According to the standard dictionary, Ethic (singular) is defined as: The branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles.
Ethics (plural) is defined as follows: Moral principles that govern a person or groups’ behavior or the conducting of an activity. Ethics as a subject is the study of what actions we should take, which ones are commendable, which ones we should disapprove of and how we should live our lives.
synonyms: moral code, morals, morality, values, rights and wrongs, principles, ideals, standards (of behavior), value system, virtues, dictates of conscience
The origin of the word begins in late Middle English (denoting ethics or moral philosophy; also used attributively): from Old French éthique, from Latin ethice, from Greek ( hē) ēthikē (tekhnē ) ‘(the science of) morals,’ based on ēthos.
Atheists claim that their “lack of belief” has no ethical ramifications, but they are wrong. Without a grounding in the absolute (as Deists and all religious understand it) there is no possibility of morality outside of subjectivism.
Virtue ethics is a philosophy primarily based on the understanding of Aristotle, who learned from Socrates, a student of Plato. Because virtue ethics is a quest to understand and live a life of moral character, theists such as Christians, Jews, Muslims and Deists will likely agree in broad strokes, or at least find it a compelling way to understand ethics. As a character-based approach to morality, virtue ethics assumes that we acquire virtue through practice. By practicing being honest, brave, just, generous, and so on, a person develops an honorable and moral character. According to Aristotle, by honing virtuous habits, people will likely make the right choice when faced with ethical challenges.
To illustrate the difference among three key moral philosophies, ethicists Mark White and Robert Arp refer to the film The Dark Knight where Batman has the opportunity to kill the Joker. White and Arp suggest that Utilitarian Ethics would endorse killing the Joker because taking this one life would save multitudes (Do whatever does the most good/the ends justify the means). Deontologists, on the other hand, would reject killing the Joker simply because it’s wrong to kill (following the fixed rules of morality trumps the results of (in)action). Virtue ethics instead manifests as the character of the person, Batman does not kill because he does not want to be the kind of person who takes his enemies’ lives.
In this way, virtue ethics helps us understand what it means to be a virtuous human being by giving us a guide for living life without giving us specific rules for resolving ethical dilemmas. The important part of determining the correct actions are the qualities you have as a person. A person who acts with ‘goodness’ (acting with wisdom/forethought, justice, courage and self-mastery) is acting ethically. By the same token, someone performing bad actions (acting foolishly, unfairly, cowardly, greedily or with vicious intent) is acting unethically according to virtue ethics’ principles. Virtue Ethics guides a person to take a much longer view that the immediate, or even lifetime gains or losses any action will cause a person. By looking at the virtue, rather than the advantage, a person considers their own, personal telos, or destination of their life’s journey.
For many (both past and present), life is a journey with no destination. The ancient Greeks described history as an endless cycle of events, perpetually moving but never arriving. Like them, secular humanity drifts anchorless through life, experiencing and responding to each circumstance as it appears on the horizon but never really getting anywhere.
For the theist, however, every event-past, present, and future-moves toward a final goal. The Creator God that brought the universe into existence, and maintains it in existence, causes all things to work together to accomplish His purpose. To explain this concept, the New Testament uses the Greek telos, meaning “end, goal, result, completion or fulfillment.” To each of the Abrahamic Faiths, that destination is ultimately either paradise or perdition. However, all religions offer the promise of some form of afterlife, even if it is as a higher or lower ‘station’ to be reborn in that is awarded according to the objective truth of one’s life’s deeds.
In many respects, to accomplish one’s telos is to live in accordance with the purpose for which you were made. This coincides with Aristotle’s definition for an entity that performs well or excellently by fulfilling its proper (i.e., essential) function. Aristotle saw a universal teleology or purposiveness in which everything in the universe was goal-directed and striving to actualize its essence. For him, an object actualizes its distinctive essence when it achieves an identity of formal and final causation. Man, as a rational being with free will, should strive for his own perfection.
By achieving his fulfillment and all-around development he would attain happiness or fulfillment (Eudaimonia). It follows therefore, that in ethics a man should choose actions that are properly ordered with respect to human affairs; a project through which people aspire to happiness through the cultivation of virtues. Aristotle taught that people acquire virtues (i.e., good habits) through practice and that a set of concrete virtues could lead a person toward his natural excellence and happiness. Morally good habits promote stable and predictable behavior and foster coordination in an imperfect world. Habits are born from natural dispositions created through the repetition of actions. If these habits are morally good, they serve to underpin virtues.
