Ethics is a major branch of Philosophy dating back at least to the ancient Greek Philosophers' cogitations on "virtue", and almost certainly predates them significantly. It appears that since essentially the dawn of time, humans of every culture have evaluated their own qualities, behaviors and standards of good and evil and have sought to define them in a logical and philosophical sense. Some of the notable classical western thinkers on the subject have been Socrates/Plato, Aristotle, Epictetus, Augustine of Hippo, Aquinas, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Bentham, Mill, Hume,and Nietzsche.
Religious ethicists have included Moses, Jesus Christ, and Muhammad on this list of thinkers, however they are often excluded. The exclusion is supportable only to the extent that although conventional thought is that they "brought" certain moral and ethical teachings, they were not the actual source of the teachings themselves (see Religion and Ethics below). In eastern philosophy, Laozi and Buddha are among the major sources of teachings on the subject, but in general when the word ethics is used it is done so in the western philosophical context (which is natural since it is indeed a linguistic descendant of the Greek word ethos).
Ethical behavioral standards and beliefs have in many contexts been loosely termed "the good life". It can be said that some general sense of agreement on ethical standards and values are one of the things that hold societies together. To this end societies have typically produced laws that specify required or forbidden behaviors and practices, although it has been argued that laws are actually more of a method of societal self-preservation than a set of fundamental societal ethical precepts. This is seen in the argument of legal positivism
Morality vs. Ethics
Philosophers have drawn various contrasts between "morality" and "ethics". In common usage the terms are more or less interchangeable, although of the two "ethics" is the more nuanced and also more broadly defined. Ethics is often thought of as meta-morality, the understanding of morality at a philosophical level, just as one might use the term psychology to refer to a person's mental faculties, or to the study of human mental faculties in general. Others dispute this usage.
For more information see Applied Ethics
Religion and Ethics
It has been suggested that the birth of ethics was in some sense coincident with the birth of religion. This is in the sense that once people began worshipping "God(s)", they began to attempt to bind themselves to a standard of conduct that would be considered "good" by the divinity.
Philosophers have also questioned the relationship between religion and ethics. Plato's Euthyphro described Socrates presenting Euthyphro with a dilemma - "Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?". The problem this presents is simple. Either one has to admit one or the other of the two positions - the former causing problem for theists since it means that God is not the source of ethics, and the latter leads to the ethical being arbitrary. Advocates of religious morality cannot declare that the two are compatible, since that makes them open to the accusation of circular reasoning.
Another thinker who has explored the relationship between religion and ethics in great detail is Søren Kierkegaard in the book Fear and Trembling, where the pseudonym Johannes de Silentio considers the story of Abraham from Genesis ch. 22, considering this act which many monotheists consider the foundation of faith to be beyond ethics, questioning whether or not there can be a teleological suspension of the ethical. In Kierkegaard's scheme of the three stages (or spheres) of life, the aesthetic and ethical are separate from the religious, in that the religious must pass through the ethical, but accept that there are potential situations where the religious believer must do something which would go against the tenets of the ethical life - and that there is no possible way for anybody else in a society to understand. Kierkegaard states that this also applies to claims of divine revelation in another book, The Book on Adler.
When developing ethical philosophies, not all cultures have arrived at the same conclusions! Various cultures have differing ethical viewpoints on for instance; killing other human beings, stealing from other individuals/cultures, rape, and war. But what is common between all cultures (in the sense of a set of ethical standards) is that there is invariably some standard of conduct considered "right" (vs. wrong) for every culture one would care to examine. This disparity between what is considered "right and wrong" in different cultures has been termed cultural relativism.
Theory of Conduct
- Jesus Christ. Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved on 2008-04-02.
- BBC, Religions, Islam. BBC website. Retrieved on 2008-04-02.
- BBC, Religions, Judaism. BBC website. Retrieved on 2008-04-02.
- Green, Leslie. Legal Positivism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on 2008-04-02.
- Hare, John. Religion and Morality. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved on 2008-04-02.
- Euthyphro, §10a