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Ethics:  Knowledge of moral principles and its fundamentals  

Ethics: Knowledge of moral principles and its fundamentals

Ethics is the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles. Ethics studies moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour or the conducting of an activity. Ethics concerns itself with moral principles, values, standards of behavior, virtues, dictates of conscience,rights and wrongs etc. Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. The term ethics derives from Ancient Greek “ethikos”, from “ethos”, meaning ‘habit, custom’. Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. As a field of intellectual enquiry, moral philosophy also is related to the fields of moral psychology, descriptive ethics, and value theory.

Three major areas of study within ethics recognized today are:

  1. Meta-ethics : It is concerned with the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions, and how  their truth values (if any) can be determined. Meta-ethics asks how we understand, know about, and what we mean when we talk about what is right and what is wrong. A meta-ethical question is abstract and relates to a wide range of more specific practical questions. For example, “Is it ever possible to have secure knowledge of what is right and wrong?” According to Aristotle, ethical knowledge depends on habit and acculturation in a way that makes it distinctive from other kinds of knowledge. Studies of how we know in ethics divide into cognitivism and non-cognitivism. Cognitivism may be seen as the claim that when we talk about right and wrong, we are talking about matters of fact. Non-cognitivism is the claim that when we judge something as right or wrong, this is neither true nor false. We may, for example, be only expressing our emotional feelings about these things.
  2. Normative ethics: It is ethics concerning the practical means of determining a moral course of action. Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking. Normative ethics is distinct from meta-ethicsbecause it examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions, while meta-ethics studies the meaning of moral language and the metaphysics of moral facts.
  •  Virtue ethics: One of the important strands of normative ethics is virtue ethics. Virtue ethics describes the character of a moral agent as a driving force for ethical behavior, and is used to describe the ethics of Socrates, Aristotle, and other early Greek philosophers.  According to Socrates, knowledge bearing on human life was placed highest, while all other knowledge was secondary. Self-knowledge was considered necessary for success and inherently an essential good. A self-aware person will act completely within his capabilities to his pinnacle, while an ignorant person will flounder and encounter difficulty. To Socrates, a person must become aware of every fact (and its context) relevant to his existence, if he wishes to attain self-knowledge. He posited that people will naturally do what is good, if they know what is right. Evil or bad actions are the results of ignorance. In Aristotle’s view, when a person acts in accordance with his nature and realizes his full potential, he will do good and be content. At birth, a baby is not a person, but a potential person. To become a “real” person, the child’s inherent potential must be realized. Unhappiness and frustration are caused by the unrealized potential of a person, leading to failed goals and a poor life.
  • Stoicism: Another Strand is stoicism. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus posited that the greatest good was contentment and serenity. Peace of mind, or Apatheia, was of the highest value; self-mastery over one’s desires and emotions leads to spiritual peace. The “unconquerable will” is central to this philosophy. The individual’s will should be independent and inviolate. Allowing a person to disturb the mental equilibrium is, in essence, offering yourself in slavery. If a person is free to anger you at will, you have no control over your internal world, and therefore no freedom. Freedom from material attachments is also necessary. If a thing breaks, the person should not be upset, but realize it was a thing that could break. Similarly, if someone should die, those close to them should hold to their serenity because the loved one was made of flesh and blood destined to death. Stoic philosophy says to accept things that cannot be changed, resigning oneself to existence and enduring in a rational fashion.
  • Consequentialism: Consequentialism is yet another example of virtue ethics. Consequentialism refers to moral theories that hold that the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action (or create a structure for judgment, see rule consequentialism). Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence. This view is often expressed as the aphorism “The ends justify the means”. According to utilitarianism, a good action is one that results in an increase in a positive effect, and the best action is one that results in that effect for the greatest number. Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that argues the proper course of action is one that maximizes a positive effect, such as “happiness”, “welfare”, or the ability to live according to personal preferences.
  • Deontology: Deontology is a contrasting ethical principle to consequentialism. Deontological ethics or deontology is an approach to ethics that determines goodness or rightness from examining acts, or the rules and duties that the person doing the act strove to fulfill. This is in contrast to consequentialism, in which rightness is based on the consequences of an act, and not the act by itself. Immanuel Kant’s theory of ethics is considered deontological for several different reasons. First, Kant argues that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (deon). Second, Kant argued that it was not the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong but the motives (maxime) of the person who carries out the action. Kant’s argument that to act in the morally right way, one must act from duty, begins with an argument that the highest good must be both good in itself, and good without qualification.
  • Hedonism– Hedonism posits that the principal ethic is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. There are several schools of Hedonist thought ranging from those advocating the indulgence of even momentary desires to those teaching a pursuit of spiritual bliss. In their consideration of consequences, they range from those advocating self-gratification regardless of the pain and expense to others, to those stating that the most ethical pursuit maximizes pleasure and happiness for the most people. Nothing in the world—indeed nothing even beyond the world—can possibly be conceived which could be called good without qualification except a good will.
  • Pragmatic Ethics: Another strand of virtue ethics is pragmatic ethics. Associated with the pragmatists, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and especially John Dewey, pragmatic ethics holds that moral correctness evolves similarly to scientific knowledge: socially over the course of many lifetimes. Thus, we should prioritize social reform over attempts to account for consequences, individual virtue or duty (although these may be worthwhile attempts, if social reform is provided for).
  • Post Structuralist or postmodernist ethics: Post-structuralism and postmodernism argue that ethics must study the complex and relational conditions of actions. A simple alignment of ideas of right and particular acts is not possible. There will always be an ethical remainder that cannot be taken into account or often even recognized. Such theorists find narrative (or, following Nietzsche and Foucault, genealogy) to be a helpful tool for understanding ethics because narrative is always about particular lived experiences in all their complexity rather than the assignment of an idea or norm to separate and individual actions. These schools are complex in their construction, yet they offer a highly critical understanding of right or wrong. Jacques Derrida says, “there is nothing outside of the text.” Derrida suggests that no text is an island in which the author’s original intention can be counted on as an absolute basis for understanding meaning.  He later clarified the meaning of a text must be situated within a context that includes competence in the language of the text including its grammar and vocabulary as used in the epoch in which it was written, rhetorical uses of the language, the history of the language itself, and knowledge of the history of the society in which the language is/was used.  In addition, the interpreter should also have familiarity with the corpus of the author. He added, “ “A text is not a text unless it hides from the first comer, from the first glance, the law of its composition and the rules of its game. A text remains, moreover, forever imperceptible.” And  “What is called “objectivity,” scientific for instance (in which I firmly believe, in a given situation) imposes itself only within a context which is extremely vast, old, firmly established, or rooted in a network of conventions … and yet which still remains a context.” Derrida adds, “We are all mediators, translators.” Michel Foucault extends the post modernist quest by saying thus “We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social-worker’-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements.” Antihumanists such as Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and structuralists such as Roland Barthes challenged the possibilities of individual agency and the coherence of the notion of the ‘individual’ itself. This was  on the basis that personal identity was, at least in part, a social construction. As critical theory developed in the later 20th century, post-structuralism sought to problematize human relationships to knowledge and ‘objective’ reality. Jacques Derrida argued that access to meaning and the ‘real’ was always deferred, and sought to demonstrate via recourse to the linguistic realm that “there is no outside-text/non-text”; at the same time, Jean Baudrillard theorised that signs and symbols or simulacra mask reality (and eventually the absence of reality itself), particularly in the consumer world.
  1. Applied ethics, concerning what a person is obligated (or permitted) to do in a specific situation or a particular domain of action. Applied ethics is a discipline of philosophy that attempts to apply ethical theory to real-life situations. Applied ethics is used in some aspects of determining public policy, as well as by individuals facing difficult decisions. The sort of questions addressed by applied ethics include: “Is getting an abortion immoral?” “Is euthanasia immoral?” “Is affirmative action right or wrong?” “What are human rights, and how do we determine them?” “Do animals have rights as well?” and “Do individuals have the right of self-determination?”[ The discipline has many specialized fields, such as engineering ethics, bioethics, geoethics, public service ethics and business ethics.

