Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that \"involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior\". The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concerns matters of value; these fields comprise the branch of philosophy called axiology.
Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. As a field of intellectual inquiry, moral philosophy is related to the fields of moral psychology, descriptive ethics, and value theory.
The English word ethics is derived from the Ancient Greek word ēthikós (ἠθικός), meaning \"relating to one's character\", which itself comes from the root word êthos (ἦθος) meaning \"character, moral nature\". This word was transferred into Latin as ethica and then into French as éthique, from which it was transferred into English.
Rushworth Kidder states that \"standard definitions of ethics have typically included such phrases as 'the science of the ideal human character' or 'the science of moral duty'\". Richard William Paul and Linda Elder define ethics as \"a set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behavior helps or harms sentient creatures\". The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy states that the word \"ethics\" is \"commonly used interchangeably with 'morality' ... and sometimes it is used more narrowly to mean the moral principles of a particular tradition, group or individual.\" Paul and Elder state that most people confuse ethics with behaving in accordance with social conventions, religious beliefs, the law, and do not treat ethics as a stand-alone concept.
Studies of how we know in ethics divide into cognitivism and non-cognitivism; these, respectively, take descriptive and non-descriptive approaches to moral goodness or value. Non-cognitivism is the view that when we judge something as morally right or wrong, this is neither true nor false. We may, for example, be only expressing our emotional feelings about these things. Cognitivism can then be seen as the claim that when we talk about right and wrong, we are talking about matters of fact.
Moral skepticism (or moral scepticism) is a class of metaethical theories in which all members entail that no one has any moral knowledge. Many moral skeptics also make the stronger, modal claim that moral knowledge is impossible. Moral skepticism is particularly against moral realism which holds the view that there are knowable and objective moral truths.
Epistemological moral skepticism is a subclass of theory, the members of which include Pyrrhonian moral skepticism and dogmatic moral skepticism. All members of epistemological moral skepticism share two things: first, they acknowledge that we are unjustified in believing any moral claim, and second, they are agnostic on whether (i) is true (i.e. on whether all moral claims are false).
Noncognitivism holds that we can never know that any moral claim is true because moral claims are incapable of being true or false (they are not truth-apt). Instead, moral claims are imperatives (e.g. \"Don't steal babies!\"), expressions of emotion (e.g. \"stealing babies: Boo!\"), or expressions of \"pro-attitudes\" (\"I do not believe that babies should be stolen.\")
Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking. Normative ethics is distinct from meta-ethics because normative ethics examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions, while meta-ethics studies the meaning of moral language and the metaphysics of moral facts. Normative ethics is also distinct from descriptive ethics, as the latter is an empirical investigation of people's moral beliefs. To put it another way, descriptive ethics would be concerned with determining what proportion of people believe that killing is always wrong, while normative ethics is concerned with whether it is correct to hold such a belief. Hence, normative ethics is sometimes called prescriptive rather than descriptive. However, on certain versions of the meta-ethical view called moral realism, moral facts are both descriptive and prescriptive at the same time.
Traditionally, normative ethics (also known as moral theory) was the study of what makes actions right and wrong. These theories offered an overarching moral principle one could appeal to in resolving difficult moral decisions.
At the turn of the 20th century, moral theories became more complex and were no longer concerned solely with rightness and wrongness, but were interested in many different kinds of moral status. During the middle of the century, the study of normative ethics declined as meta-ethics grew in prominence. This focus on meta-ethics was in part caused by an intense linguistic focus in analytic philosophy and by the popularity of logical positivism.
Ethical intuitionism (also called moral intuitionism) is a family of views in moral epistemology (and, on some definitions, metaphysics). At minimum, ethical intuitionism is the thesis that our intuitive awareness of value, or intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge.
The view is at its core a foundationalism about moral knowledge: it is the view that some moral truths can be known non-inferentially (i.e., known without one needing to infer them from other truths one believes). Such an epistemological view implies that there are moral beliefs with propositional contents; so it implies cognitivism. As such, ethical intuitionism is to be contrasted with coherentist approaches to moral epistemology, such as those that depend on reflective equilibrium.
Sufficiently broadly defined, ethical intuitionism can be taken to encompass cognitivist forms of moral sense theory. It is usually furthermore taken as essential to ethical intuitionism that there be self-evident or a priori moral knowledge; this counts against considering moral sense theory to be a species of intuitionism.
Objections to ethical intuitionism include whether or not there are objective moral values (an assumption which the ethical system is based upon) the question of why many disagree over ethics if they are absolute, and whether Occam's razor cancels such a theory out entirely.
Consequentialism refers to moral theories that hold the consequences of a particular action form the basis for any valid moral judgment about that action (or create a structure for judgment, see rule consequentialism). Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence. This view is often expressed as the aphorism \"The ends justify the means\".
The term \"consequentialism\" was coined by G.E.M. Anscombe in her essay \"Modern Moral Philosophy\" in 1958, to describe what she saw as the central error of certain moral theories, such as those propounded by Mill and Sidgwick. Since then, the term has become common in English-language ethical theory.
The defining feature of consequentialist moral theories is the weight given to the consequences in evaluating the rightness and wrongness of actions. In consequentialist theories, the consequences of an action or rule generally outweigh other considerations. Apart from this basic outline, there is little else that can be unequivocally said about consequentialism as such. However, there are some questions that many consequentialist theories address:
Utilitarianism is the paradigmatic example of a consequentialist moral theory. This form of utilitarianism holds that the morally correct action is the one that produces the best outcome for all people affected by the action. John Stuart Mill, in his exposition of utilitarianism, proposed a hierarchy of pleasures, meaning that the pursuit of certain kinds of pleasure is more highly valued than the pursuit of other pleasures. Other noteworthy proponents of utilitarianism are neuroscientist Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape, and moral philosopher Peter Singer, author of, amongst other works, Practical Ethics.
The major division within utilitarianism is between act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. In act utilitarianism, the principle of utility applies directly to each alternative act in a situation of choice. The right act is the one that brings about the best results (or the least bad results). In rule utilitarianism, the principle of utility determines the validity of rules of conduct (moral principles). A rule like promise-keeping is established by looking at the consequences of a world in which people break promises at will and a world in which promises are binding. Right and wrong are the following or breaking of rules that are sanctioned by their utilitarian value. A proposed \"middle ground\" between these two types is Two-level utilitarianism, where rules are applied in ordinary circumstances, but with an allowance to choose actions outside of such rules when unusual situations call for it.
Deontological ethics or deontology (from Greek δέον, deon, \"obligation, duty\"; and -λογία, -logia) is an approach to ethics that determines goodness or rightness from examining acts, or the rules and duties that the person doing the act strove to fulfill. This is in contrast to consequentialism, in which rightness is based on the consequences of an act, and not the act by itself. Under deontology, an act may be considered right even if it produces a bad consequence, if it follows the rule or moral law. According to the deontological view, people have a duty to act in ways that are deemed inherently good (\"truth-telling\" for example), or follow an objectively obligatory rule (as in rule utilitarianism).