2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Environment; Philosophy

Ethics (from the Ancient Greek "ethikos", meaning "arising from habit"), a major branch of philosophy, is the study of value or quality. It covers the analysis and employment of concepts such as right, wrong, good, evil, and responsibility. It is divided into three primary areas: meta-ethics (the study of the concept of ethics), normative ethics (the study of how to determine ethical values), and applied ethics (the study of the use of ethical values).


There are two main strands of thought attempting to explain what ethical values and claims are actually about.

One group is classed as non-realist, because they suggest moral value rests on people's feelings about themselves and others (emotivism or prescriptivism) or their belief systems (cultural or individual relativism). One particular theory suggests that moral value rests on the will of a deity. Despite the name, such theories may see reality as shaping the human choice of ethical values (e.g. indirectly by the evolutionary or developmental shaping of human psychology, or directly through people assessing and debating the likely consequences of their actions).

Another group, by contrast, holds that moral value is somehow an intrinsic property of the world and that moral principles are discovered or intuited. In this view, what humans think or feel about those values makes no difference to their existance and correctness. These theories may be derived from theology or naturalism.

Normative ethics

Normative ethics bridges the gap between meta-ethics and applied ethics. It is the attempt to arrive at general moral standards that tell us how to judge right from wrong, or good from bad, and how to live moral lives. This may involve articulating the character or good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behaviour on ourselves and others.

Normative ethicists who follow the first approach are often called virtue ethicists, and articulate the various virtues or good habits that should be acquired. Aristotle is a pioneer virtue ethicist.

Normative ethicists who follow the second approach are often called deontological ethicists. Immanuel Kant set out the large framework for a deontological normative ethical theory.

Normative ethicists who follow the third approach are often called consequentialists or (specifically in regard to the theory of the greatest good for the greatest number) utilitarians, and John Stuart Mill set out a large framework for a utilitarian normative ethics.

Descriptive ethics

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, 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 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.

Applied ethics

Opposing forms

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.

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 behaviour. 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.

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. Casuistry is essentially based on applying paradigms to individual cases on their own merits.

Specific questions

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?" and "Do 'other animals' have rights as well?"

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 for them if needed?"

Without these questions there is no clear fulcrum on which to balance law, politics, and the 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, making ethical judgments regarding questions such as, "Is lying always wrong?" and, "If not, when is it permissible?" is prior to any etiquette.

Ethics in politics and economics

Ethics has been applied to economics, politics and political science, leading to several distinct and unrelated fields of applied ethics, including business ethics and Marxism. American corporate scandals such as Enron and Global Crossings are illustrative of the interplay between ethics and business. Ethical inquiries into the fraud perpetrated by corporate senior executive officers (e.g., Enron's Kenneth Lay) are a growing trend and the situational ethics of employees, no matter how junior, who follow their unreasonable and/or illegal directives has also come to the fore.

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.

Ethics has been applied to war, leading to the fields of pacifism and nonviolence.

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 nonviolent means of dispute resolution is accepted by all.

The need to redefine and align politics away from ideology and towards dispute resolution was a motive for Bernard Crick's list of political virtues.

Environmental ethics

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 the professions

There are several sub-branches of applied ethics examining the ethical problems of different professions, such as business ethics, medical ethics, journalism 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 behaviour 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 behaviour 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.

Legal ethics

Ethics has been applied to criminology leading to the field of criminal justice.

Choices Vs. Consequences Consequences of personal choices may impact on other people and any associated reponsiblities may extend into a wider society. They are major factos in life, as they determine one's relationships with him/herself and with others.

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