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BBCEthicsIntroductiontoethics:Ethics:ageneralintroduction

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Ethics:ageneralintroduction
Ethicsareasystemofmoralprinciplesandabranchofphilosophywhichdefineswhatisgoodforindividualsand
society.

Whatisethics?
Atitssimplest,ethicsisasystemofmoralprinciples.Theyaffecthowpeoplemakedecisionsandleadtheirlives.
Ethicsisconcernedwithwhatisgoodforindividualsandsocietyandisalsodescribedasmoralphilosophy.
ThetermisderivedfromtheGreekwordethoswhichcanmeancustom,habit,characterordisposition.
Ethicscoversthefollowingdilemmas:
howtoliveagoodlife
ourrightsandresponsibilities
thelanguageofrightandwrong
moraldecisionswhatisgoodandbad?
Ourconceptsofethicshavebeenderivedfromreligions,philosophiesandcultures.Theyinfusedebatesontopics
likeabortion,humanrightsandprofessionalconduct.

Approachestoethics
Philosophersnowadaystendtodivideethicaltheoriesintothreeareas:metaethics,normativeethicsandapplied
ethics.
Metaethicsdealswiththenatureofmoraljudgement.Itlooksattheoriginsandmeaningofethicalprinciples.
Normativeethicsisconcernedwiththecontentofmoraljudgementsandthecriteriaforwhatisrightorwrong.
Appliedethicslooksatcontroversialtopicslikewar,animalrightsandcapitalpunishment

Whatuseisethics?
Ifethicaltheoriesaretobeusefulinpractice,theyneedtoaffectthewayhumanbeingsbehave.
Somephilosophersthinkthatethicsdoesdothis.Theyarguethatifapersonrealisesthatitwouldbemorallygood
todosomethingthenitwouldbeirrationalforthatpersonnottodoit.
Buthumanbeingsoftenbehaveirrationallytheyfollowtheir'gutinstinct'evenwhentheirheadsuggestsa
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BBCEthicsIntroductiontoethics:Ethics:ageneralintroduction

differentcourseof
action.
However,ethicsdoes
providegoodtoolsfor
thinkingaboutmoral
issues.
Ethicsneedstoprovideanswers.Photo:GeoffreyHolman

Ethicscanprovideamoralmap
Mostmoralissuesgetusprettyworkedupthinkofabortionandeuthanasiaforstarters.Becausethesearesuch
emotionalissuesweoftenletourheartsdothearguingwhileourbrainsjustgowiththeflow.
Butthere'sanotherwayoftacklingtheseissues,andthat'swherephilosopherscancomeintheyofferusethical
rulesandprinciplesthatenableustotakeacoolerviewofmoralproblems.
Soethicsprovidesuswithamoralmap,aframeworkthatwecanusetofindourwaythroughdifficultissues.

Ethicscanpinpointadisagreement
Usingtheframeworkofethics,twopeoplewhoarearguingamoralissuecanoftenfindthatwhattheydisagree
aboutisjustoneparticularpartoftheissue,andthattheybroadlyagreeoneverythingelse.
Thatcantakealotofheatoutoftheargument,andsometimesevenhintatawayforthemtoresolvetheir
problem.
Butsometimesethicsdoesn'tprovidepeoplewiththesortofhelpthattheyreallywant.

Ethicsdoesn'tgiverightanswers
Ethicsdoesn'talwaysshowtherightanswertomoralproblems.
Indeedmoreandmorepeoplethinkthatformanyethicalissuesthereisn'tasinglerightanswerjustasetof
principlesthatcanbeappliedtoparticularcasestogivethoseinvolvedsomeclearchoices.
Somephilosophersgofurtherandsaythatallethicscandoiseliminateconfusionandclarifytheissues.Afterthat
it'suptoeachindividualtocometotheirownconclusions.

Ethicscangiveseveralanswers
Manypeoplewanttheretobeasinglerightanswertoethicalquestions.Theyfindmoralambiguityhardtolivewith
becausetheygenuinelywanttodothe'right'thing,andeveniftheycan'tworkoutwhatthatrightthingis,they
liketheideathat'somewhere'thereisonerightanswer.
Butoftenthereisn'tonerightanswertheremaybeseveralrightanswers,orjustsomeleastworstanswersand
theindividualmustchoosebetweenthem.
Forothersmoralambiguityisdifficultbecauseitforcesthemtotakeresponsibilityfortheirownchoicesandactions,
ratherthanfallingbackonconvenientrulesandcustoms.

Ethicsandpeople
Ethicsisaboutthe'other'
Attheheartofethicsisaconcernaboutsomethingorsomeoneotherthanourselvesandourowndesiresandself
interest.

