THE NATURE OF ETHICS
1. What is Ethics--as this word
is used of a discipline or study?
Ethics: the study of right and wrong and how to tell the
difference between them. Since "ethics" also means people's
beliefs about right and wrong behavior, ethics can be defined as the study of
Ethics is not, however,
- the study of what people do or how people
act. This is descriptive, not normative. Ethics is
normative--about what ought to be, not what is so.
- the study of what people say or think one ought
to do. Ethics is an enquiry into the truth, not into what people believe is
2. How did "Ethics" as a study come about?
- "Ethics" originates from a Greek word,
"ethica," whose root is "ethos." "Ethos" eventually came to
mean a persons "interior dwelling place," the "basic orientation or
disposition of a person toward life." Ancient Greek philosophers, especially
beginning with Socrates, became interested in this question about how how we should
fashion our "ethos" in order to best succeed at life. This dimension of
ethics is sometimes called "aretaic.".
- The Ancient Romans translated the Greek word ethos as mos/moris,
from which we get our English word "morality." The Latin word means
"manners, customs or practices of a land or people." The Roman were much
more practically minded than the Greeks, and their ethics tended to focus on principles or
guidelines for living. The writings of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are two good
examples of this. The dimension of ethics that focuses on rules for action is called
- Our ethics is not exclusively aretaic or deontic. We
praise/blame persons and actions. Some philosophers who have theoretically tried to
combine these two approaches are the ancient Roman Cicero, the medieval philosopher Thomas
3. What can we expect to gain from an ethics class?
- More clarity and better understanding about what is right and
wrong, therefore, more confidence about our choices and about the reasoning process we use
to defend our behavior
- Understanding about other possible and legitimate ways to
arrive at ethical answers; tolerance about different approaches
- Understanding about some of the pitfalls involved in trying
to differentiate right from wrong
- Preparation for situations different from ones we usually
encounter (in daily life, most people will reason analogically--in terms of like
cases and answers which worked previously)