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"G. E. Moore calls this the naturalistic fallacy. This is a mistake. On a naturalistic theory of ethics such as that of John Dewey, if ethical terms are to make any sense or have any relevance, they must be defined in terms of naturalistic terms."--Emotion in Aesthetics, page 181, Warren A. Shibles, 1995

"It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets" --Voltaire [...]

"Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. [...] Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, 'What do you mean by seizing the whole earth; because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, while you who does it with a great fleet are styled emperor'."--The City of God by St. Augustine

By virtue of his magnum opus, the posthumous Ethics, Spinoza is considered one of Western philosophy's definitive ethicists.
By virtue of his magnum opus, the posthumous Ethics, Spinoza is considered one of Western philosophy's definitive ethicists.

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Ethics is the philosophical study of moral phenomena. Also called moral philosophy, it investigates normative questions about what people ought to do or which behavior is morally right. The main branches of ethics include normative ethics, applied ethics, and metaethics.

Normative ethics aims to find general principles that govern how people should act. According to consequentialists, an act is right if it leads to the best consequences. Deontologists say that morality consists in fulfilling duties, like telling the truth and keeping promises. Virtue theorists see the manifestation of virtues, like courage and compassion, as the fundamental principle of morality. Applied ethics examines concrete ethical problems in real-life situations belonging to a specific domain, such as abortion and treatment of animals. Metaethics is a metatheory that examines the underlying assumptions and concepts of ethics. It asks whether there are objective moral facts, whether moral statements can be true, how moral knowledge is possible, and how moral judgments motivate people.

Ethics is closely connected to value theory, which studies the nature and types of value. Moral psychology is a related empirical field and investigates psychological processes involved in morality, such as reasoning and the formation of character. Descriptive ethics provides value-neutral descriptions of the dominant moral codes and beliefs in different societies and considers their historical dimension.

The history of ethics started in the ancient period with the development of ethical principles and theories in ancient Egypt, India, China, and Greece. This period saw the emergence of ethical teachings associated with Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, and contributions of philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle. During the medieval period, ethical thought was strongly influenced by religious teachings. In the modern period, this focus shifted to a more secular approach concerned with moral experience, reasons for acting, and the consequences of actions. An influential development in the 20th century was the emergence of metaethics.

Ethics may be divided into four major areas of study:

  • Meta-ethics, about the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions and how their truth values (if any) may be determined;
  • Normative ethics, about the practical means of determining a moral course of action;
  • Applied ethics, about how moral outcomes can be achieved in specific situations;
  • Descriptive ethics, also known as comparative ethics, is the study of people's beliefs about morality;

Ethics seeks to resolve questions dealing with human morality—concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime.


Use of the term 'unethical'

Unethical denotes not morally approvable; morally bad; not ethical. It can be used as a euphemism for bad as in unethical human experimentation in the United States.

Postmodern ethics

The 20th century saw a remarkable expansion and evolution of critical theory, following on earlier Marxist Theory efforts to locate individuals within larger structural frameworks of ideology and action.

Antihumanists such as Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault and structuralists such as Roland Barthes challenged the possibilities of individual agency and the coherence of the notion of the 'individual' itself. 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 nothing outside context" ("il n'y a pas de hors-texte" is often mistranslated as "there is nothing outside the 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.

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 individuated actions.

Zygmunt Bauman says Postmodernity is best described as Modernity without illusion, the illusion being the belief that humanity can be repaired by some ethic principle. Postmodernity can be seen in this light as accepting the messy nature of humanity as unchangeable.

David Couzens Hoy states that Emmanuel Levinas's writings on the face of the Other and Derrida's meditations on the relevance of death to ethics are signs of the "ethical turn" in Continental philosophy that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s. Hoy describes post-critique ethics as the "obligations that present themselves as necessarily to be fulfilled but are neither forced on one or are enforceable" (2004, p. 103).

Hoy's post-critique model uses the term ethical resistance. Examples of this would be an individual's resistance to consumerism in a retreat to a simpler but perhaps harder lifestyle, or an individual's resistance to a terminal illness. Hoy describes Levinas's account as "not the attempt to use power against itself, or to mobilize sectors of the population to exert their political power; the ethical resistance is instead the resistance of the powerless"(2004, p. 8).

Hoy concludes that

The ethical resistance of the powerless others to our capacity to exert power over them is therefore what imposes unenforceable obligations on us. The obligations are unenforceable precisely because of the other's lack of power. That actions are at once obligatory and at the same time unenforceable is what put them in the category of the ethical. Obligations that were enforced would, by the virtue of the force behind them, not be freely undertaken and would not be in the realm of the ethical. (2004, p.184)

In present day terms the powerless may include the unborn, the terminally sick, the aged, the insane, and non-human animals. It is in these areas that ethical action in Hoy's sense will apply. Until legislation or the state apparatus enforces a moral order that addresses the causes of resistance these issues will remain in the ethical realm. For example, should animal experimentation become illegal in a society, it will no longer be an ethical issue on Hoy's definition. Likewise one hundred and fifty years ago, not having a black slave in America would have been an ethical choice. This later issue has been absorbed into the fabric of an enforceable social order and is therefore no longer an ethical issue in Hoy's sense.

Further reading

See also

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