Historical Introduction to Philosophy/Ethics

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General Introduction to Ethics


Ethics in terms of philosophy, is often referred to as morality. It is the right or wrong of any action taken, took, or will take place. We use its codes to lay judgement on standards we propose to follow. Ethics is often broken down into three main categories:

  • Metaethics: is the study of origin of ethical concepts. “Meta” means after or beyond, and conversely the idea implies that if one were to view metaethics they would encompass a whole concept of ethics. Metaethical issues give rise to such questions as; ‘where do rights come from?’ and ‘what kind of beings have rights?’

  • Normative ethics: are the principles established that guide or regulate human conduct. They are often what society considers the norm. It is the litmus test of proper behavior that society sets as their standard. The golden rule is a classic example of normative ethics. "Act onto others as you would have them do to you."
      • Virtue Theories: place most emphasis on developing good habits of character.
      • Duty Theories: place most emphasis on principles of obligation. Some times known as "Deontologicalists."
      • Consequentialist Theories: place most emphasis the outcome of the action. If it is more favorable than not, it is moral. Also known as "Consequentialists."

  • Applied ethics: the study of specific problems or issues with application of Normative ethics and/or Metaethics. Sometimes the applied ethics may be about political or social questions, but they always involves some moral aspect.



Many positions of ethics in history were based on western philosophy. Plato and Aristotle played a crucial role in its development. Plato thought people were more likely to be good than bad. He believed that people did not understand for the most part that they did wrong and that there wrong came from error, not intent.

"Plato also suggested four virtues: wisdom, courage, justice and temperance; Aristotle agreed but added others, like generosity, truthfulness, friendliness and prudence."(1) However, Aristotle expanded from Plato's work and said in his Nicomachean Ethics "that goodness is in the actor, not the action; that is, an act is virtuous because of the manner in which a person has chosen it." (2). The idea was important because it showed that we could chose to be good. That gives rise to be able to question how shall we live? And a possible answer could be by being good, instead of by doing good. The outcome of such a notion was the beginning of building an ethical system.

Aristotle and Plato never continued on to develop normative ethics. Tales, and epics thereafter, became away of displaying virtue, duty and consequence became a way to practically display such normal behavior. Values like justice and/or loyalty were displayed by their illustration and use. In many of the stories depicted by homer the gods made mistakes and this portrayed how ethics should be lived by.

David Hume first discusses ethics in his writing A Treatise of Human Nature. later, he will discuss it further in his writing An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Hume's approach to his ethics is obviously an empirical one. Hume, instead of trying to establish how one should think that morality should function, strives to tell us how we as humans make our moral judgements. It seems Humes is asking or even trying to possibly imply that we tend to make our moral judgements based on or in self-interest. This seems to be a difference from the approach of his fellow empiricist Thomas Hobbes.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz contributed to the philosophical conversation of ethics with the idea that three kinds of evil exist in the world: Metaphysical evil, physical evil, and moral evil. Metaphysical evil is the limitation of all things due to their finite state. A theist, Leibniz believed that an infinitely perfect God existed, and that anything that is not part of God (including the world) is finite, with a limited amount of perfectness. Metaphysical evil is unavoidable, and no being can be held responsible for its existence. Physical evil is a lack of perfection of worldly things due to their nature. Humans can not be held responsible for this kind of evil, since God gave things their natures. Leibniz argued that this kind of evil exists to make the overall state of things better. An analogy is a shadowy portion of a painting which accentuates a brighter portion; the shadowy portion is necessary to make the overall work of art as beautiful as it is. The last kind of evil Leibniz recognized, moral evil, is the result of humans choosing to defy God’s will. With this theory of evils, man can measure the goodness of their behavior by how closely it is aligned with God’s will, but physical and metaphysical evils will ensure imperfection in the world regardless of man’s moral behavior.

Suggested Readings

Nicomachean Ethics - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicomachean_Ethics
Virtue- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtue
Cardinal Virtues- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cardinal_virtues
Meno- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meno_(Plato)

Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy
Dante's Inferno
Goethe's Faust

Related Links and References

(1) http://www.galilean-library.org/int11.html (Good overview on Intro to Ethics)

(2) http://www.iep.utm.edu/e/ethics.htm (More in-depth break down on Ethics)

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