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BBCEthicsIntroductiontoethics:Ethics:ageneralintroduction

Ethicsisconcernedwithotherpeople'sinterests,
withtheinterestsofsociety,withGod'sinterests,
with"ultimategoods",andsoon.
Sowhenaperson'thinksethically'theyare
givingatleastsomethoughttosomething
beyondthemselves.

Ethicsisconcernedwithotherpeople

Ethicsassourceofgroupstrength
Oneproblemwithethicsisthewayit'softenusedasaweapon.
Ifagroupbelievesthataparticularactivityis"wrong"itcanthenusemoralityasthejustificationforattacking
thosewhopracticethatactivity.
Whenpeopledothis,theyoftenseethosewhotheyregardasimmoralasinsomewaylesshumanordeservingof
respectthanthemselvessometimeswithtragicconsequences.

Goodpeopleaswellasgoodactions
Ethicsisnotonlyaboutthemoralityofparticularcoursesofaction,butit'salsoaboutthegoodnessofindividuals
andwhatitmeanstoliveagoodlife.
VirtueEthicsisparticularlyconcernedwiththemoralcharacterofhumanbeings.

Searchingforthesourceofrightandwrong
Attimesinthepastsomepeoplethoughtthatethicalproblemscouldbesolvedinoneoftwoways:
bydiscoveringwhatGodwantedpeopletodo
bythinkingrigorouslyaboutmoralprinciplesandproblems
Ifapersondidthisproperlytheywouldbeledtotherightconclusion.
Butnowevenphilosophersarelesssurethatit'spossibletodeviseasatisfactoryandcompletetheoryofethicsat
leastnotonethatleadstoconclusions.
Modernthinkersoftenteachthatethicsleadspeoplenottoconclusionsbutto'decisions'.
Inthisview,theroleofethicsislimitedtoclarifying'what'satstake'inparticularethicalproblems.
Philosophycanhelpidentifytherangeofethicalmethods,conversationsandvaluesystemsthatcanbeappliedtoa
particularproblem.Butafterthesethingshavebeenmadeclear,eachpersonmustmaketheirownindividual
decisionastowhattodo,andthenreactappropriatelytotheconsequences.

Areethicalstatementsobjectivelytrue?
Doethicalstatementsprovideinformationaboutanythingotherthanhumanopinionsandattitudes?
Ethicalrealiststhinkthathumanbeingsdiscoverethicaltruthsthatalreadyhaveanindependentexistence.
Ethicalnonrealiststhinkthathumanbeingsinventethicaltruths.

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Theproblemforethicalrealistsisthatpeoplefollowmanydifferentethicalcodesandmoralbeliefs.Soifthereare
realethicaltruthsoutthere(wherever!)thenhumanbeingsdon'tseemtobeverygoodatdiscoveringthem.
Oneformofethicalrealismteachesthatethicalpropertiesexistindependentlyofhumanbeings,andthatethical
statementsgiveknowledgeabouttheobjectiveworld.
Toputitanotherwaytheethicalpropertiesoftheworldandthethingsinitexistandremainthesame,regardless
ofwhatpeoplethinkorfeelorwhetherpeoplethinkorfeelaboutthematall.
Onthefaceofit,it[ethicalrealism]meanstheviewthatmoralqualitiessuchaswrongness,andlikewisemoral
factssuchasthefactthatanactwaswrong,existinrerumnatura,sothat,ifonesaysthatacertainactwas
wrong,oneissayingthatthereexisted,somehow,somewhere,thisqualityofwrongness,andthatithadtoexist
thereifthatactweretobewrong.
R.MHare,EssaysinEthicalTheory,1989

Fourethical'isms'
Whenapersonsays"murderisbad"whataretheydoing?
That'sthesortofquestionthatonlyaphilosopherwouldask,butit'sactuallyaveryusefulwayofgettingaclear
ideaofwhat'sgoingonwhenpeopletalkaboutmoralissues.
Thedifferent'isms'regardthepersonutteringthestatementasdoingdifferentthings.
WecanshowsomeofthedifferentthingsImightbedoingwhenIsay'murderisbad'byrewritingthatstatement
toshowwhatIreallymean:
Imightbemakingastatementaboutanethicalfact
"Itiswrongtomurder"
Thisismoralrealism
Imightbemakingastatementaboutmyownfeelings
"Idisapproveofmurder"
Thisissubjectivism
Imightbeexpressingmyfeelings
"Downwithmurder"
Thisisemotivism
Imightbegivinganinstructionoraprohibition
"Don'tmurderpeople"
Thisisprescriptivism

Moralrealism
Moralrealismisbasedontheideathattherearerealobjectivemoralfactsortruthsintheuniverse.Moral
statementsprovidefactualinformationaboutthosetruths.

