Ethics is the general term for attempts to state or determine what is good, both for the individual and for the society as a whole. It is often termed the science of morality.

In philosophy, ethics is one of the three major traditional areas of investigation, alongside metaphysics and logic. See particularly meta-ethics.

'The goal of a theory of ethics is to determine what is good, both for the individual and for the society as a whole. Philosophers have taken different positions in defining what is good, on how to deal with conflicting priorities of individuals versus the whole, over the universality of ethical principles versus "situation ethics" in which what is right depends upon the circumstances rather than on some general law, and over whether goodness is determined by the results of the action or the means by which results are achieved.' (Jennifer P. Tanabe, Contemplating Unification Thought)

Table of contents
1 The history of ethics
2 Divisions of Ethics
3 Major doctrines of ethics
4 Descriptive ethics
5 The analytic view
6 Ethics by cases
7 Is ethics futile?
8 Ethics in religion
9 Ethics in psychology
10 Politics
11 Related Topics (in philosophy)

The history of ethics

The formal study of ethics in a serious and analytical sense began with the early Greeks, and later Romans. Important Greek and Roman ethicists include the Sophists and Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, who developed ethical naturalism. The study of ethics was developed further by Epicurus and the epicurean movement, and by Zeno and the stoics.

Although not developed in a formal and analytical sense, the subject of ethics was of great concern to the writers of the Hebrew Bible, and centuries later, the New Testament and the Apocrypha. A suvey of ethics in these subjects can be found in the article Ethics in the Bible; a related article, Ethics in religion covers the more extended topic of how the subject of ethics has developed in major world religions.

The formal study of philosophy stagnated until the medieval era, when it gained new strength through the writings of Maimonides, Saint Thomas Aquinas and others. It was at this time that the debate between ethics based on natural law and divine law gained a new importance.

Modern Western philosophy began with the work of greats such as Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Their work was followed up by the utilitarians, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Friedrich Nietzsche has little patience for previous views of ethics, and launched an assault on such theories. The study of analytic ethics took off with G. E. Moore and W. D. Ross, followed by the emotivists, C. L. Stevenson and A. J. Ayer. Existentialism was developed by writers such as Jean Paul Sartre. Some modern philosophers who have done serious philosophical writing on ethics include John Rawls, Elliot N. Dorff and Charles Hartshorne.

Divisions of Ethics

In analytic philosophy, ethics is traditionally divided into three fields: Metaethics, Normative ethics and applied ethics.


Metaethics is the investigation of the nature of ethical statements. It involves such questions as: Are ethical claims truth-apt, i.e., capable of being true or false, or are they, for example, expressions of emotion? If they are truth-apt, are they ever true? (The position that all ethical statements are false is known as moral nihilism.) If they are ever true, what is the nature of the facts that they express? And are they ever true absolutely, or always only relative to some individual, society, or culture? (See moral relativism, cultural relativism.) Metaethics is one of the most important fields in philosophy.

Metaethics studies the nature of ethical sentences and attitudes. This includes such questions as what "good" and "right" mean, whether and how we know what is right and good, whether moral values are objective, and how ethical attitudes motivate us. Often this is derived from some list of moral absolutes, e.g. a religious moral code, whether explicit or not. Some would view aesthetics as itself a form of meta-ethics.

Normative Ethics

Normative ethics bridges the gap between metaethics and applied ethics. It is the attempt to arrive at practical moral standards that tell us right from wrong, and how to live moral lives.

  • One branch of normative ethics is theory of conduct; this is the study of right and wrong, of obligation and permissions, of duty, of what is above and beyond the call of duty, and of what is so wrong as to be evil. Theories of conduct propose standards of morality, or moral codes or rules. For example, the following would be the sort of rules that a theory of conduct would discuss (though different theories will differ on the merit of each of these particular rules): "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"; "The right action is the action that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number"; "Stealing is wrong."

  • Another branch of normative ethics is theory of value; this looks at what things are deemed to be valuable. Suppose we have decided that certain things are intrinsically good, or are more valuable than other things that are also intrinsically good. Given this, the next big question is what would this imply about how we should live our lives? The theory of value also asks: What sorts of things are good? Or: What does "good" mean? It may literally define "good" and "bad" for a community or society.

Theory of value asks questions like: What sorts of situations are good? Is pleasure always good? Is it good for people to be equally well-off? Is it intrinsically good for beautiful objects to exist?

Applied Ethics

Applied ethics applies normative ethics to specific controversial issues. Many of these ethical problems bear directly on public policy. For example, the following would be questions of applied ethics: "Is getting an abortion ever moral?"; "Is euthanasia ever moral?"; "What are the ethical underpinnings of affirmative action policies?"; "Do animals have rights?"

The ability to formulate the questions are prior to rights balancing.

Not all questions studied in applied ethics concern public policy. For example: Is lying always wrong? If not, when is it permissible? The ability to make these ethical judgements is prior to any etiquette.

Examples of applied ethics include:

Ethics has been applied to economics, politics and political science, leading to several distinct and unrelated fields of applied ethics, including: Business ethics and Marxism

Ethics has been applied to family structure, sexuality, and how society views the roles of individuals; leading to several distinct and unrelated fields of applied ethics, including feminism.

Ethics has been applied to war, leading to the fields of pacifism and nonviolence.

Ethics has been applied to analyze human use of Earth's limited resources. This has led to the study of environmental ethics and social ecology. A growing trend has been to combine the study of both ecology and economics to help provide a basis for sustainable decisions on environmental use. This has led to the theories of ecological footprint and bioregional autonomy. Political and social movements based on such ideas include eco-feminism, eco-anarchism, deep ecology, the green movement, and ideas about their possible integration into Gaia philosophy.