Because the shortcomings of Utilitarianism have become apparent and the concept of referring to an absolute standard of right and wrong is politically incorrect, many have searched for another system of morality. One such system is Quasi-Utilitarianism, created by Iain King, CBE. Iain is an expert on military history, and has given lectures on war to packed university theatres across Britain. He has worked in ten conflicts around the world, and in 2013 became one of the youngest people ever to be honored with the title ‘Commander of the British Empire’, for his frontline roles in Libya, Afghanistan and Kosovo. He has written acclaimed non-fiction books on modern conflict and philosophy and fiction in the techno-thriller genre.
Iain’s philosophy book, “How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time,” lays out his quasi-utilitarianism philosophy. After laying out that both Intuitive and Utilitarian Ethics are flawed and untenable in all situations, Iain claims that rethinking ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ from scratch makes us wonder what ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ actually refer to. This must be done to find what consequences and motives separate ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in ‘meta-ethics’, which means ‘beyond’ or ‘above’ ethics. Different philosophers have come to different conclusions on meta-ethics. Some say ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are absolute qualities in the world perhaps as real as numbers; others say they are little more than personal tastes, or expressions of ‘boo’ and ‘hurray’ in response to what we witness.
Iain states that ‘How to Make Good Decisions and Be Right All the Time’ sets out four routes for establishing a basis for right and wrong, which also answer ‘What should we do?’ All four routes converge on the same conclusion – the Help Principle: (1) Route One: Reconstructing Utilitarianism, which means reconsidering the common argument for ‘do whatever has the best consequences’ (utilitarianism). Route Two: ‘Correcting’ John Rawls’ approach by adapting the method of denying self-interest to establish a basis for right and wrong (from ‘A Theory of Justice’, 1971). Route Three: The Argument from Evolution: Evolution has instilled moral instincts in us. Because evolution; a chain of our ancestors adapted to their environments, which were arbitrary, this means the genes, and the moral instincts that go with them, which have survived to now are arbitrary too. Route Four: The ‘Sherlock Holmes’ method states that there may or may not be something of value, or meaning in life. If there is meaning, it makes sense to seek it; and if there isn’t any meaning in life it doesn’t matter what we do, since there is nothing of value to be lost.
To define the Help Principle, Iain King says it is necessary to consider the consequences of our actions independently of when we make our decisions because right and wrong should not depend on ‘when’. The hypothetical impact of choices must be applied to the past as well as the future. This is important for promises etc. The Help Principle is reciprocal to be applied to people only as much as they would apply it themselves. When group members don’t reciprocate help they receive, the Help Principle generates: ‘Choose whichever option brings about the greatest all-time direct benefit’ (close to Utilitarianism, but excluding person-to-person wants and including hypothetical impact on the past happiness). For the Help Principle to serve as a practical guide to action, it needs to adapt to the real world. Problems of incomplete information, uncertainty, complexity, inertia, and the impact of previous commitments mean we can rarely make perfect calculations. Iain states that coping with the inevitable uncertainty, complexity etc. of the real world, we must adopt conventions such as social norms, ‘rules of thumb’, traditions of expected behavior and some institutions.
This move reflects a now-common desire to ground ethics without God or religion. The secular/atheist activists/influences in our current culture demand that any/all religious influences be eradicated from the public square. The demand to expunge religion seems to come even if the religious influence has no effect on the culture at large.
Secular rejection of religious basis for ethics may start with the rejection of Pascal’s Wager. Blaise Pascal offers a pragmatic reason offers a pragmatic reason for believing in God: even under the assumption that God’s existence is unlikely. The basis Pascal offers for believing is that the reward for believing/punishment for not believing is substantial in the event God does exist; while the negatives are miniscule if God does not exist. Therefore, it is universally advantageous to believe that God exists.
Pascal’s argument has many objections, including intellectualist objections that one cannot believe something by simply deciding to do so. While true, this objection has perhaps less weight that at first glance. No one can do anything simply by virtue of deciding to. Aristotle, acknowledged doing the right thing is not always so simple, even though few people deliberately choose to develop vicious habits in sharp disagreement with Socrates’s belief that knowing what is right always results in doing it. The great enemy of moral conduct, on Aristotle’s view, is precisely the failure to behave well even on those occasions when one’s deliberation has resulted in clear knowledge of what is right. One cannot get to work or school simply by deciding to. Any/every decision must be followed up with actions and behavior that support and reinforce the decision.
Moral/Ethical Subjectivism holds that there are no objective moral properties and that ethical statements are in fact arbitrary because they do not express immutable truths. Many modern atheists/materialists claim that moral or ethical statements are made true or false by the attitudes opinion, personal preference feelings and/or conventions of the person speaking. Thus, for a statement to be considered morally right merely means that it is met with approval by the person of interest. Another way of looking at this is that judgments about human conduct are shaped by, and in many ways limited to, perception.
