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What is the philosophy of ethics?

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The study of ethics is an attempt to quantify the nebulous realm of human behavior and responsibility. Inherent in the discussion are debates about the nature of truth, the value of altruism, and the existence of God. There are three main divisions in the philosophy of ethics. Metaethics is the study about ethics. It tries to discover where good comes from, how language is used when discussing good, and if good is universal. Normative ethics is the attempt to develop a system for judging whether a particular act is right or wrong. Applied ethics takes the basics from metaethics and normative ethics, twists them around, and derives lists of actions that should or should not be done in particular fields.

Metaethics seeks to lay down the groundwork for the discussion of ethics. It debates definitions of relevant terms, the use of language, and other basic questions that must be answered, or at least considered, before a more practical application can be made. The main questions metaethics tries to answer are:
1. What are moral statements?
2. Does morality actually exist?
3. What or who gives morality authority?

Cognitivism teaches that moral statements (cheating is bad) describe real characteristics (bad) about things (cheating) just like physically descriptive statements (that car is blue) describe real physical characteristics about objects. Those descriptive statements may not be accurate (cheating may be okay, the car may be orange), but they do refer to real characteristics.

Moral Realism/Ethical Objectivism
Moral realism says that morality does actually exist. And it exists in a knowable, universal way.

Ethical Naturalism teaches that morality can be deduced from characteristics of the natural world. If we knew everything there was to know about the cosmos, we would see where each ethical statement came from.

Ethical Non-Naturalism says that ethics do not come from physical nature. They may come from God or some other supernatural realm, but they are universal, eternal, and not dependent on the physical world.

Anti-Realism/Moral Subjectivism
Anti-realism claims that morality is not real or universal, and it does not exist outside the mind. There are several theories as to how we derive morality:

Individual Subjectivism insists moral behavior is determined by and adhered to by each individual. Consequently, we do not have authority to judge another's moral code.

Cultural Relativism says morals develop organically in service to individual cultures. What is right for one village may not be right for another.

The Ideal Observer Theory states that morality is what would be dictated by an ideal, objective, omniscient observer. Unfortunately, there is no idea as to how this theoretical observer could exist or how he could communicate if he did.

Divine Command Theory simply says that morality is what God says it is.

Non-Cognitivism holds that an ethical quality is so unlike a physical quality that a moral statement must mean something different. In fact, morality doesn't exist at all. Instead, moral statements say more about the speaker than the object being judged.

Emotivism says that moral statements express how the speaker feels about the subject. "Cheating is wrong," actually means, "Cheating: boo!"

Prescriptivism counters, saying that moral statements are actually a passive-aggressive way for the speaker to explain what he feels should be done about the situation. "Cheating is wrong," means, "Don't cheat!"

Norm-expressivism is emotivism for a group or a community. Instead of "Cheating: boo!" it means "We all agree. Cheating: boo!"

Quasi-realism teaches that even though morality doesn't exist, it is useful to pretend that it does. If we live as if morality does exist, we'll be better off.

There are other metaethical issues that philosophers take much time discussing. Why do we make ethical choices? What is truth? How can we derive a moral quality from a physical quality? And if we can't, does that mean two exact situations could have two different ethical guidelines?

Normative ethics is slightly more practical than metaethics. It mixes and matches the different metaethical concepts to build philosophical systems or frameworks that can be used to determine if a given action is ethical. Normative ethics are informed by metaethics, but they do not generally relate directly. Normative ethics, by definition, all agree that moral standards are real and do exist.

Deontology is the belief that an act is ethical if it follows a law or rule. How these laws may be derived varies.

Moral Absolutism
Moral absolutism is the only deontological school that claims ethical standards are absolute and do not change for circumstance, person, or intent. But the various types of moral absolutism do not agree as to how ethics get their authority. Natural law states that with evolution or creation, humanity was endowed with an operating system that is the best way to act. To act according to that universal natural law is to act ethically. Contractarianism says that acts are ethical if they are required to fulfill the conditions of a contract. And Divine Command Theory, which is also a metaethical point of view, insists morality comes from the word of God.

Kantian Ethics
Immanuel Kant couldn't accept that the acting agent's attitude had no bearing on the morality of the act. He insisted that for an act to be ethical, it must adhere to a law or rule, it must be performed for the purpose of fulfilling a law or rule, and it must be performed willingly, graciously, and with good humor.

