Ethics is a branch of philosophy that attempts to help us understand which ways of life are worth following and which actions are right or wrong. Ethics addresses questions of right and wrong using reason rather than faith or tradition.
Some ethical theories seem complicated, but they are simply attempts to settle issues that we all think about. Usually, we think about these issues because we find ourselves faced with a tough decision.
For example: Alice knows that her friend Max has been using a harmful drug. She has tried to persuade him to stop, but he does not listen. She has begun to wonder if she should tell someone what he is doing, someone with authority who might make him stop. To some people facing such a choice, it might seem obvious that one should inform on Max. To others, it would seem equally obvious that they should say nothing.
If Alice is like most people, though, she will have conflicting thoughts. If she tells somebody, she would be violating her friend's trust in her. Max never would have let her know his secret if he had thought she would use it to get him into trouble. On the other hand, it may be best for him if she tells what she knows so that he can be helped. Alice's choice is difficult because she has more than one idea about what she should do, and these ideas lead her in opposite directions. Some philosophers would say that these conflicts arise because some of the ideas she is considering do not really apply to the question of what she should do.
Ethics tries to introduce order into the way people think about life and action. Often this means replacing the vast confusion of everyday ideas with one general theory. Ethical theories aim to bring order into ordinary thinking by telling us which of our conflicting ideas apply to what we should do and which ones do not apply.
Before the year 1500, many ethical theorists were followers of the ancient Greek philosophers, especially Plato and Aristotle. These two influential thinkers brought order into thinking about ethical problems by defining the sort of life that is worth living and the sort of person who can live such a life. We can understand what such an admirable person would be like, Plato and Aristotle thought, by understanding the good character traits, or virtues, that such a person would possess.
Plato thought there are four virtues: (1) wisdom, (2) courage, (3) temperance, or self-control, and (4) justice. The most important of these is wisdom, which is knowledge of what is truly good. People who have wisdom and, as a result, know what is truly good will tend to do what is right. These people will act in their own true interest and be in harmony with themselves. This harmony is the basis of all justice. People who have justice, in Plato's view, will tend to have other virtues as well. Plato did not try to tell us, in a neat and easy formula, what is truly good. Instead, he wrote books in which he described the life and death of one man who, he believed, did understand goodness—his teacher Socrates. See Plato (Ethics).
Aristotle, Plato's most distinguished student, had views that were similar but more complicated. Aristotle disliked oversimplification. Although he agreed with Plato's four virtues, he considered other traits to be important also. These traits included friendliness, generosity, gentleness, truthfulness, and wit.
Like Plato, Aristotle thought there is one trait that is the source of all the other virtues. He called it phronesis, meaning prudence or good judgment. Prudence is the ability to know what we should do by figuring out which course of action would lead to a good life.
Aristotle tells us much about what the good life is like. He says that it involves such things as having friends, acting justly, and participating in community affairs. However, like Plato, Aristotle did not specify which courses of action are right and which ones are wrong. People who are properly brought up and who make full use of their own minds will, he thought, usually see the right course and take it. See Aristotle (Ethics and politics).
Limitations of ancient ethics. Neither Plato nor Aristotle seems to offer help to people who, like Alice, face a tough decision and do not find the solution to be obvious. Perhaps in ancient Greece people faced fewer critical decisions in which clashing ideas pulled in opposite directions. Perhaps when the ancient thinkers developed their systems of ethics, such dilemmas seemed unusual and not important for discussion. Even in a complex society like ours, with all of its conflicting traditions and theories, most ethical decisions do not present us with such dilemmas.
For whatever reason, ancient ethics did not try to provide rules to guide us in making difficult choices. Modern ethics—beginning about 1500—does, on the contrary, try to provide such rules. Ancient ethics is a theory of normal life, while modern ethics is a theory of life in crisis. Modern ethics aims to help us sort out the conflicting reasons for different courses of action. Modern ethics tries to help us decide which reasons are important or fundamental and which are less important or not valid at all.
When people face a critical choice like Alice's and hesitate between different courses of action, they think of reasons for the different things they might do. Modern thinkers have observed that the reasons people produce in such situations can be sorted into different categories. There are considerations of benefits and considerations of obligations. On one hand, Alice may think she has an obligation to Max to keep quiet about what he does. On the other hand, she may think he might benefit if she violates this obligation by speaking up. In this case, as in others, considering one's obligations may lead to different conclusions than considering what is beneficial to people. A person who always takes obligations seriously will make different decisions than a person who is committed to doing what is most beneficial to people. After hundreds of years of thinking about conflicts among moral ideas, theorists have reached at least one conclusion. This conclusion is that it is difficult to give equal importance to both obligations and benefits.
