A Brief Look At Major Ethical Philosophies Philosophy

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Ethics is the branch of philosophy which deals with values relating to human conduct, with respect to rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.

It is derived from the Greek word ethos meaning "character".

Types of ethics:

Ethics can be broadly classified into three categories:

Meta-ethics:-deals with the understanding the metaphysical and theoretical meaning of ethical properties.

Normative ethics:-It is more of a practical approach and deals with the distinction between right and wrong.

Applied ethics:-deals with judgement in certain controversial moral issues like abortion, homosexuality etc.


Meta-ethics is the less clearly defined of all the three types and deals with understanding the meaning of ethical properties like goodness etc. The prominent agenda of meta-ethics are:-

Metaphysical issues concerning whether morality exists independently of humans.

Psychological issues concerning what motivates us to be moral. This gave rise to the psychological aspects of egoism, hedonism and altruism. It also talks about differences in approach to ethics by males and females due to psychological differences.

Normative Ethics:-

It is mainly concerned about the distinction between the right and the wrong. The key assumption in normative ethics is that there is only one ultimate criterion to distinguish a right or wrong action. Based on this assumption normative ethics can be classified into following categories:

Virtue ethics:-

Virtue ethics emphasizes the acquirement of good habits i.e. ethics is fundamentally related to what kind of a person oneself is, which in turn depends on the kind of characters one possesses. Important philosophers who advocated virtue ethics are Socrates, Aristotle and Epictetus.

Socrates: In his view, knowledge associated with humankind was the most important. Self-knowledge was considered necessary for success and an essential good. Intelligent people were bound to make good choices which were morally right. He postulated that the truly wise man will know what is right, do what is good, and therefore be happy.

Aristotle: He held the view that happiness is the ultimate goal of life and it can be achieved only by realizing one's potential and fulfilling it. Also according to him, virtues must be acquired only to a certain extent and that too much of anything is good for nothing.

Epictetus: Epictetus was an advocate of Stoicism. Stoicism was a School of Hellenistic Philosophy founded by Zeno, a Greek philosopher. Stoicism preached that one should master his desires and the concept of "unconquerable will" and "no pleasure, no pain" was central to this philosophy. Other notable followers of stoicism were Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. Marcus Aurelius' Meditations is one of the important works preaching the principles of Stoicism.

Hedonism: This school of thought propagates the idea that one must try to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, and that pleasure is the ultimate goal of life. The earliest known record of Hedonism comes from the Indian philosophy Cārvāka .

Duty Ethics:

Theories belonging to this category felt that all human beings have certain obligations (i.e. duties) in life which one must fulfil. Such ethics are also known as Deontological ethics or Deontology from the Greek word deon meaning "obligation or duty". It examines the act of a person based on the duties he committed the act to fulfil. Roughly speaking, Deontological ethics says that one cannot justify an action by the consequence it produces i.e. one cannot commit a morally wrong act to produce good consequences, and that the morally right action is the one that produces the most good. There are different Deontological schools of thought the most important being Immanuel Kant's views on Deontology. Kant introduced the concept of "Categorical imperative" in his book Groundwork for the Metaphysics of morals. According to Kant Categorical imperative was the ultimate commandment of reason which decided whether a certain action is necessary or not, and that imperatives must not depend on one's desires or any favourable outcomes one achieves by doing an act.

Consequentialist Theories:

According to this doctrine an act can be deemed to be morally right or wrong by examining the consequences of that act. If the consequences are good then the act is said to be morally right.

One must first examine the good and bad consequences of a particular action, see if the good outweighs the bad and then commit the action. Consequentialist theories are also known as teleological theories from the Greek word telos meaning "end". One of the important consequentialist theories was Utilitarianism.

Utilitarianism: According to Utilitarianism, a morally right action was one that produced the most good to the one who committed the act as well as to everybody else. It also states that everyone's happiness counts the same, thus being impartial. The Classic Utilitarians Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill identified good with pleasure, so Utilitarianism can be classified as a class of hedonistic ethical theory.

Jeremy Bentham thought that all pleasure were qualitatively the same while John Stuart Mill disagreed by saying that intellectual pleasures were of a better sort than mere sensual pleasures.

Another utilitarian, G.E. Moore proposed ideal utilitarianism, which did away with the concept of pleasure and pain and examined consequences by intuitively recognising what is good or bad. Also, R.M. Hare proposed preference utilitarianism which examining consequences that fulfilled our preferences.

Applied Ethics:

It is the branch of ethics which deals with certain controversial moral issues like abortion, euthanasia. In recent years applied ethics have been subdivided into different groups like medical ethics, business ethics, environmental ethics and sexual ethics. An important feature of issues related to applied ethics is that there are people who stand for both sides of the issue and that the issue is morally relevant. For example, on the issue of animal rights one can find a lot of opposing philosophies which makes it difficult to come to a conclusion. Also, the concept of euthanasia has people with opposing viewpoints, both giving valid arguments for their views. Some examples of the different issues under the different groups:

Medical ethics- euthanasia, clinical trials.

Business ethics-whistle blowing, deceptive advertising.

Sexual ethics-polygamy, homosexuality.

Environmental ethics-killing of animals, environmental protection.

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