Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. The term comes from the Greek word ethos, which means “character”. Ethics is a complement to Aesthetics in the philosophy field of Axiology. In philosophy, ethics studies the moral behavior in humans, and how one should act. Ethics may be divided into four major areas of study:
Meta-ethics, about the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions and how their truth values (if any) may be determined; Normative ethics, about the practical means of determining a moral course of action; Applied ethics, about how moral outcomes can be achieved in specific situations; Descriptive ethics, also known as comparative ethics, is the study of people’s beliefs about morality;
According to Tomas Paul and Linda Elder of the Foundation for Critical Thinking, “most people confuse ethics with behaving in accordance with social conventions, religious beliefs, and the law”, and don’t treat ethics as a stand-alone concept. Paul and Elder define ethics as “a set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behavior helps or harms sentient creatures”. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy states that the word ethics is “commonly used interchangeably with ‘morality’ … and sometimes it is used more narrowly to mean the moral principles of a particular tradition, group, or individual.”
Meta-ethics is a field within ethics that seeks to understand the nature of normative ethics. The focus of meta-ethics is on how we understand, know about, and what we mean when we talk about what is right and what is wrong.
Meta-ethics came to the fore with G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica from 1903. In it he first wrote about what he called the naturalistic fallacy. Moore was seen to reject naturalism in ethics, in his Open Question Argument. This made thinkers look again at second order questions about ethics. Earlier, the Scottish philosopher David Hume had put forward a similar view on the difference between facts and values.
Studies of how we know in ethics divide into cognitivism and non-cognitivism; this is similar to the contrast between descriptivists and non-descriptivists. Non-cognitivism is the claim that when we judge something as right or wrong, this is neither true nor false. We may for example be only expressing our emotional feelings about these things. Cognitivism can then be seen as the claim that when we talk about right and wrong, we are talking about matters of fact.
The ontology of ethics is about value-bearing things or properties, i.e. the kind of things or stuff referred to by ethical propositions. Non-descriptivists and non-cognitivists believe that ethics does not need a specific ontology, since ethical propositions do not refer. This is known as an anti-realist position. Realists on the other hand must explain what kind of entities, properties or states are relevant for ethics, how they have value, and why they guide and motivate our actions.
Virtue ethics describes the character of a moral agent as a driving force for ethical behavior, and is used to describe the ethics of Socrates, Aristotle, and other early Greek philosophers. Socrates (469 BC – 399 BC) was one of the first Greek philosophers to encourage both scholars and the common citizen to turn their attention from the outside world to the condition of humankind. In this view, knowledge having a bearing on human life was placed highest, all other knowledge being secondary. Self-knowledge was considered necessary for success and inherently an essential good. A self-aware person will act completely within his capabilities to his pinnacle, while an ignorant person will flounder and encounter difficulty. To Socrates, a person must become aware of every fact (and its context) relevant to his existence, if he wishes to attain self-knowledge. He posited that people will naturally do what is good, if they know what is right. Evil or bad actions are the result of ignorance. If a criminal was truly aware of the mental and spiritual consequences of his actions, he would neither commit nor even consider committing those actions. Any person who knows what is truly right will automatically do it, according to Socrates. While he correlated knowledge with virtue, he similarly equated virtue with happiness. The truly wise man will know what is right, do what is good, and therefore be happy.
Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) posited an ethical system that may be termed “self-realizationism.” In Aristotle’s view, when a person acts in accordance with his nature and realizes his full potential, he will do good and be content. At birth, a baby is not a person, but a potential person. To become a “real” person, the child’s inherent potential must be realized. Unhappiness and frustration are caused by the unrealized potential of a person, leading to failed goals and a poor life. Aristotle said, “Nature does nothing in vain.” Therefore, it is imperative for persons to act in accordance with their nature and develop their latent talents in order to be content and complete. Happiness was held to be the ultimate goal. All other things, such as civic life or wealth, are merely means to the end. Self-realization, the awareness of one’s nature and the development of one’s talents, is the surest path to happiness.
