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Ethics is a general term for what is often described as the "science of morality". In philosophy, ethical behavior is that which is "good". The Western tradition of ethics is sometimes called moral philosophy. This is one of the three major branches of philosophy, alongside metaphysics and logic.

Table of contents
1 The history of ethics
2 Disputes of definition
3 Divisions of ethics
4 Descriptive ethics
5 The analytic view
6 Is ethics futile?
7 Ethics in religion
8 Major doctrines of ethics
9 Related topics in philosophy

The history of ethics

The formal study of ethics in a serious and analytical sense began with the early Greeks, and later Romans. Important Greek ethicists include the Sophists and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who developed ethical naturalism. The study of ethics was developed further by Epicurus and the epicurean movement, and by Zeno and the stoics.

Although not developed in a formal and analytical sense, the subject of ethics was of great concern to the Hindu people in Ancient India. For the first time in world history, they described the highest ethical standards called "absolute ethics" by Albert Schweitzer. Millennia later, the Society of Friends or the Quakers reached as high as the Jinas. See also Ethics in religion

In Europe, the formal study of philosophy stagnated until the era of Maimonides, Thomas Aquinas and others. It was in those days that the debate between ethics based on natural law and "divine law" gained a new importance.

Modern Western philosophy began with the work of greats such as Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Their work was followed up by the utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Arthur Schopenhauer must be mentioned here because of his Preisschrift über die Grundlage der Moral. He was the first European philosopher to start out from the ethical achievements of Ancient India. The study of analytic ethics went on with G. E. Moore and W. D. Ross, followed by the emotivists, C. L. Stevenson and A. J. Ayer. Existentialism was developed by writers such as Jean Paul Sartre. Some modern philosophers who have done serious philosophical writing on ethics include John Rawls, Elliot N. Dorff, Jürgen Habermas, Christine Korsgaard and Charles Hartshorne.

Disputes of definition

There are at least five well-recognized ways to approach this subject:

The first social science

Assumptions about ethical underpinnings of human behaviour are reflected in every social science, including: economics because of its role in the distribution of scarce resources, in political science because of its role in allocating power, in sociology because of its roots in the dynamics of groups, in law because of its role in codifying ethical constructs like mercy and punishment, in criminology because of its role in rewarding ethical behaviour and discouraging unethical behaviour, in psychology because of its role in defining, understanding, and treating unethical behaviour.

However, hard science needs ethics too. It is also important in biology (as bioethics) and ecology (as environmental ethics).

As these fields become more complex, and deal with more situations, ethics too tends to become complex. But Schopenhauer stated that the first ethical principle was extremely simple and convincing: "Neminem laede; imo omnes, quantum potes, juva." (Do no harm to anyone, but give a helping hand to as many people as you can.)

Ethics vs. politics vs. religion vs. practice

Many questions in ethics are deeply concerned with the claiming of rights, especially when authority is present. The potential to invoke authority and force of arms lies heavy over all ethical decisions in all but an anarchy:

When balances between rights are considered, especially in public policy, ethics becomes politics. When religious concepts are considered to dominate over human conceptions of right and wrong, ethics are often presumed to derive from a moral code - usually divinely inspired or revealed. See Ethics in religion below.

Non-philosophers may wish to review the article simple view of ethics and morals, which deals with ethics in much simpler language. That article focuses on how people who make decisions see things, while this one focuses on how people who study decisions see things. The two are typically not the same, as much more doubt and deliberation is involved in coming to agreement about principles that are to apply for a long time, for a whole society or for mankind, and those who make decisions see things more simply.

Divisions of ethics

In analytic philosophy, ethics is traditionally divided into three fields: Metaethics, Normative ethics (including value theory and the theory of conduct) and applied ethics - which is seen to be derived, top-down, from normative and thus meta-ethics.


Metaethics 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? If they are truth-apt, are they ever true? (The position that all ethical statements are false is known as moral nihilism.) If they are ever true, what is the nature of the facts that they express? And are they ever true absolutely, or always only relative to some individual, society, or culture? (See moral relativism, cultural relativism.) Metaethics is one of the most important fields in philosophy.

Metaethics 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.

Metaethics 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? Metaethical 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.

Normative ethics

Normative ethics bridges the gap between metaethics 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.

Applied ethics

Applied ethics applies normative ethics to specific controversial issues. Many of these ethical problems 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?"; "Do animals have rights?"

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 judgements is prior to any etiquette.

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 to characterize common issues and problems that arise in the ethical codes of the professions, and define 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 has been applied to economics, politics and political science, leading to several distinct and unrelated fields of applied ethics, including Business ethics and Marxism.

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.

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

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 may arise, and define 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 by cases

By far the most common way to approach applied ethics is by resolving individual cases. This is, not coincidentally, also the way business and law tend to be taught. Casuistry is one such application of case-based reasoning to applied ethics.

Bernard Crick in 1982 offered a more 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. This and other views of modern universals is dealt with below under Global Ethics.

The lines of distinction between metaethics, 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?"

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 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:

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:

In contrast, a non-ethical sentence would be a sentence that does not serve to (morally) evaluate something. Examples would include:

Is ethics futile?

The whole assumption of the field of ethics is that consistent description, consistent deliberation, and consistent and fair application of authority is possible. However, the more case-based views seem to suggest that a great deal of judgement is required, and that for instance one could never train a robot to do ethics, as it requires empathy and wisdom. However, one might be able to teach an artificial intelligence with empathy and wisdom to do ethics.

Is each case unique? Possibly. The view that ethics is innate and tied to a personal moral core or aesthetic is harder to relate to the formal categories above other than as a meta-ethics in itself.

It is considered by some ethicists to be just a variant of mysticism or narcissism, permitting those who avow aesthetic choices as being 'above ethics' to justify anything.

However, the term ethics is actually derived from the ancient Greek ethos, meaning moral character. Mores, from which morality is derived, meant social rules or etiquette or inhibitions from the society. In modern times, these meanings are often somewhat reversed, with ethics being the external "science" and morals referring to one's inmost character or choices. But it is significant that the origins of the words reflect the tension between an inner-driven and an outer-driven view of what makes moral choices consistent.

Ethics in religion

There are articles on Ethics in religion and Ethics in the Bible.


By the 1960s there was increased interest in moral reasoning. Psychologists Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan and others began to try to codify rational ethics, and try to express, as Confucius had universal levels of moral awareness and capacity. Many viewed rational principles as 'higher' than relationships, but others did not.


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.

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.

Major doctrines of ethics

Philosophers have developed a number of competing systems to explain how to choose what is best for both the individual and for society. No one system has gained universal assent. The major philosophical doctrines of ethics include:

Related topics in philosophy

See the list of ethics topics for more specialized and applied topics.

See the list of ethicists for theorists who have contributed to the above.