Section 1 What is this about?

All humans need to make decisions concerning the right thing to do.  Most humans want to do what is good.  It is good to do the right thing. 

Often knowing what is the right thing to do, knowing what is right, and knowing what is good is not all that easy.  Answers to the questions, "What is the right thing to do?" and "What is the good ?" aren't obvious to many or universally agreed upon.  Yet, humans need answers to these questions. 

This text is concerned with a matter of considerable importance: the GOOD.   Ethics is a branch of Philosophy which deals with the issue of the GOOD.  The question here is what is the GOOD?  What is meant by the GOOD?  The answer is needed so that humans will know how to live a GOOD life.  People need to know what the GOOD is in order to choose the GOOD.  Ethics deals with theories of the GOOD.  Ethical theories put forth principles of the GOOD.   

Related to the issue of the GOOD are matters that deal with morality and law and even etiquette.   This text will touch on the questions to which each human must have some answer:

Why be moral?

 What should be my moral code? 


Examples of situations requiring moral deliberation and ethical principles.


What do ethicists do?

Study the concepts by which the historically important moral traditions articulate their systems, justify their values, legitimate their principles, and approve and condemn actions.

Two meanings of "moral"

In all philosophical discussions, it is important and helpful to be clear. To put it the other way around, it is very often the case that philosophical problems and disagreements occur because we are not careful in our use of words.

For example, when somebody says, "I was raised with good morals", what does this mean? How does the speaker want the listener to understand him?

1. Moral versus morally bad

"I was taught by my parents (church, etc. that there are some actions which are wrong to perform, some desires which are wrong to have, some goals which are wrong to aspire to; and some actions which I am obligated to perform, some desires which I ought to have, and some goals which are noble and the mark of a good person."

If something like this is what you mean when you say "I was raised with good morals" then your comments are, like it or not, evaluative. The term "good" or "right" imply that there are actions, desires, or goals which are, in some cases, "bad" or "wrong".

Another way of saying the same thing, or something very similar, is: "I am a morally good person." But in either case, the term "moral" is used in a certain way, namely, to refer to a set of principles, values that you believe are either "right" or "good".

The opposite of being moral, in this sense, is being "immoral". This is easily seen when we take into consideration the context of the statements above. Sometimes the statement "I have morals", or "I am moral" is said in defense -- when accused, for example, of doing something wrong, or when your actions are criticized, or when you're  told that you "shouldn't" do what you just did.

2. Moral versus non-moral

"I can't understand why at Wheaton College students are not allowed to dance; Dancing doesn't seem to be moral."

If I say of a certain behavior that it was a moral action, I may be simply categorizing it as the sort of action which can be evaluated morally. In other words, I may not be saying that the action was the morally right thing to do -- only that is the sort of thing that requires moral consideration. For example, I might contrast the choice between ordering chocolate chip ice cream or vanilla ice cream and that between investing my money in Vicious, Inc. -- a company which is highly profitable but morally suspect, versus investing in Virtue, Inc. -- a company which is only moderately profitable but socially responsible. In the first case, it is difficult to see a context in which deciding between flavors of ice cream would be a "moral" decision. It doesn't seem that there is anything even remotely relevant at all -- morally speaking. In contrast, the choice between investing in the highly profitable but morally suspect company and the virtuous but moderately profitable company is a morally challenging choice. It requires moral reflection.

The opposite of being moral, in this sense, is being "nonmoral". We do not say of a dog that kills a person that the dog was acting immorally. We say that the dog was nonmoral. Dogs, so far as we know, simply do not reflect at all. Furthermore, the choice between vanilla and chocolate chip is not one that requires moral reflection. It might require some other sort of reflection, like "well, I've ordered the vanilla twice this week; I think I'll change things up this week and go with the chocolate chip."

Most of human knowledge is non-moral. My car has 5 gears -- that's a non-moral fact. My hair is brown -- another non-moral fact. In the above quotation, it seems to the speaker that dancing isn't something which is even in the same ball game as ethics. It's no more "ethical" or "unethical" than choosing a red frame rather than a black frame for my new poster.

Two meanings of "ethics"

1. Ethics not the same as morality The term "ethics" is sometimes taken to mean the same thing as "morals", and sometimes it is taken to mean something different. Many philosophers use the term "moral" is the same way that it is used in common language: the conduct or rules or values that a person or community adhere to, believing these things to be in some sense obligatory.

These philosophers use the term "ethics" to signify the critical reflection of "morals". Ethics is a term generally reserved for the philosophical reflection about the nature of the good life, of right action, of duty and obligation, etc. In this sense, ethics is a philosophical discipline, while "morals" is not.

2. Ethics = Morality But in common parlance we speak of somebody's "ethics" or someone's "morals" interchangeably. We often describe someone's action as unethical, and by this we mean to say that the action was ethically wrong, or morally wrong.

It's not my job: aspects of morality which are studied by other disciplines

Things to know:

Metaethics :  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy [IEP]

Here is a glossary of general terms in ethics.


Here is a good general definition and an overview of ETHICS. 




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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

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