Consequentialism bases morality on the result of the act, not the character of the acting agent. If an act results in good, it is ethical. If it doesn't result in good, it is unethical. Then the debates about specifics begin.

What is good?
What does a "good" result look like? It is increased pleasure, or assured wellbeing? Reduced pain, or fulfillment of preferences?

Good for whom?
Ethical egoism says it is unethical to act in the best interests of anyone except oneself. Altruism says it is better to provide good for someone else. Egalitarianism says it's best to work for all mankind.

Who decides?
Who is it that determines the best good to strive for? The acting agent? An "ideal observer"? Or a group of experts in the field?

What about Kant?
How do intentions come into play? It's obvious that we cannot know what action will result in the best good. So what about those who try to do good and fail? Do they get some kind of credit?

Ethical Relativism, like its metaethical counterpart, teaches that morality does exist, but it is different for different situations.

Cultural Relativism
Unlike its metaethical counterpart, normative cultural relativism is not a prescriptive ethical theory. That is, it does not mean to judge or determine actions. It is a tool used by anthropologists to remind themselves that when studying people of a foreign culture, scientists should not judge the subjects by their own ethical standard. The subjects may believe they are acting ethically, even if the ethics do not align with the researchers' own.

Pragmatic Ethics
Pragmatic ethics is ethics for physicists. It's an attempt to use the scientific method to determine ethical actions. True ethics will never be recognized because human intellect is too narrow. But with careful study and constant updating, we can get close.

Moral Relativism
Moral relativism states that an act is moral if that act adheres to an accepted ethical framework. That framework could be a nation's laws, religious rules, or a personal code of conduct.

Virtue Ethics takes all the attention off the act and places it on the character of the acting agent. In order for an act to be ethical, it must have been performed by a virtuous person. In order to be virtuous, a person must cultivate three qualities.

Arête is character that is good, right, gracious, and kind.

Phronesis is wisdom. Both the expertise and the experience to know what to do in any given situation.

Eudaimonia is a life that is trouble-free and fulfilled. Eudaimonia should be cultivated, but bad luck can get in the way.

Applied ethics is the most useful of the divisions of ethical philosophy. It is the application of ethical theory on individual fields of human interest. Applied ethics also delve into very specific ethical frameworks that people actually use to pre-determine their actions.

Fields of Applied Ethics
Different philosophers divide these fields in different ways. In general, there are ethical theories for businesses, professionals, biomedical issues, organizations, nations, the environment, sexual issues, and information propagation. Each field discusses how expectations from clients, users, customers, leadership, and/or employees mesh with ethical responsibilities.

Decision Ethics
Despite the thoroughness of normative ethics, normative frameworks aren't usually used to inform an acting agent as to how he should act. They are used more to judge the act after the fact. Decision ethics provides basic guidelines that people can use to pre-determine their choices. They include following the framework of one's choice, choosing who it is that should be best served by the act, and basing one's actions on another's in a similar situation.

The Bible is the story of God's work through human history and the appropriate human reaction to His work. That "reaction" is biblical ethics. It is how we are supposed to act. When it comes to the different divisions of ethics, the Bible is clear about where God stands.

Biblical Metaethics
Language is meant to express truth and fact. In fact, reality came into existence through language (Genesis 1). Ethics is objective, permanent, and not derived from the wisdom of men (Matthew 5:17-18; Proverbs 14:12). True ethics is defined by, created by, and spoken by God (Micah 6:8).

Biblical Normative Ethics
The Bible doesn't limit itself to one particular normative school. Instead, it teaches that our behavior should be moderated by universal, unchanging ethics (Mark 12:30), specific, God-given laws (Psalm 119:72), and by a spiritually mature character (Galatians 5:22-23).

Biblical Applied Ethics
Scripture does address appropriate actions in specific fields. The Mosaic Law covered medicine (Leviticus 24:19-20), business (Proverbs 20:10), and the environment (Leviticus 4:11). And the New Testament speaks to international issues (Galatians 3:28) and professionalism (Colossians 3:23).

Most of all, the Bible teaches that ethics are found in Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17). If we want to indulge in intellectual gymnastics, we are free to discuss the ins and outs of secular ethics. But the Bible says that we would better use our time by just obeying God (Ecclesiastes 12:12-14).

Related Truth:

What does metaethics study?

How does applied ethics work?

How does normative ethics develop a framework for defining right and wrong?

How does virtue ethics define morality?

How does pragmatic ethics define morality?

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