Subjectivism
Subjectivismteachesthatmoraljudgmentsarenothingmorethanstatementsofaperson'sfeelingsorattitudes,
andthatethicalstatementsdonotcontainfactualtruthsaboutgoodnessorbadness.
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Inmoredetail:subjectivistssaythatmoralstatementsarestatementsaboutthefeelings,attitudesandemotions
thatthatparticularpersonorgrouphasaboutaparticularissue.
Ifapersonsayssomethingisgoodorbadtheyaretellingusaboutthepositiveornegativefeelingsthattheyhave
aboutthatsomething.
Soifsomeonesays'murderiswrong'theyaretellingusthattheydisapproveofmurder.
Thesestatementsaretrueifthepersondoesholdtheappropriateattitudeorhavetheappropriatefeelings.They
arefalseifthepersondoesn't.

Emotivism
Emotivismistheviewthatmoralclaimsarenomorethanexpressionsofapprovalordisapproval.
Thissoundslikesubjectivism,butinemotivismamoralstatementdoesn'tprovideinformationaboutthespeaker's
feelingsaboutthetopicbutexpressesthosefeelings.
Whenanemotivistsays"murderiswrong"it'slikesaying"downwithmurder"or"murder,yecch!"orjustsaying
"murder"whilepullingahorrifiedface,ormakingathumbsdowngestureatthesametimeassaying"murderis
wrong".
Sowhensomeonemakesamoraljudgementtheyshowtheirfeelingsaboutsomething.Sometheoristsalso
suggestthatinexpressingafeelingthepersongivesaninstructiontoothersabouthowtoacttowardsthesubject
matter.

Prescriptivism
Prescriptiviststhinkthatethicalstatementsareinstructionsorrecommendations.
SoifIsaysomethingisgood,I'mrecommendingyoutodoit,andifIsaysomethingisbad,I'mtellingyounotto
doit.
Thereisalmostalwaysaprescriptiveelementinanyrealworldethicalstatement:anyethicalstatementcanbe
reworked(withabitofeffort)intoastatementwithan'ought'init.Forexample:"lyingiswrong"canberewritten
as"peopleoughtnottotelllies".

Wheredoesethicscomefrom?
Philosophershaveseveralanswerstothisquestion:
Godandreligion
Humanconscienceandintuition
arationalmoralcostbenefitanalysisofactionsandtheireffects
theexampleofgoodhumanbeings
adesireforthebestforpeopleineachuniquesituation
politicalpower

Godbasedethicssupernaturalism
Supernaturalismmakesethicsinseparablefromreligion.ItteachesthattheonlysourceofmoralrulesisGod.
So,somethingisgoodbecauseGodsaysitis,andthewaytoleadagoodlifeistodowhatGodwants.

Intuitionism
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Intuitioniststhinkthatgoodandbadarerealobjectivepropertiesthatcan'tbebrokendownintocomponent
parts.Somethingisgoodbecauseit'sgooditsgoodnessdoesn'tneedjustifyingorproving.
Intuitioniststhinkthatgoodnessorbadnesscanbedetectedbyadultstheysaythathumanbeingshavean
intuitivemoralsensethatenablesthemtodetectrealmoraltruths.
Theythinkthatbasicmoraltruthsofwhatisgoodandbadareselfevidenttoapersonwhodirectstheirmind
towardsmoralissues.
Sogoodthingsarethethingsthatasensiblepersonrealisesaregoodiftheyspendsometimeponderingthe
subject.
Don'tgetconfused.Fortheintuitionist:
moraltruthsarenotdiscoveredbyrationalargument
moraltruthsarenotdiscoveredbyhavingahunch
moraltruthsarenotdiscoveredbyhavingafeeling
It'smoreasortofmoral'aha'momentarealisationofthetruth.

Consequentialism
Thisistheethicaltheorythatmostnonreligiouspeoplethinktheyuseeveryday.Itbasesmoralityonthe
consequencesofhumanactionsandnotontheactionsthemselves.
Consequentialismteachesthatpeopleshoulddowhateverproducesthegreatestamountofgoodconsequences.
Onefamouswayofputtingthisis'thegreatestgoodforthegreatestnumberofpeople'.
Themostcommonformsofconsequentialismarethevariousversionsofutilitarianism,whichfavouractionsthat
producethegreatestamountofhappiness.
Despiteitsobviouscommonsenseappeal,consequentialismturnsouttobeacomplicatedtheory,anddoesn't
provideacompletesolutiontoallethicalproblems.
Twoproblemswithconsequentialismare:
itcanleadtotheconclusionthatsomequitedreadfulactsaregood
predictingandevaluatingtheconsequencesofactionsisoftenverydifficult

Nonconsequentialismordeontologicalethics
Nonconsequentialismisconcernedwiththeactionsthemselvesandnotwiththeconsequences.It'sthetheory
thatpeopleareusingwhentheyreferto"theprincipleofthething".
Itteachesthatsomeactsarerightorwronginthemselves,whatevertheconsequences,andpeopleshouldact
accordingly.

