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Introduction to Ethics

The following is a transcript of this video.

The 20th century existentialist philosopher Albert Camus stated that “A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world.”

In this article we are going to provide an introduction to ethics. We will examine the subject matter of the discipline of ethics, discuss some of the most important questions addressed by moral philosophers, distinguish between moral subjectivism and moral realism, examine the famous “is-ought problem”, and look at the difference between teleological and deontological theories of ethics.

As a philosophical discipline ethics originated in Ancient Greece over 2000 years ago. Socrates and a group of teachers from Ancient Athens known as the Sophists are said to be the first moral philosophers in Western Civilization.

Ethics is often defined as the study of morality but a more detailed and revealing definition is provided by John Deigh in his book Introduction to Ethics:

“[Ethics] is a study of what are good and bad ends to pursue in life and what it is right and wrong to do in the conduct of life. It is therefore, above all, a practical discipline. Its primary aim is to determine how one ought to live and what actions one ought to do in the conduct of one’s life.” (Introduction to Ethics, John Deigh)

It will also be useful to define morality, given how often the term is used in ethical discourse. Deigh defines morality in the sense used in philosophical ethics as:

“standards of right and wise conduct whose authority in practical thought is determined by reason rather than custom.” (Introduction to Ethics, John Deigh)

Because moral philosophers attempt to determine how one ought to act in the course of their life, or in other words with prescribing action, ethics is said to be concerned with the normative realm. In contrast, a discipline such as anthropology is said to be descriptive rather than normative. Anthropologists observe, describe, and explain the actions and behaviours of individuals, they do not, like moral philosophers, attempt to prescribe action.

In addition to the ultimate ethical question of how one ought to live their life, a few other questions which have been particularly prominent in the history of ethics include: What makes actions moral, or in other words good or bad, right or wrong?; and Why should one behave in accordance with an ethical theory?

Questions which deal with the nature of ethical statements, and not with prescribing how one should act, are said to belong to the branch of ethics known as meta-ethics. An important question within meta-ethics is whether morality is objective. What philosophers are trying to determine when addressing the objectivity of morality is whether moral judgements have a truth value. Or more simply, whether they can be said to be true or false in a manner which is independent of personal opinions and attitudes. For example, when one makes a statement such as “the earth is bigger than the moon” or “2 plus 2 equals 5” one can determine whether these statements are true or false in an impersonal, objective sense. However, the question of interest when attempting to determine the objectivity of morality is whether the same can be done with moral judgements such as “it is wrong to steal” or “one ought to tell the truth”.

Those who deny that moral judgements can be true or false in the sense we just specified adhere to the position called moral or ethical subjectivism. Such a position maintains that moral judgements are expressions of preference or personal opinion, and therefore there is no rational way for deciding between two conflicting judgements.

Those who believe, on the other hand, that moral judgments can be true or false, and are made so by objective feature of the world, are called moral realists or moral objectivists. Closely related to the question of whether morality is objective is the “is-ought problem”. This problem was famously examined by the Scottish philosopher David Hume and his exposition of it forms the basis of what is called Hume’s law. Basically the “is-ought problem” concerns whether one can derive a statement of what ought to be the case from what is the case (or in other words can one derive a normative statement from descriptive statements about the world).

As David Hume wrote:

“In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary ways of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when all of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. . . For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given; for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.” (A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume)

Philosophers commonly interpret Hume’s stance as being that you cannot logically derive a statement of what ought to be the case from what is the case. So let us say that we observe it to be the case that in certain areas of the world there exists a great disparity of wealth. This would be a descriptive statement about the way the world is. However, from this statement of how the world is, according to Hume, we cannot derive a statement about how things ought to be. So from the descriptive statement about wealth inequality we cannot derive the normative statement that we ought to equalize wealth through redistribution nor the normative statement that we ought to abstain from redistributing wealth.

