events in the natural world proceed according to (roughly deterministic) laws specified by the laws of physics. Is it possible if determinism is true, that human beings to do anything other than they do in fact do? For example, how can we make sense of Judas Iscariot freely betraying Jesus Christ if Judas’ actions are part of the natural causal order and governed by laws over which he has no control? Some philosophers—incompatibilists—think that free will and moral responsibility presuppose the falsity of determinism, while others—compatibilists—have tried to show that free will and determinism can coexist.