Ethics: How do I know what is right and wrong?

One of the most practical applications for the study of philosophy is in the field of Ethics.

Definition: Ethics is the systematic philosophical study of morality.

* Click here to see the Ethics Flow Chart *

But what's the difference between 'ethics' and 'morality'? Don't they mean the same thing? Not really. Given our definition we should be able to infer that 'ethics' names a field of inquiry while 'morality' names the object of an inquiry. 'Morality' is the behavior or codes of behavior of a given group, while 'ethics' is the attempt to understand and justify that behavior. So, an ethicist (i.e., someone who does ethics) is a philosopher who analyzes:

Now we should also note that a person may study ethics without being moral, just as a person may be moral without knowing anything about ethics. This should not be too surprising since we see many similar examples: an ornithologist studies birds without being one! However, what normally motivates the study of ethics is a deep desire to know what is right and wrong and to be able to consistently apply that knowledge in all aspects of our lives. It would be frustrating, to say the least, to be condemned to go through life guessing at which actions are proper and which not. And yet, if one doesn't study ethics, or at least put together some elementary ethical system, this is precisely what one must do. In fact, most people have some ethical system, some intellectual framework which guides their behavior. This is usually a patchwork system made of scraps taken from different sources. But if ethics is given very little thought one is as likely as not to end up with an inconsistent ethical system which will collapse upon itself with only moderate external pressure. To avoid this, we need to apply philosophical scrutiny to our so called 'moral' behavior. Only then can we have some assurance that we are behaving as we ought.

  1. Basic Terminology -

    1. Moral Designators - terms used to label actions in an ethical system

      1. 'Right' - any action which is justified by and consistent with an ethical framework; implies an obligation on anyone who accepts the ethical system

      2. 'Wrong' - any action which fails to be justified or is inconsistent with an ethical framework; an action forbidden to a anyone who accepts the ethical system

      3. 'Permissible' - any action which is justified by and consistent with an ethical framework but which does not imply an obligation

        1. 'neutral actions' - actions which have no moral implications

        2. 'Supererogatory' - actions which are deemed good but which carry no obligations (i.e., altruistic actions, good Semaritanism, etc.)

    2. Moral Principles - rules of action or guidelines which arise from a given ethical system


    NOTE: There are five generally recognized necessary features of any moral principle. That is, we want our moral principles to meet the following five criteria:

    Prescriptive - moral principles are grammatically formulated as imperatives (i.e., commands) to emphasize the obligation which lies behind the proposed action

    Universalizable - moral principles are not restricted to particular individuals or groups but must be applicable to any moral agent in relevantly similar circumstances

    Overriding - a moral principle should be the primary consideration in action assessment and trump other considerations

    Public - a moral principle presupposes social interaction (how can we be under moral obligations if there is no other to be obliged toward?)

    Practicable - moral principles must be achievable by the average moral agent (we don't want moral principles prescribing supererogatory actions, we don't want to mistake a moral ideal for a moral principle)

    These criteria are not universally accepted by all philosophers, as we shall see. However, they are an adequate guide to our intuitions about what makes something moral.


  2. Three Basic Types of Ethical Systems -

    1. Deontological - duty based ethical systems which claim rightness is derived from some feature of the action itself with no reference to its consequences

    2. Teleological - ends based ethical systems which claim rightness is derived from the consequences of the action alone

    3. Virtue Ethics - ethical system which claims rightness is derived from the character of the actor not from the act or its consequences

  3. Normative versus Descriptive Language - (Metaethics)

    1. Descriptive Language - Language which reflects the way the universe actually is (facts about the world)

      1. 2 < 3
      2. The sky is blue.
      3. Whales are larger than kittens.
      4. The human gestation period is nine months.
      5. Paris is the capital of France.


      NOTE: One way to quickly determine if a sentence is a descriptive or normative use of langugae is to ask whether what is asserted is true or false. Descriptive sentences can be either true or false, but notice that it does not make much sense to ask the same question about the normative sentences below. Also, keep in mind that a sentence does not have to be true to be descriptive, only that it make sense to ask if it is true (or false)!

    2. Normative Language - Language which reflects the way we want the world to be (our preferences, desires, or [non-factual] beliefs about the world)

      1. Blue is prettier than green.
      2. Pink Floyd is the best rock and roll band of all time.
      3. Country music sucks.
      4. It's better to die free than to live in slavery.

It is important to recognize the difference between factual propositions and normative claims because they serve radically different functions. Descriptive language helps us understand the environment in which we live which is vital for our continued survival. Normative language, on the other hand, expresses our desires beyond mere survival; it helps us form a concept of what we want our lives to be, or the meaning we wish to find in it.


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