Aristotle asserted that man had three natures: vegetable (physical/metabolism), animal (emotional/appetite) and rational (mental/conceptual). Physical nature can be assuaged through exercise and care, emotional nature through indulgence of instinct and urges, and mental through human reason and developed potential. Rational development was considered the most important, as essential to philosophical self-awareness and as uniquely human. Moderation was encouraged, with the extremes seen as degraded and immoral. For example, courage is the moderate virtue between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. Man should not simply live, but live well with conduct governed by moderate virtue. This is regarded as difficult, as virtue denotes doing the right thing, to the right person, at the right time, to the proper extent, in the correct fashion, for the right reason.
 StoicismThe Stoic philosopher Epictetus posited that the greatest good was contentment and serenity. Peace of mind, or Apatheia, was of the highest value; self-mastery over one’s desires and emotions leads to spiritual peace. The “unconquerable will” is central to this philosophy. The individual’s will should be independent and inviolate. Allowing a person to disturb the mental equilibrium is in essence offering yourself in slavery. If a person is free to anger you at will, you have no control over your internal world, and therefore no freedom. Freedom from material attachments is also necessary.
If a thing breaks, the person should not be upset, but realize it was a thing that could break. Similarly, if someone should die, those close to them should hold to their serenity because the loved one was made of flesh and blood destined to death. Stoic philosophy says to accept things that cannot be changed, resigning oneself to existence and enduring in a rational fashion. Death is not feared. People do not “lose” their life, but instead “return”, for they are returning to God (who initially gave what the person is as a person). Epictetus said difficult problems in life should not be avoided, but rather embraced. They are spiritual exercises needed for the health of the spirit, just as physical exercise is required for the health of the body. He also stated that sex and sexual desire are to be avoided as the greatest threat to the integrity and equilibrium of a man’s mind. Abstinence is highly desirable. Epictetus said remaining abstinent in the face of temptation was a victory for which a man could be proud.
 HedonismMain article: Hedonism
Hedonism posits that the principal ethic is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. There are several schools of Hedonist thought ranging from those advocating the indulgence of even momentary desires to those teaching a pursuit of spiritual bliss. In their consideration of consequences, they range from those advocating self-gratification regardless of the pain and expense to others, to those stating that the most ethical pursuit maximizes pleasure and happiness for the most people.
 Cyrenaic hedonismFounded by Aristippus of Cyrene, Cyrenaics supported immediate gratification or pleasure. “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” Even fleeting desires should be indulged, for fear the opportunity should be forever lost. There was little to no concern with the future, the present dominating in the pursuit for immediate pleasure. Cyrenaic hedonism encouraged the pursuit of enjoyment and indulgence without hesitation, believing pleasure to be the only good.
 EpicureanismMain article: Epicureanism
Epicurean ethics is a hedonist form of virtue ethics. Epicurus “presented a sustained argument that pleasure, correctly understood, will coincide with virtue”. He rejected the extremism of the Cyrenaics, believing some pleasures and indulgences to be detrimental to human beings. Epicureans observed that indiscriminate indulgence sometimes resulted in negative consequences. Some experiences were therefore rejected out of hand, and some unpleasant experiences endured in the present to ensure a better life in the future. To Epicurus the summum bonum, or greatest good, was prudence, exercised through moderation and caution. Excessive indulgence can be destructive to pleasure and can even lead to pain.
For example, eating one food too often will cause a person to lose taste for it. Eating too much food at once will lead to discomfort and ill-health. Pain and fear were to be avoided. Living was essentially good, barring pain and illness. Death was not to be feared. Fear was considered the source of most unhappiness. Conquering the fear of death would naturally lead to a happier life. Epicurus reasoned if there was an afterlife and immortality, the fear of death was irrational. If there was no life after death, then the person would not be alive to suffer, fear or worry; he would be non-existent in death. It is irrational to fret over circumstances that do not exist, such as one’s state in death in the absence of an afterlife.