Another important distinction within ethics, which is especially pertinent to the question of what makes an action good or bad, is that between teleological and deontological ethical theories. Robert Almeder in his work Human Happiness and Morality: A Brief Introduction to Ethics nicely distinguishes between the two by saying:

“The first kind [of theory] asserts that the morality, or the immorality, of an act (and hence the rightness or wrongness of an act) is a function solely of the consequences of the act and the natural tendency of those consequences to produce pleasure or pain, or goodness, or happiness, in some degree and in some way. Any such theory we call a consequentialist or a teleological theory. The second kind of theory asserts that the morality or the immorality of an act has basically nothing to do with the consequences of the act. This latter kind of theory we call deontological.” (Human Happiness and Morality: A Brief Introduction to Ethics, Robert Almeder)

With a teleological theory of ethics, an end is selected as the ultimate or highest good in life, and actions are then evaluated as moral or immoral depending on whether they help or hinder one in achieving that end. Teleological theories of ethics include egoism (which identifies the ultimate end as happiness or pleasure), eudaimonism (which identifies the ultimate end as well-being), and utilitarianism (which identifies the ultimate end as the general good, or welfare, of humankind). Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus, whose ethical theories are some of the oldest we have record of, all put forth teleological theories.

The deontological view of ethics differs from the teleological view in that actions are not evaluated as moral or immoral based solely on their consequences. Rather, those who advocate deontological theories believe that the morality of an action is grounded by some form of authority independent of the consequences that such actions generate. Accordingly, on deontological accounts people must obey the actions prescribed by morality not because of the consequences that will follow from such actions but rather because they are duty bound to do so. Often deontological theories have used a god as the authority which grounds morality and the Judaic and Christian conceptions of divine law are believed to be the original inspiration for deontological ethics. However, it should be noted that not all deontological theories of ethics make use of a supernatural being.

To conclude this article, we will play devil’s advocate and question whether ethics is effective. That is, can ethics as a philosophical discipline striving to understand how one ought to live be effective at transforming deprave-ridden individuals into virtuous and good human beings? There have been numerous philosophers throughout history who have been skeptical that it can. Immanuel Kant, for example, understood that within the discipline of ethics there is a vast gulf which exists between theoretical speculation and practical implementation. He wrote: “The point is not always to speculate, but also ultimately to think about applying our knowledge. Today, however, he who lives in conformity with what he teaches is taken for a dreamer.”

Arthur Schopenhauer was even more cynical regarding the possibility of ethics influencing one’s actions, writing: “Virtue cannot be taught, no more than genius…We would thus be just as foolish to expect that our moral systems and ethics might awaken the virtuous, noble, and saintly as that our aesthetics might awaken poets, sculptors, and musicians.”

However, this view is not shared by all, and to finish the lecture we will provide a quote by Richard Taylor, from his book Good and Evil, who saw ethics in a more optimistic light :

“The question “what is good?” Is certainly the most important question you can ask. . . For it comes to this: each of us has one life to live, and that life can be, as it commonly is, wasted in the pursuit of specious goals, things that turn out worthless the moment they are possessed, or it can be made a deliberate and thoughtful art, wherein what was sought and, let us hope, in some measure gained, was something all the while worth striving for. Or we can put it this way: there will come a day for each of us to die, and on that day, if we have failed, we shall have failed irrevocably.” (Good and Evil, Richard Taylor)

Further Resources

Good Places to Start One’s Study of Ethics
An Introduction to Ethics (2010) – John Deigh
Human Happiness and Morality: A Brief Introduction to Ethics (2000) – Robert Almeder

Famous Works on Ethics (pre-1900) 
The Republic (428 BC – 348 BC) – Plato
The Nicomachean Ethics (384 BC – 322 BC) – Aristotle
The Essential Epicurus (341 BC – 270BC) – Epicurus
Handbook of Epictetus (AD 55 -AD 135) – Epictetus
An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) – David Hume
Critique of Practical Reason (1788) – Immanuel Kant
Philosophy of Right (1820) – GWF Hegel
Utilitarianism (1863) – John Stuart Mill
The Methods of Ethics (1874) – Henry Sidgwick
Beyond Good and Evil (1886) – Friedrich Nietzsche
On the Genealogy of Morality (1887) – Friedrich Nietzsche

Influential Works on Ethics (post-1900)
Principia Ethica (1903) – GE Moore
Ethics and Language (1944) – Charles L. Stevenson
The Foundations of Morality (1964) – Henry Hazlitt
The Sovereignty of Good (1970) – Iris Murdoch
A Theory of Justice (1971) – John Rawls
Good and Evil (1970) – Richard Taylor
Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985) – Bernard Williams
Inventing Right and Wrong (1991) – JL Mackie
Ethics As Social Science – The Moral Philosophy of Social Cooperation (2001) – Leland Yeager
The Right and the Good (2002) – David Ross

Further Readings