An Ethical Subjectivist could argue that the statement “Stalin was evil” expresses a strong dislike for the sorts of things that Stalin did, but it does not follow that it is true (or false) that Stalin was in fact evil. Another person who disagrees with the statement on purely moral grounds (while in agreement with all non-evaluative facts about Stalin) is not making an intellectual error, but simply has a different attitude.
It is compatible with Moral Absolutism, (belief that an individual can be certain that at least some of their moral precepts apply in all situations), but it is also compatible with Moral Relativism (the truth of moral claims is relative to the attitudes of individuals). Moral/Ethical Subjectivism is a cognitivist theory that holds ethical sentences to be subjective, yet still the kind of thing that can be true or false, depending on whose approval is being discussed. It stands in direct contrast to Moral Realism (under which ethical statements are independent of personal attitudes).
Ethical Subjectivism seemingly provides a simple, common-sense explanation of what morality is. Though ethical views often give an internal appearance of objectivity (it feels like we are making, or attempting to make, an objective statement), all that means is people believed them to be true, due to the assertive nature of most ethical statements.
Ethical Subjectivism creates significant problems because it offers no way for people engaged in ethical debate to resolve their disagreements. Instead it requires each side to exercise tolerance by acknowledging the equally ‘factual truth’ of the perceptions asserted by opponents. This tolerance counteracts the issues ethics seeks to resolve, namely deciding ‘what is the right thing to do’. In addition, feelings and attitudes often change over time, as knowledge, experience and circumstances change. Variable foundations and non-judgementalism may serve to insulate one from criticism from their peers, but do not make a good base for ethical decisions.
Subjectivism also leads inevitably to the claim that objective morals don’t exist. The claim that our universe contains moral categories of values (good and evil) and duties (right and wrong actions) that exist independently of anyone’s opinion and apply to the actions and motivations of all persons is unacceptable to Subjectivists and Atheists alike. Whether this is because universal rules are inconvenient/restricting or imply the existence of a universal rule-giver (God) is irrelevant. Therefore, the topic at hand is a question of ontology-whether these categories actually exist, and not epistemology-how we know these categories. How we come to knowledge of morality is irrelevant to the question. The question is whether these moral categories exist in reality, not in someone’s private belief system. Neither ignorance of a given law, or claiming you are immune because you do not accept the law are admissible as a defense in court of most ‘civilized’ nations (unless you are of an artificially favored/protected population).
So the question presents us with two different types of realities; a moral universe in which objective moral categories exist, and an amoral universe that contains only subjective moral categories (where each person’s standard of right, wrong, good, and evil is defined by themselves and applies only to themselves). In order to determine which of these descriptions applies to our own universe, let’s take a look at what both of these realities might be like, and then see which most closely describes the features of our own universe.
In an Amoral Universe, where objective moral categories do not exist, no action can be called objectively evil. While one might dislike another’s action, no external standard exists by which any action can be called good or evil. In the overall scheme of things, feeding your child is no better or worse than beheading your child, and any feelings one has to the contrary are simply opinion. In this universe, moral opinions have no basis in reality; that is to say, nothing objective exists on which to base such a concept. The only basis for making such a claim here is just private interests and taste. When people say “that’s wrong!” they are saying: “That is against my interests/standards/tastes!”
In a Moral Universe, objective moral categories exist as objective features of the universe, and not of an individual human. Therefore, these categories apply to all humans, just as the law of gravity and laws of physics apply to all physical objects. The laws of morality are just as binding as natural laws on moral creatures. However, the moral categories are necessarily different from other laws of the universe in that they are prescriptive (describing how things ought to be) and not descriptive (describing how things are). Any given action can fall into one of three categories:
Moral actions – actions that conform to the objective moral standard (ex: Helping someone in need without asking for reward.)
Immoral actions – actions that violate the objective moral standard (ex: Violating another person’s rights to life, property or person.)
Amoral actions – actions which are not addressed by the objective moral standard (ex: Parking in the wrong lot without a permit (illegal, but does not violate any moral code) or buying only organic produce.)
The idea of an amoral universe is existentially self-refuting, though not logically self-refuting. There is no logical incoherence in the statement “No objective moral values and duties exist.” However, when one attempts to describe how one should live in such a universe they automatically invalidate the concept. In an amoral universe, “how one should live” is meaningless because no standard exists to describe how one should live.
Many find it is easy to claim that “Objective moral truths do not exist; I have the right to do as I please!” Yet, they are making this statement without considering that it makes a moral claim to a “right” while denying a moral reality. If you believe that others ought to allow you to live according to the dictates of your own will and your own conscience, then you are appealing to objective morality to justify what others “ought” to do.
How to Make Good Decisions… a 62 Point Summary