Fundamental Ethical Principles

An ethical theory is a theory about what makes an action or set of actions morally right or wrong.

Four fundamental ethical principles

  1. The Principle of Respect for autonomy—- Autonomy is Latin for “self-rule” We have an obligation to respect the autonomy of other persons, which is to respect the decisions made by other people concerning their own lives. This is also called the principle of human dignity. It gives us a negative duty not to interfere with the decisions of competent adults, and a positive duty to empower others for whom we’re responsible.

Corollary principles: honesty in our dealings with others & obligation to keep promises.

  1. The Principle of Beneficence—–We have an obligation to bring about good in all our actions.Corollary principle? We must take positive steps to prevent harm. However, adopting this corollary principle frequently places us in direct conflict with respecting the autonomy of other persons.
  2. The Principle of nonmaleficence—— (It is not “non-malfeasance,” which is a technical legal term, & it is not “nonmalevolence,” which means that one did not intend to harm.) . We have an obligation not to harm others: “First, do no harm.”
    (a) Corollary principle: Where harm cannot be avoided, we are obligated to minimize the harm we do.
    (b) Corollary principle: Don’t increase the risk of harm to others.
    (c) Corollary principle: It is wrong to waste resources that could be used for good
    1. (d) Combining beneficence and nonaleficence: Each action must produce more good than harm.

(4) The Principle of justice—–

    We have an obligation to provide others with whatever they are owed or deserve. In public life, we have an obligation to treat all people equally, fairly, and impartially.

(a) Corollary principle: Impose no unfair burdens.
(b) Combining beneficence and justice: We are obligated to work for the benefit of those who are unfairly treated.

Thus fundamental ethical principles that can be applied to decide good from bad are:

  • Beneficence – to do good.
  • Non-maleficence – to do no harm.
  • Respect for Autonomy.


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