Ethics has been applied to criminology leading to the field of criminal justice.

There are several sub-branches of applied ethics examining the ethical problems of different professions, such as business ethics, medical ethics, engineering ethics and legal ethics, while technology assessment and environmental assessment study the effects and implications of new technologies or projects on nature and society. Each branch characterizes common issues and problems that may arise, and define their common responsibility to the public, or to obey some social expectations of honest dealings and disclosure.

Major doctrines of ethics

Philosophers have developed a number of competing systems to explain how to choose what is best for both the individual and for society. No one system has gained universal assent. The major philosophical doctrines of ethics include:

Descriptive ethics

Some philosophers rely on descriptive ethics and choices made and unchallenged by a society or culture to derive categories, which typically vary by context. This leads to situational ethics and situated ethics. These philosophers often view aesthetics and etiquette and arbitration as more fundamental, percolating 'bottom up' to imply, rather than explicitly state, theories of value or of conduct. In these views ethics is not derived from a top-down a priori "philosophy" (many would reject that word) but rather is strictly derived from observations of actual choices made in practice:

  • Ethical codes applied by various groups. Some consider aesthetics itself the basis of ethics - and a personal moral core developed through art and storytelling as very influential in one's later ethical choices.

  • Informal theories of etiquette which tend to be less rigorous and more situational. Some consider etiquette a simple negative ethics, i.e. where can one evade an uncomfortable truth without doing wrong? One notable advocate of this view is Judith Martin ("Miss Manners"). In this view, ethics is more a summary of common sense social decisions.

  • Practices in arbitration and law, e.g. the claim by Rushworth Kidder that ethics itself is a matter of balancing "right versus right", i.e. putting priorities on two things that are both right, but which must be traded off carefully in each situation. This view many consider to have potential to reform ethics as a practice, but it is not as widely held as the 'aesthetic' or 'common sense' views listed above.

  • Observed choices made by ordinary people, without expert aid or advice, who vote, buy and decide what is worth fighting about. This is a major concern of sociology, political science and economics.

Those who embrace such descriptive approaches tend to reject overtly normative ones. There are exceptions, such as the movement to more moral purchasing.

The analytic view

The descriptive view of ethics is modern and in many ways more empirical. But because the above are dealt with more deeply in their own articles, the rest of this article will focus on the formal academic categories, which are derived from classical Greek philosophy, especially Aristotle.

First, we need to define an ethical sentence, also called a normative statement. An ethical sentence is one that is used to make either a positive or a negative (moral) evaluation of something. Ethical sentences use words such as "good," "bad," "right," "wrong," "moral," "immoral," and so on. Here are some examples:

  • "Sally is a good person."
  • "People should not steal."
  • "The Simpson verdict was unjust."
  • "Honesty is a virtue."

In contrast, a non-ethical sentence would be a sentence that does not serve to (morally) evaluate something. Examples would include:

  • "Sally is a tall person."
  • "Someone took the stereo out of my car."
  • "Simpson was acquitted at his trial."

Ethics by cases

By far the most common way to approach applied ethics is by resolving individual cases. This is, not coincidentally, also the way business and law tend to be taught. Casuistry is one such application of case-based reasoning to applied ethics.

Bernard Crick in 1982 offered a more socially-centered view, that politics was the only applied ethics, that it was how cases were really resolved, and that "political virtues" were in fact necessary in all matters where human morality and interests were destined to clash. This and other views of modern universals is dealt with below under Global Ethics.

Is ethics futile?

The whole assumption of the field of ethics is that consistent description, consistent deliberation, and consistent and fair application of authority is possible. However, the more case-based views seem to suggest that a great deal of judgement is required, and that for instance one could never train a robot to do ethics, as it requires empathy and wisdom. However, one might be able to teach an artificial intelligence with empathy and wisdom to do ethics.

Is each case unique? Possibly. The view that ethics is innate and tied to a personal moral core or aesthetics is harder to relate to the formal categories above other than as a meta-ethics in itself.

It is considered by some ethicists to be just a variant of mysticism or narcissism, permitting those who avow aesthetic choices as being 'above ethics' to justify anything.

However, the term ethics is actually derived from the ancient Greek ethos, meaning moral character. Mores, from which morality is derived, meant social rules or etiquette or inhibitions from the society. In modern times, these meanings are often somewhat reversed, with ethics being the external "science" and morals referring to one's inmost character or choices. But it is significant that the origins of the words reflect the tension between an inner-driven and an outer-driven view of what makes moral choices consistent.

Ethics in religion

There are articles on Ethics in religion and Ethics in the Bible.

Ethics in psychology

By the 1960s there was increased interest in moral reasoning. Psychologists Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Lawrence Kohlberg, Carol Gilligan and others began to try to codify rational ethics, and try to express universal levels of moral awareness and capacity. Many viewed rational principles as 'higher' than relationships, but others did not.


Often, such efforts take legal or political form before they are understood as works of normative ethics. The UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights of 1948 and the Global Green Charter of 2001 are two such examples. However, as war and the development of weapon technology continues, it seems clear that no non-violent means of dispute resolution is accepted by all.

The need to redefine and align politics away from ideology and towards dispute resolution was a motive for Bernard Crick's list of political virtues.

Related Topics (in philosophy)

See the list of ethics topics for more specialized and applied topics.

See the list of ethicists for theorists who have contributed to the above ideas.

copyright 2004