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What Is a Philosophy of Ethics?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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A philosophy of ethics is a discussion on right and wrong. In European culture, the idea of right and wrong is black and white. In the Far East, in countries such as China and Japan, delineations between right and wrong are less absolute. Ethics is an important element of philosophical thought, one that has occupied the minds of thinkers for millennia.

The history of European philosophical thoughts on ethics comes from the Greek philosophers. These included Socrates in his discussions with Plato, who thought that if people knew right and wrong, they would do good. It also included Aristotle, who believed frustrated potential caused many ethical breaches. Right and wrong became more important philosophical thoughts during the Christian period.

Metaethics seeks to define the origin of the philosophy of ethics. Thought on metaethics is divided into two churches of thought. The first is real world and the other is the spirit world.

The spirit or other-world view holds that ethics are derived from God or many Gods. If Gods bequeathed ethical standards to humans, then ethics are static and unquestionable rules. They will not change with time. They are also objective and without human interference. Plato likened such ethics to math, whereby 1 plus 1 will always equal 2.

Real-world ethics are subjective and dependent on humanity. Such philosophers as Empiricus are skeptical of God-given ethics, but do not rule it out. Instead, they believe the philosophy of ethics comes from two sources: the individual and the culture. Friedrich Nietzsche championed the individual’s role in ethics while Michael Montaigne championed a society’s impact on the individual.

Normative ethics looks for a moral standard in order to regulate conduct. The classic case of normative ethics in the philosophy of ethics is where no human should do to another what he/she will not have done to themselves. In normative ethics, there are three broad types of morals: the virtuous, the dutiful and the consequential.

Plato believed in the virtuous. In virtue, good habits rather than rules create an ethical person who does no wrong. Plato believed in four cardinal virtues. These are wisdom, courage, justice and temperance.

Obligation forms a huge part of dutiful ethics. With duty, ethics are regulated depending on an individual’s ties to another. Such ties include those between family members, friends, local communities and those of the same group. Samuel von Pufendorf divided such ethics into absolute duties and conditional duties.

Consequential ethics concerns how an individual or groups regulate their conduct depending on the rules in place. This means they may not necessarily agree with the ethical standard, but fear the consequences of not abiding it. A motorist may not agree with parking laws, but will park in the appropriate place to avoid a fine. Likewise, a rich man may donate money to charity not out of altruism, but because of the rewards of his generosity.

The final type of ethics is applied ethics. This is a philosophy of ethics where normative theories are applied to a single ethical dilemma. For example, this could concern abortion or capital punishment. The problem with applied ethics is that there are many rival ethical codes and moralities in play.

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