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Updated on August 19, 2009

Ethics in philosophy is the theory of morality or right conduct. The word is derived from the Greek ethikos, which means "having to do with character". All societies have moral codes within which individuals try to decide what should or should not be done. Ethical philosophers are concerned with the meaning of ethical terms and the ultimate justification of ethical principles. For example, they investigate the meaning of the good, why one should do to others as he would have others do to him, and how to settle disputes between rival moral codes. The ethical philosopher aims not so much to tell men what they should or should not do, as to help them understand what it is to be moral and how moral principles can be established. Understanding the philosophical bases of morality may strengthen one's moral resolve and guard him against appeals to neglect his duty.

Philosophers have supplied many different accounts of the meaning of the good and the right. Natural moral philosophers explain these virtues in terms of so-called natural properties that could, in principle, be observed scientifically. Some of these thinkers, called Utilitarians, believe that the good is what eventually increases human happiness. Other natural philosophers identify the good with what preserves the human species or with what a reasonable and benevolent man can approve. A second ethical approach holds that the good and the right are to be detected by a special kind of insight apart from observation. Theologians identify knowledge of the good with insight into the will of God. Finally, a number of contemporary philosophers regard judgments of the good and the right basically as expressions of feeling or attitude.

Early Ethics. Since earliest times, societies have tried to enforce on their members views about what kinds of actions are right or wrong. One of the greatest early moral codes was that of the Hebrews and was summarized in the Ten Commandments. The Hebrews stressed justice, love of God and man, and observance of the law. As time passed, they increasingly pointed to men's moral obligations to one other.

Critical ethical thought may be said to have begun with the Greek philosopher Socrates (about 470-399 B.C.), who is sometimes called the father of moral philosophy. He equated virtue and knowledge and sought the fundamental principle behind such virtues as temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice. Socrates' pupil Plato (about 427-347 B.C.) believed that the fundamental principle underlying all existence is the idea of good. Man can attain to the good, Plato believed, by harmonizing the will and appetites through reason, which is man's highest faculty. For Aristotle (384—322 B.C.), a pupil of Plato, rational behavior is characterized by an avoidance of extremes. He taught that man must not err through excess or deficiency but should follow the golden mean of moderation. He believed that God is infinite reason and that all human virtues point toward this ultimate good.

After Plato and Aristotle several ethical theories were directed toward the practical life. The Stoic philosophers believed that men should control their passions and desires and dutifully carry out the obligations of their station in life free from agitation or anxiety. On the other hand, Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) taught that intellectual pleasure is the highest good and that, in quiet contemplation, man can avoid pain and find his own personal happiness.

Christian ethical beliefs came as a contrast to both the early Jewish emphasis on justice and law observance and to the Greek reliance on reason for attaining the virtuous and happy life. Christ taught that God's love is the ultimate good toward which men must direct their actions. Such men as St. Paul added the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity to the classical virtues of temperance, courage, wisdom, and justice. Thinkers like St. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) respected reason as being useful but exalted faith and love as the source of ethical activity. One of the greatest Christian ethical thinkers, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), attempted to combine Aristotle's rationalism with the Christian tradition. St. Thomas recognized reason as a necessary guide in the natural world and also held that the supernatural goal of salvation depends on God's grace as achieved through faith.

Later Ethics

After the Middle Ages many moral philosophers attempted to establish new criteria of morality. One of the first forceful ethical statements of the Renaissance was made by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). Hobbes was a thoroughgoing materialist and believed that man always acts to satisfy his own desires and that the function of reason is to help him do so. He held that evil is simply what a person despises or fears.

The first ethical philosopher to lay down the principle of the greatest good for the greatest number was Richard Cumberland (1631-1718). This principle marked the turning point in British hedonism from the egoistic form, such as Hobbes', to the social, or utilitarian, type. The third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) attacked Hobbes' egoistic ethics on the basis that it could not apply to creatures living in society. Man must live among other men and must contribute to the welfare of the community. Francis Hutcheson (1694—1746) held that man has a moral sense that allows him to admire the actions of other men, whether or not they are profitable. Joseph Butler (1692-1752) contended that conscience is the highest element in man. David Hume (1711-1776) believed that the good is that which is approved by most men.

On the European continent, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) claimed that an action must be judged by its motive and that motives arise from a natural sense of duty. His famous test for judging moral behavior is to ask if a person could will to make universal moral laws of his own individual principles. Thus he insisted on the fundamental impartiality of ethical principles.

Another German philosopher, Georg W. F. Hegel (1770-1831), questioned Kant's idea of duty. Hegel asserted that always following one's conscience may lead to immoral acts. Instead, a person must always honor the laws and moral codes of his society.

A powerful influence on modern ethics was provided by the utilitarian positions of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), James Mill (1773-1836), and his famous son, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873). The utilitarians applied their chief principle, that the object of ethics is the "greatest happiness of the greatest number," in effecting political and social reforms.

Later in the 19th century a number of conflicting schools arose. Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and Sir Leslie Stephen (1832-1904) attempted to apply Charles Darwin's theory of evolution to the understanding of morals. The German philosopher Friedrich W. Nietzsche (1844-1900) held that Christian morals had become a weakening influence that needed to be transformed into a new code for the strong, who would be driven by what he called the will to power.

Other influences strongly represented in modern ethical thought are those of intuitionism, pragmatism, and Existentialism. Intuitionists, such as Harold Arthur Prichard (1871-1947), George Edward Moore (1873-1958), and W. D. Ross, held that knowledge of the right or the good rests ultimately on a direct act of intellectual perception. Pragmatists, such as John Dewey (1859-1952), stress the contributions of morality to human welfare. They tend to believe that moral principles can be arrived at scientifically. Existentialists, such as Jean Paul Sartre, believe that reason is inadequate in dealing with moral issues. They insist that man must work out his destiny through freely chosen moral decisions.


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