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Ethics and Meta-Ethics

What is ethics? First, the systems of value and custom instantiated in the lives of particular groups of human beings are described as the ethics of these groups. Philosophers may concern themselves with articulating these systems, but this is usually seen as the task of anthropology.

Second, the term is used to refer to one in particular of these systems, ‘morality’, which involves notions such as rightness and wrongness, guilt and shame, and so on. A central question here is how best to characterize this system. Is a moral system one with a certain function, such as to enable cooperation among individuals, or must it involve certain sentiments, such as those concerned with blame?

Third, ‘ethics’ can, within this system of morality itself, refer to actual moral principles: ‘Why did you return the book?’ ‘It was the only ethical thing to do in the circumstances.’

Finally, ethics is that area of philosophy concerned with the study of ethics in its other senses. It is important to remember that philosophical ethics is not independent of other areas of philosophy. The answers to many ethical questions depend on answers to questions in metaphysics and other areas of human thought. Furthermore, philosophers have been concerned to establish links between the ethical sphere of life itself and other spheres. Some philosophers have, for philosophical reasons, had doubts about whether philosophy provides anyway the best approach to ethics. And even those who believe philosophy has a contribution to make may suggest that ethical justification must refer outside philosophy to common sense beliefs or real-life examples.

Ethics EssayA central task of philosophical ethics is to articulate what constitutes ethics or morality. This project is that of meta-ethics. What is it that especially constitutes the moral point of view as opposed to others? Some argue that what is morally required is equivalent to what is required by reason overall, whereas others see morality as just one source of reasons. Yet others have suggested that all reasons are self-interested, and that concern for others is ultimately irrational. This has not been seen to be inimical in itself to the notion of morality, however, since a moral system can be seen to benefit its participants.

The moral point of view itself is often spelled out as grounded on a conception of equal respect. But there is some debate about how impartial morality requires us to be.

Another set of issues concerns what it is that gives a being moral status, either as an object of moral concern or as an actual moral agent. And how do our understandings of human nature impinge on our conception of morality and moral agency?

Once we have some grip on what ethics is, we can begin to ask questions about moral principles themselves. Moral principles have often been put in terms of what is required by duty, but there has been something of a reaction against this notion. Some have seen it as outdated, depending on a conception of divine law with little relevance to the modern world; while others have reacted against it as a result of a masculine overemphasis on rules at the cost of empathy and care.

These doubts are related to general concerns about the role principles should play in ethical thought. Situation ethicists suggest that circumstances can lead to the abandonment of any moral principle, particularists arguing that this is because it cannot be assumed that a reason that applies in one case will apply in others. The casuistical tradition has employed moral principles, but on the understanding that there is no ‘super-principle’ to decide conflicts of principles. At the other end of the spectrum, some philosophers have sought to understand morality as itself constituted by a single principle, such as that not to lie.

Duties have been seen also as constituting only a part of morality, allowing for the possibility of heroically going beyond the call of duty. This is a matter of the scope of the notion of duty within morality. There are also issues concerning the scope of moral principles more generally. Does a given moral principle apply everywhere, and at all times, or is morality somehow bounded by space or time? This question is related to that concerning what is going on when someone allows morality to guide them, or asserts a moral principle. How is the capacity of moral judgment acquired? The view that humans possess a special moral sense or capacity for intuition, often identified with conscience, is still found among contemporary intuitionists. Skepticism about the claims of morality, however, remains a common view.

In recent centuries, a dichotomy has opened up between those who believe that morality is based solely on reason, and those who suggest that some nonrational component such as desire or emotion is also involved. Denial of pure rationalism need not lead to the giving up of morality. Much work in the twentieth century was devoted to the question whether moral judgments were best understood as beliefs (and so candidates for truth and falsity), or as disguised expressions of emotions or commands. Can there be moral experts, or is each person entirely responsible for developing their own morality? These questions have been seen as closely tied to issues concerning moral motivation itself. Moral judgments seem to motivate people, so it is tempting to think that they crucially involve a desire.

Moral principles can be understood to rest on moral values, and debate continues about how to characterize these values and about how many evaluative assumptions are required to ground ethical claims. Against the emotivists and others, moral realists have asserted the existence of values, some identifying moral properties with those properties postulated in a fully scientific worldview.

Ethical Concepts and Ethical Theories

Some philosophical ethics is broad and general, seeking to find general principles or explanations of morality. Much, however, focuses on analysis of notions central to ethics itself. One such notion which has been the focus of much discussion in recent years is that of autonomy. The interest in self-governance sits alongside other issues concerning the self, its moral nature and its ethical relation to others; and the relations of these selves in a social context. Other topics discussed include the nature of moral ideals, and the notions of desert and moral responsibility.

The question of what makes for a human life that is good for the person living it has been at the heart of ethics since the Greek philosophers enquired into eudaimonia (‘happiness’). Once again, a philosopher’s theory of the good will almost always be closely bound up with their views on other central matters. For example, some of those who put weight on sense experience in our understanding of the world have been tempted by the view that the good consists entirely in a particular kind of experience, pleasure. Others have claimed that there is more to life than mere pleasure, and that the good life consists in fulfilling our complex human nature. Nor have philosophers forgotten ‘the bad’.

Moral philosophy, or ethics, has long been at least partly concerned with the advocacy of particular ways of living or acting. Some traditions have now declined; but there is still a large range of views on how we should live. One central modern tradition is that of consequentialism. On this view, as it is usually understood, we are required by morality to bring about the greatest good overall. The nature of any particular consequentialist view, therefore, depends on its view of the good. The most influential theory has been that the only good is the welfare or happiness of individual human and other animals, which, when combined with consequentialism, is utilitarianism.

It is commonly said that consequentialist views are based on the good, rather than on the right. Theories based on the right may be described as deontological. The towering figure in the deontological tradition has been the eighteenth-century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. Such theories will claim, for example, that we should keep a promise even if more good overall would come from breaking it, or that there are restrictions on what we can intentionally do in pursuit of the good.

In the second half of the twentieth century there was a reaction against some of the perceived excesses of consequentialist and deontological ethics, and a return to the ancient notion of the virtues. Work in this area has consisted partly in attacks on modern ethics, but also in further elaborations and analyses of the virtues and related concepts.

Applied Ethics

Philosophical ethics has always been to some degree applied to real life. Aristotle, for example, believed that there was no point in studying ethics unless it would have some beneficial effect on the way one lived one’s life. But, since the 1960s, there has been a renewed interest in detailed discussion of particular issues of contemporary practical concern.

One area in which ethics has always played an important role is medicine, in particular in issues involving life and death. Recently, partly as a result of advances in science and technology, new areas of inquiry have been explored. In addition, certain parts of medical practice which previously lacked their own distinctive ethics have now begun to develop their own.

This development is part of a wider movement involving research into the ethical requirements on those with particular occupations. Some of this research is again related to scientific advance and its implications for public policy. But, again, attention has also been given to occupations not in the past subjected to much philosophical ethical analysis.

The planet, and those who live and will live on it, have in recent times become the focus of much political concern, and this has had its effect on philosophy. But just as the scope of ethical inquiry has broadened, so there has been renewed interest in the specific details of human relationships, whether personal or between society, state and individual.


  1. Rachels, J. (1986) The Elements of Moral Philosophy, New York: Random House.
  2. Singer, P. (ed.) (1991) A Companion to Ethics, Oxford: Blackwell.
  3. Timmons, M. (2002). Moral Theory: An Introduction, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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