ETYM Cf. French éthique. Related to Ethic.
Or moral philosophy; Branch of philosophy concerned with the systematic study of human values. It involves the study of theories of conduct and goodness, and of the meanings of moral terms.
In ancient India and China, sages like Buddha and Lao Zi made recommendations about how people should live, as Jesus and Mohammed did in later centuries. However, ethics as a systematic study first appears with the Greek philosopher Socrates in the 5th century BC. Plato thought that objective standards (forms) of justice and goodness existed beyond the everyday world. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argued that virtue is natural and so leads to happiness, and that moral virtues are acquired by practice, like skills. The Cyrenaics and Epicureans were hedonists who believed in the wise pursuit of pleasure. The Stoics advocated control of the passions and indifference to pleasure and pain.
The “Christian ethic” is mainly a combination of New Testament moral teaching with ideas drawn from Plato and Aristotle, combining hedonism and rationalism. Medieval scholasticism saw God’s will as the ethical standard but tempered it with Aristotelian ethics.
In the 17th century, the Dutch philosopher Spinoza and the English Thomas Hobbes both believed that morals were deducible from prudence, but Spinoza's moral theory is set in a pantheistic metaphysics. In the 18th century, the English cleric Joseph Butler argued that virtue is natural and that benevolence and self-interest tend to coincide. The Scot David Hume, who influenced Jeremy Bentham, argued that moral judgments are based on feelings about pleasant and unpleasant consequences. For the German Immanuel Kant, morality could not have a purpose outside itself, so the good person acts only from duty, not feeling or self-interest, and in accordance with the categorical imperative (the obligation to obey absolute moral law). Utilitarianism, devised by Bentham and refined by J S Mill in the 19th century, has been immensely influential, especially in social policy.
In the 20th century, the British philosopher G E Moore argued in Principia Ethica 1903 that the concept of goodness was simple and indefinable. The French Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist emphasis on choice and responsibility has been influential, too. The English novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch has explored the relationship between goodness and beauty, whereas Mary Midgley has tried to update Aristotle’s view of human nature by reference to studies of animal behavior.
Ethics is closely linked to other disciplines, such as anthropology, ethology, political theory, psychology, and sociology. Increasingly, moral philosophers analyze such ethical problems as war, animal rights, abortion, euthanasia, and embryo research; medical ethics has emerged as a specialized branch of ethics.
The philosophical study of moral values and rules; SYN. moral philosophy.