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Course Module 1, Intro. Lecture] What is Ethics (F, 2012)

Course Module 1, Intro. Lecture] What is Ethics (F, 2012)

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Published by Thalia Sanders
What is ethics, the first lecture in a series on Moral Philosophy from ethics.
What is ethics, the first lecture in a series on Moral Philosophy from ethics.

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Published by: Thalia Sanders on Feb 21, 2013
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12/02/2013

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Introduction: What is Ethics?
(Rachels,
The Elements of Moral Philosophy
, Ch. 1;Hinman,
Contemporary Moral Issues
, “Introduction”)
I.Ethics, morality and moral theory
A.Rachels begins his book by highlighting two incredibly difficult cases where people are required to make seemingly impossible judgments about how they should actor not act. This highlights the essential subject matter of ethics – human action. Butethics is not merely interested in human action as a only an event; it is interested inexamining and evaluating the quality of human action in light of some expressedstandards or set of values.B.Everyone asks ethical questions all the time. We ponder over whether our actionsare helpful or hurtful to others. We wonder if one course of action is better than another;is it good to do action A and wrong to do action B? These are ethical questions. Butethics as a course of study is a branch of philosophy where we ask even more penetratingand conceptual questions, such as: What qualities or characteristic go into making anaction a
 good 
action? How does one decide what
right 
and
wrong 
consist in? Can a person improve themselves and become better at judging the quality of actions, both our own and those of others? Who decides what standard(s) determine the rightness or wrongness of an action? All of these and much more are part of what makes up thesubject of ethics.C.In pursuing the study of ethics we need to be clear about several important termsthat will appear frequently in the readings and in our discussion of ethics. The word
ethic
is derived from the Greek word
ethos
, meaning “custom” or “pattern” and was usedto describe a general character or “way of life” that a person evidenced in their behavior.The subject of ethics, then, seeks understanding about ways of living, or in the words of the great ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates, it seeks to understand “how we ought tolive.”
 
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D.Sometimes the word
ethics
is used in the very specific sense of a standard of conduct or set of rules espoused by a particular profession. For instance, we often think of lawyers and legal ethics or medical doctors and medical ethics. This is a narrower useof the term than we will typically use throughout our study this semester. For all intentsand purposes, we will use the terms
ethics
and
morality
interchangeably. Both terms areequally appropriate for describing the standards and subsequent judgments made inevaluating human behavior. By the same token, the term
moral theory
(or 
ethical theory
)refers to the study of ethics/morality and the systematic points of view that have arisen todescribe in general terms the standards, criteria and judgments regarding human action.
II.Why study ethics?
A.You may be asking this very question as you begin this course. But rest assuredthat you are not the first, nor will you be the last person to ask this question. Ethics has been a subject of interest and intense questioning since the earliest written accounts of western philosophy. And ethics courses have long been a traditional part of thecurriculum for those seeking an undergraduate college degree. Why, then, do we studyethics?B.There are a number of reasons that we might site for the study of ethics and manyare unique to particular moral theories or ethical points of view. But there is consensusabout some of the most fundamental reasons for studying ethics. First, some haveclaimed that ethical knowledge is a key to becoming a good and virtuous person. Whilenot everyone accepts this reason, it does seem that much of morality is learned (perhapssomething like learning a skill, for example playing the piano or becoming good at a particular sport), so knowing what morality is about can play a role in helping one to become a better person.C.Another important reason for studying ethics is that the process of comparing andevaluating moral theories, and entering into the debate surrounding importantcontemporary moral issues helps one improve their 
moral reasoning skills.
The goal isthat our decisions about what actions to choose and our evaluation of other people’sactions will not be merely the result of blind, arbitrary forces like urges and mere personal desires. Rather, if we can understand the role and importance of moralreasoning, and even gain some practice in using our moral reasoning capacities, then wewill be on the road to becoming competent and informed moral persons. An ethicscourse like this one gives you some basic tools and instruction regarding moral reasoning,as well as the opportunity to practice such reasoning.

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