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What is the philosophy of ethics?

philosophy of ethics audio

The philosophy of ethics is the study of the nature of the cosmos and the proper response of humanity to that nature. Philosophers analyze metaphysical theory, such as the existence of God, the responsibility of people to others, and the influence of biological impulses, and they try to determine what gives authority to morality and what ethical behavior looks like. "Ethics" usually refers to the actions of a group, and "morality" of an individual, but the two words are often used interchangeably.

In its investigation of ethical actions, the philosophy of ethics is divided into three main branches. Metaethics discusses the nature and origin of ethics. Normative ethics tries to develop frameworks by which actions can be judged. And applied ethics sets standards of behavior for different applications.

Metaethics is the most esoteric and least practical branch of the philosophy of ethics. It is the study of ethics itself. What’s important in metaethics is not “what is ethical?” but “what is ethics?” It debates the use of language in ethics, what gives ethics authority, and whether ethics actually exist.

Metaethical Language
Philosophers admit that the sentence structure that describes a moral characteristic is essentially the same as the structure that describes a physical characteristic. "Violence is wrong" sounds the same as "bananas are yellow." Cognitivism teaches that the sentences sound alike because they are alike; both articulate an understanding of reality. Ethics do exist, and we can use language to describe them (although the view expressed may be mistaken—violence may be acceptable, and the banana may be purple). Non-cognitivists say that descriptive moral statements do not describe real moral characteristics because morality does not exist. Instead, these statements express the feelings or wishes of the speaker.

Discovery of Ethics
If ethics do exist, how do we determine what is ethical? Some say through intuition. Others, through careful consideration of the human condition. Still others insist we learn morality through divine revelation.

Authority of Ethics
Who is it that determines what is moral? "Mind-dependence" teaches that ethics is created by thought—whether of man or of God. Realists say that all ethical acts can be reduced to a physical truth about the universe, independent of man and God.

Subjectivity and Universality
If morality gets its authority from a person or a group of people, then it follows that ethics are subjective—they can change for the situation or individual. If, however, morality gets its authority from the natural world or a supernatural force, then all of mankind is subject to the same law, and ethics are universal.

Normative ethics is more practical than metaethics. It seeks to use truth and reality to develop a framework by which an act can be analyzed and judged as either ethical or unethical. Normative ethics is not usually used as a personal pre-determinant for action. It’s a tool to identify the morality of actions.

Deontology says that an act is moral if it follows a law or rule. It could be natural law—universally binding upon all humans by virtue of their existence in the cosmos. The law could be a contract that was entered into willingly. Or the law could be the word of God. Kantian ethics, developed by Immanuel Kant, insists that it is not enough to follow a law. One must do so willingly and with good intentions.

Consequentialism says an act is good if it results in a good situation. An act is bad if it results in a bad situation. Consequentialists then try to determine what a "good situation" actually entails, who should benefit from the good, who should determine the good, and the relevancy of good intentions.

Ethical Relativism
Ethical relativism disagrees with deontology, saying ethics are not universal. It also disagrees with consequentialism, insisting that merely striving for a "good" outcome is not actually helpful in determining how to act. Instead, ethical relativism says that morality is different for different people, cultures, and situations. What’s right in one situation may not be right in another.

Virtue Ethics
Aristotle and many of the ancient Greeks thought it best to take our eyes off the action and place them on the acting agent. Virtue ethics says that an act is good if it is performed by a virtuous person. If someone has a good character, wisdom about the world, and a fulfilled life, he will naturally act ethically in all he does.

Applied ethics is the most practical of the branches of ethics. It is ethical theory applied to different fields of human interest. Careful consideration is given to the work people do and the situations in which they find themselves. The result is a list of standards to follow.

Fields of Applied Ethics
The fields of applied ethics are fluid, changing depending on the philosopher and the times. Business ethics tries to balance corporate health with employee rights and community interest. Professional ethics compares the needs of the professional with the needs of the client. Biomedical ethics considers such issues as euthanasia, living wills, and universal health care. Organizational ethics shows what a group values beyond the requirements of law. Social ethics debates whether people are primarily citizens of their nation or citizens of the world. Environmental ethics tries to balance the needs of the environment with the wants and needs of mankind. Sexual ethics considers homosexuality, polygamy, and prostitution. Cybernetics is a relatively new field, investigating the ethical repercussions of information propagation and the internet.

Decision Ethics
When a rule or law does not address a situation, we need a method to determine how we should act. Normative decision ethics suggests we choose a normative school and apply that to our actions. Ethical characteristics method says to decide which virtue is most important to us, and let that virtue inform us. Casuistry says to compare our situation with another and use that as guidance.

Much of the Bible is the story of God’s work in human history and our response. The correct response to God’s work is biblical ethics.

Biblical Metaethics
The Bible is clear that language is meant to express truth (Proverbs 12:17). It also says that Scripture tells us what is ethical (2 Timothy 3:16-17) and that morality is universal (Matthew 5:17-18).

Biblical Normative Ethics
The Bible doesn’t talk about relativity, but it does distinguish between ethics and the practical laws used in different circumstances to fulfill those ethics. An ethic would be to love others (Mark 12:30). A law that expresses that ethic would be to not steal (Exodus 20:15). In addition, we are to develop such a character that ethical behavior comes naturally (John 16:13)—shades of virtue ethics. Consequentialism comes into play not so much because we are to aim for a good outcome, but because the laws God gives us are informed by His good intentions for us (Joshua 1:8).

Biblical Applied Ethics
The Bible does address proper behavior in different human fields. Much of Leviticus is dedicated to the practical application of ethics. And the New Testament covers both normative schools (2 Timothy 3:16), ethical character (1 Corinthians 13:12), and casuistry (all of Jesus’ parables).

In considering the philosophy of ethics, Ecclesiastes 12:11-14 might apply:

The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails—given by one shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.

Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022