What Is Ethics?
Ethics has been popularly identified by dictionaries and philosophers as being concerned with fundamental principles of right and wrong and what people ought to or not to do, it is basically the evaluation of behavior in terms of right or wrong, employing the use of principles. It is a branch of philosophy that is concerned with how people should act, judgments about those actions (e.g., right versus wrong, good versus bad), and developing rules for justifying actions (Kitchener, 2000). Ethics is the study of moral values. It considers how best to think about moral values and how best to clarify, prioritize, and integrate them. Value in this sense means those things we care about, the things that matter most to us, those goals and ideals and standards we aspire to measure ourselves, others or even society by. The thought of ‘moral’ values here is concerned with some specific kind of values, that is, those values that give voice to the needs and legitimate expectations of others as well as that of ourselves. ‘Legitimate expectations’ may be of many sorts, i.e. we rightly expect to be treated with respect, for instance, and with honesty and care. According to its etymology, the word “ethics” is derived from the Greek word ethos, which means one’s character or disposition. Ethics, as a branch of philosophy deals with values and judgments in the day to day affairs of human being, it deals with the morality of human conduct in order to achieve peaceful co-existence among members in a particular society. Ethics concerns itself with the intricacies of morality, its nature, scope and origin. It seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. Ethics can also be regarded as a study of morality in terms of its, principles, theories, and conceptualization.
The origin of ethics is social and it cannot be attributed to a particular culture or people. We grew to know these principles (such as good, bad, right, wrong) because they have always been in existence in our various societies. Ethics is differentiated from other branches of philosophy by the fact that its theories place emphasis on the good life. However, as identified in the long history of philosophy, ethics has not been particularly concerned with formulating codes of conduct, that particular task has been delegated to moralists theorists or, when enacted as laws, to legislators. Rather, ethics has been preoccupied with three other more general and abstract tasks;
The first task of ethical reflection is to identify that single overarching principle or those very few general principles that lie behind the codified laundry lists of ethical dos and don’ts. For example, John Stuart Mill argued that lying behind our inherited code of conduct, the rules by which we govern our behavior is the ”principle of utility,” or the general-happiness principle. These rules guide human behavior in such a way that, on the whole and on average, following them will achieve the greatest happiness of the greatest number (of human beings): that is, the greatest utility.
Second, philosophers have sought to expose the foundations of ethics. Why, for example, should the principle of utility, that is human happiness, be a goal of human action? In sharp contrast to Mill, Immanuel Kant thought that it should not. In his estimation, reason lies at the foundations of ethics and is better suited to determine human duties. Reason, rather than happiness, is the ground of human freedom, human autonomy, and ultimately human dignity. Third, philosophers have sought to discover the origin of ethics. Does ethics arise when groups of competing, hostile individuals agree to refrain from doing various harmful things to one another; such as killing one another and stealing from one another, that serve no one’s ultimate advantage? According to the social-contract theorists, such enlightened self-interest is the origin of ethics, which humans create to protect themselves from one another. Or is ethics a natural outgrowth of family and community life, where natural bonds of affection are enlarged and codified as communitarian theorists argue?
As noted above, ethical systems in European and North American culture have expressed only a limited concern for the natural world. True, for thinkers over the 2,500 years, nature has signified a natural order that is simultaneously metaphysical and moral: Both individual human beings and human society are viewed as microcosms to be modeled upon the macrocosm of natural processes.
Humankind has sought principles for how to live, that is, an ethic, and ethics would find its basis in an understanding of the basic purpose of the universe.
This last concern fell within the domain of metaphysics. Aristotle, Plato’s successor in the tradition of European philosophy, called the questions of metaphysics ”first philosophy.” He held that, although ethics was the fruit of philosophical reflection on practical wisdom, the principles that grounded our ethics must be sought among the cosmic ”causes”, especially the final cause, which pertains to the ultimate end, goal, or purpose.
Branches of ethics
Ethics as a branch of philosophical study is divided into three (3) branches that have been developed and elaborated upon throughout the history of philosophy. These branches can be identified as;
What Is Ethics?