Meaning and Dimensions of Ethics
Meaning of Ethics
Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that "involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior".
Ethics refers to a set of standards, norms, principles or directives that a society places over itself and against which actions of individuals are judged from the viewpoint of rightness and wrongness or goodness and badness.
Ethics thus, is the branch of philosophy that contemplates what is right and wrong. It explores the nature of morality and examines how people should live their lives in relation to others. Ethics is the rational study of the meaning and justification of moral claims. A moral claim evaluates the rightness or wrongness of an action or a person’s character. For example, “Lying is wrong” claims the act of lying is wrong, while “One shouldn’t be lazy” claims a character trait (i.e., laziness) is wrong.
Meta-ethics, Normative-ethics and Applied-ethics
Ethics is usually divided into three distinct subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.
- Meta Ethics: Meta Ethics is the study of ethical ideas or ethical language. Metaethics examines the nature of moral claims and arguments. Meta-ethics, investigates big picture questions such as, “What is morality?” “What is justice?” “Is there truth?” and “How can I justify my beliefs as better than conflicting beliefs held by others?” This partly involves attempting to determine if moral claims have clear essential meanings (i.e., they avoid vagueness and ambiguity). But it also attempts to answer questions such as: Are moral claims expressions of individual emotions? Are moral claims social inventions? Are moral claims divine commands? Can one justify moral claims? How does one justify them?
- Normative Ethics: Another branch of moral philosophy is normative ethics. It answers the question of what we ought to do. Normative ethics focuses on providing a framework for deciding what is right and wrong. Three common frameworks are deontology, consequentialism (utilitarianism), and virtue ethics. Normative ethics examines moral standards that attempt to define right and wrong conduct. Historically, this has involved examining good and bad habits, duties, or an action’s consequences. In addition, historically, normative ethics has focused on the prospect of a single moral standard defining right and wrong conduct; but it has become more common for philosophers to propose a moral pluralism with multiple moral standards.
- Applied Ethics: It addresses specific, practical issues of moral importance. For example, one is doing applied ethics when one addresses the morality of specific practical issues like abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, environmental concerns, homosexuality, terrorism etc. By using the conceptual tools of metaethics and normative ethics, discussions in applied ethics try to resolve these issues. Applied ethics also tackles specific moral challenges that people face daily, such as whether they should lie to help a friend or a co-worker.
While metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics are distinct subjects, these subjects are interdependent. For example, how one pursues normative ethics will be greatly affected by one’s metaethical assumptions. If one assumes, for example, that moral claims are divine commands, then one’s normative positions will be determined by identifying divine commands. Given this relationship between metaethics and normative ethics, it is common for metaethical questions to arise during a discussion on normative ethics. Similarly, how one pursues applied ethics will be greatly affected by one’s normative assumptions. If one assumes that one always should pursue those actions which lead to the best consequences, then one’s position on, for example, capital punishment, abortion, and terrorism will be determined by identifying which action(s) will lead to the best consequences. This interdependence between metaethics, normative ethics and applied ethics is the core of all moral philosophical studies, interpretations and interpolations.
Consequentialism, as the name suggests, bases morality on the consequences of human actions and not on the actions themselves, its emphasis, thus, is on the rightness of the 'end' rather than morality of the 'means' employed. Three subdivisions of consequentialism are:
- Ethical egoism
- Ethical altruism
Ethical egoism is an ethical position which claims that it is always right to do what would benefit you the most. In other words what ever will give the best outcome to you is the most moral thing to pursue
Ethical Altruism is an ethical doctrine that holds that individuals have a moral obligation to help, serve or benefit others, if necessary at the sacrifice of self interest.
Utilitarianism is a normative-consequentialist ethical theory that places the locus of right and wrong solely on the outcomes (consequences) of choosing one action/policy over other actions/policies. The underlying principle of utilitarianism is that an action is right if it produces greatest good for the greatest number. According to this perspective, an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favourable than unfavourable to everyone'.
In normative ethics the idea of utilitarianism emerged from the writings of 18th- and 19th-century English philosophers and economists namely Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
Deontology (or Deontological Ethics) is an approach to Ethics that focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions (Consequentialism).
Therefore it is sometimes described as "duty-based" or "obligation-based" ethics, because Deontologists believe that ethical rules bind people to their duty.
Modern deontological ethics was introduced by Immanuel Kant in the late 18th Century, with his theory of the Categorical Imperative. Categorical Imperatives command unconditionally. They are non-negotiable and should be always adhered to. E.g. “Don’t cheat in your exam.” Even if you want to cheat and doing so would serve your interests, you should not cheat, as cheating is inherently bad.
Virtues are good traits of character and vices are bad traits of character. Virtue ethics is person rather than action based: it looks at the virtue or moral character of the person carrying out an action, rather than at ethical duties and rules, or the consequences of particular actions.
Virtue ethics not only deals with the rightness or wrongness of individual actions, it provides guidance as to the sort of characteristics and behaviours a good person will seek to achieve. In that way, virtue ethics is concerned with the whole of a person's life, rather than particular episodes or actions. A good person is someone who lives virtuously - who possesses and lives the virtues. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle are the biggest proponents of virtue-ethics.