Virtueethics
Virtueethicslooksatvirtueormoralcharacter,ratherthanatethicaldutiesandrules,ortheconsequencesof
actionsindeedsomephilosophersofthisschooldenythattherecanbesuchthingsasuniversalethicalrules.
Virtueethicsisparticularlyconcernedwiththewayindividualslivetheirlives,andlessconcernedinassessing
particularactions.
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Itdevelopstheideaofgoodactionsbylookingatthewayvirtuouspeopleexpresstheirinnergoodnessinthethings
thattheydo.
Toputitverysimply,virtueethicsteachesthatanactionisrightifandonlyifitisanactionthatavirtuousperson
woulddointhesamecircumstances,andthatavirtuouspersonissomeonewhohasaparticularlygoodcharacter.

Situationethics
Situationethicsrejectsprescriptiverulesandarguesthatindividualethicaldecisionsshouldbemadeaccordingto
theuniquesituation.
Ratherthanfollowingrulesthedecisionmakershouldfollowadesiretoseekthebestforthepeopleinvolved.There
arenomoralrulesorrightseachcaseisuniqueanddeservesauniquesolution.

Ethicsandideology
Somephilosophersteachthatethicsisthecodificationofpoliticalideology,andthatthefunctionofethicsisto
state,enforceandpreserveparticularpoliticalbeliefs.
Theyusuallygoontosaythatethicsisusedbythedominantpoliticaleliteasatooltocontroleveryoneelse.
Morecynicalwriterssuggestthatpowerelitesenforceanethicalcodeonotherpeoplethathelpsthemcontrolthose
people,butdonotapplythiscodetotheirownbehaviour.

Arethereuniversalmoralrules?
Oneofthebigquestionsinmoralphilosophyiswhetherornotthereareunchangingmoralrulesthatapplyinall
culturesandatalltimes.

Moralabsolutism
Somepeoplethinktherearesuchuniversalrulesthatapplytoeveryone.Thissortofthinkingiscalledmoral
absolutism.
Moralabsolutismarguesthattherearesomemoralrulesthatarealwaystrue,thattheserulescanbediscovered
andthattheserulesapplytoeveryone.
Immoralactsactsthatbreakthesemoralrulesarewronginthemselves,regardlessofthecircumstancesorthe
consequencesofthoseacts.
Absolutismtakesauniversalviewofhumanitythereisonesetofrulesforeveryonewhichenablesthedrafting
ofuniversalrulessuchastheDeclarationofHumanRights.
Religiousviewsofethicstendtobeabsolutist.
Whypeopledisagreewithmoralabsolutism:
Manyofusfeelthattheconsequencesofanactorthecircumstancessurroundingitarerelevanttowhether
thatactisgoodorbad
Absolutismdoesn'tfitwithrespectfordiversityandtradition

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Differentcultureshavehaddifferentattitudestoissueslikewar

Moralrelativism
Moralrelativistssaythatifyoulookatdifferentculturesordifferentperiodsinhistoryyou'llfindthattheyhave
differentmoralrules.
Thereforeitmakessensetosaythat"good"referstothethingsthataparticulargroupofpeopleapproveof.
Moralrelativiststhinkthatthat'sjustfine,anddisputetheideathattherearesomeobjectiveanddiscoverable
'superrules'thatallculturesoughttoobey.Theybelievethatrelativismrespectsthediversityofhumansocieties
andrespondstothedifferentcircumstancessurroundinghumanacts.
Whypeopledisagreewithmoralrelativism:
Manyofusfeelthatmoralruleshavemoretothemthanthegeneralagreementofagroupofpeoplethat
moralityismorethanasuperchargedformofetiquette
Manyofusthinkwecanbegoodwithoutconformingtoalltherulesofsociety
Moralrelativismhasaproblemwitharguingagainstthemajorityview:ifmostpeopleinasocietyagreewith
particularrules,that'stheendofthematter.Manyoftheimprovementsintheworldhavecomeaboutbecause
peopleopposedtheprevailingethicalviewmoralrelativistsareforcedtoregardsuchpeopleasbehaving
"badly"
Anychoiceofsocialgroupingasthefoundationofethicsisboundtobearbitrary
Moralrelativismdoesn'tprovideanywaytodealwithmoraldifferencesbetweensocieties

Moralsomewhereinbetweenism
Mostnonphilosophersthinkthatbothoftheabovetheorieshavesomegoodpointsandthinkthat
thereareafewabsoluteethicalrules
butalotofethicalrulesdependontheculture

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