Ethics and Morals

The concept of ethics and morals

What are ethics and morals?

Ethics and morals are a means for people to organise their ideas concerning concepts like right and wrong. In this sense, ethics and morals have been at the forefront of religious and philosophical thinking for as long as human beings have been interacting with one another. Various traditions of ethics and morals exist, including Greek, Egyptian, Islamic and Thomist, to name just a few. The questions relating to the topic have been posed – and, sometimes, answered – by some of the biggest names in the history of human thought including the Buddha, Confucius and Immanuel Kant, among others. Although the way in which moral philosophy is dealt with within each of these traditions differs, the focus on ethical behaviour tends to highlight issues like crime, justice, truth, virtue, good and evil.

 Are ethics and morals the same thing?

Most academics agree that ethics is the study of moral philosophy. That means the branch of philosophy concerned with morality. Therefore, ethics and morals are not exactly the same thing. For example, your personal morality might state that you would never kill another person. An ethical study of that moral might use a number of different approaches to work out why the moral is held and how it can be enforced. In this example, ethical questions that test the morality might include concepts like killing in self-defence or choosing between two scenarios where death might occur with different outcomes. In short, morals are personal rules about behaviour, whereas ethics concern societal rules.

Are ethics and morals objective or subjective?

In some thinkers' views, they have to be subjective. So-called moral scepticism is an extreme version of this point of view which states that no one can have any objective moral knowledge whatsoever. Philosophers like David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche take this sort of line. However, others believe that there are objective truths concerning ethics and morals. Moral realists fall into this category. Many people now believe that certain fundamental aspects of ethical behaviour apply everywhere in something close to an objective sense but that these are applied subjectively, according to certain social norms.

What are normative ethics and morals?

Normative ethics is a branch of philosophy that is distinct from meta-ethics which concerns the meaning of moral propositions and how the truth of them might be determined. In normative ethics, the practical means of working out, which is the best course of action to take from a moral point view is the goal. Various schools of philosophy exist that are concerned with normative ethics and morals, such as logical positivism, virtue ethics and consequentialism.

How are ethics and morals applied today?

More often than not, applied ethics and morals are used to work out what to do in very specific situations. In other words, the applied ethics that might work in a business setting could be inappropriate in a military one. They are, therefore, worked out distinctly from one another. Examples of the contemporary applications of ethics include studies into machine learning, gene therapy, cloning and animal welfare.

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