Modern ethical theory is roughly divided into two schools of thought: (1) deontology and (2) teleology. Deontology holds that what really matters, ethically, is what your obligations are. Teleology claims that what really matters is which actions or policies would be most beneficial to people.
Kant. The greatest of the deontologists was Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher of the 1700's. He believed that the only test of whether a decision is right or wrong is whether it could be applied to everyone. Would it be all right for everyone to do what you are doing? If not, your decision is wrong. It would be wrong, for example, to make a promise with the intention of breaking it because if everyone did that, no one would believe anyone's promises. As a result, no one would make promises at all.
Kant thought that the difference between right and wrong is simply a matter of consistency: can you apply the same standard to others that you apply to yourself? You must ask if it would be acceptable if everyone were to act in the way that you propose to act. Using this test, Kant would probably say that Alice should inform the authorities about Max's drug use. To Kant, whether a person's decisions are useful, whether they bring about desirable results for oneself or anyone else, is not ethically important. See Kant, Immanuel.
Bentham and Mill. Arguing against Kant, teleologists have often pointed out that most moral rules are actually useful or beneficial. Rules against murder and theft serve to protect our interests. If there were no such rules, we would be faced with a constant threat of violent injury and death.
Moral rules protect us from misery and chaos, and it is hard to imagine anything more useful than that. Teleologists have asked what followers of Kant would say if a moral rule that they believe in was found to make people unhappy and do no good at all. They would immediately decide that the rule was a bad one. The reason for this, teleologists say, is that deontologists are like everyone else. Despite their theories, what matters in the end is what is beneficial or useful.
The most influential teleologists are the utilitarians, who include English philosophers Jeremy Bentham in the 1700's and John Stuart Mill in the 1800's. Utilitarians claim that the test of whether a policy or action is right is not whether it brings happiness to a particular individual, but whether it increases happiness for society as a whole. We should have rules against murder and theft, though they frustrate murderers and thieves, because most people are happier with such rules.
Mill argued that the code of rules that is best for humanity is one that prevents people from harming one another but otherwise lets them do what they want. People are happiest if they develop their ability to make choices and learn from their mistakes, provided they injure no one but themselves. Mill might tell Alice that she should think again about how beneficial it would be for Max if she were to inform on him. Being forced to quit drugs when he did not want to might cause more harm than good. According to Mill, we only reach full potential for happiness if society and government allow individuals to pursue their own experiments in living.
On the other hand, Kant's followers have asked what Mill would think of a system ruled by masterminds. These superior beings would persuade people to want what was best for them and thus would leave them unable to make their own choices. Of course, Mill would find such a system horrifying. But this shows, they say, that even for Mill there is something more important than satisfaction or happiness. That something is the dignity people have as rational beings, who are able to grasp moral law and make decisions based on it.
Nietzsche. Most modern ethical theorists have been either deontologists or teleologists, but some have criticized both of these positions. The most famous of these critics was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who lived in the 1800's. Nietzsche thought that the ideas of the ancient Greeks were closer to the truth than those of the moderns. He believed that the problem the deontologists and teleologists argued about—the problem of which actions are right and which are wrong—cannot be solved and is not really that important. Different nations and cultures make up their own ethical rules to suit their own unique circumstances. According to Nietzsche, what is held to be right and good in one culture or historical period could be considered bad or evil in another culture or historical period.
Like Plato and Aristotle, Nietzsche thought that human beings should concern themselves with attaining virtue rather than with the correctness of their particular actions. His notion of virtue, however, was different from theirs. For him, attaining virtue was essentially a matter of achieving more power, especially power over oneself. Virtue does not depend upon believing some rational notion of the good life. There is no such thing as the good life. There are only a "thousand and one goals" that different people pursue. It is not one's choice of goals that determines one's virtue. It is rather the power with which one pursues whatever goals one has chosen. See Nietzsche, Friedrich.
What can ethics do for us?
Faced with the great variety of ethical theories, people may still lack answers to such questions as "How should I live?" and "What should I do?" Such questions probably ask too much of ethics. Perhaps ethics can do no more than help us make our own ideas clearer, more rational, and more responsive to the realities of life. Ethical theory might not be able to tell Alice what to do. But it might help her to think clearly and critically about her values, and to decide whether she needs to develop better ones. That is probably a process that never ends.