• Ethics is the branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.
  • The term ethics derives from the Ancient Greek word ethikos, which is derived from the word ethos (habit, custom or character).
  • As a branch of philosophy, ethics investigates the questions “What is the best way for people to live?” and “What actions are right or wrong in particular circumstances?”
  • In practice, ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality, by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime.
  • 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.”
  • Some defines ethics as ‘the science of the ideal human character’ or ‘the science of moral duty’.
  •  Some defines ethics as “a set of concepts and principles that guide us in determining what behavior helps or harms sentient creatures”.
  • Ethics can also be used to describe a particular person’s own, idiosyncratic principles or habitsFor example: “Sachin has good ethics.”
  • It may also be used to characterize the questions of right-conduct in some specific sphere, even when such right-conduct is not examined philosophically: “business ethics,” or “the ethics of child-rearing” may refer, but need not refer, to a philosophical examination of such issues.
  • 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.


  • Ethics is not based on whether we feel something is right or wrong. Sometimes, our feelings signal to us that we are facing an ethical dilemma, and we want to “do the right thing,” but feelings also may prevent us from behaving ethically, perhaps out of fear or conflicting desires.
  • Ethics is also not solely the purview of a religion or religious beliefs. Although most religions incorporate an ethical code of conduct into their belief system, religious faith is not required to be ethical and ethical principles apply to everyone regardless of religious affiliation.
  • Being ethical does not always entail abiding by the letter of the law, although most laws articulate ethical standards generally accepted by the citizenry. Martin Luther King, Jr. employed nonviolent civil disobedience in the 1950’s and 1960’s to defy discriminatory, segregationist legislation and advance the cause of civil rights in the United States. Here law was not ethical.
  • Ethical behavior is not always aligned with what “everybody else does” or even with what is generally regarded as socially acceptable. Just because one is at a competitive disadvantage in an examination where there is a cheating ring does not justify joining in and cheating also. Until recently, smoking cigarettes in public places was the norm even though it is well-documented that second-hand smoke endangers everyone’s health. Yet, smoking in public areas remains legal in many places.
  • Ethics is not an exact science. It is not based on a set of scientific formulas which consistently yield the same results or predict, with certainty, the right approach in every moral quandary. As Aristotle observed in 350 B.C.E.: “But to what degree and how seriously a man must err to be blamed, it is not easy to define by one principle,…such questions of degree depend on particular circumstances, and the decision lies with perception.” In other words, every situation is different and we need to be able to assess how we should conduct ourselves based on the merits of the relevant factors and what points us toward the best course of action. (Sometimes wrong act done under force would not be called unethical. For Example if someone asks you ransom by threatening life of your child,  giving ransom might not be called unethical)
  • So to summarize, if we cannot rely on our feelings or gut instincts, religious creed, the law, social norms, scientific methodology to know ethical values.


The four major areas of study within ethics are:

  1. Meta-ethics
  2. Descriptive ethicsor comparative ethics
  3. Normative ethics
  4. Applied ethics


  • Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments.
  • While normative ethics addresses such questions as “What should I do?”, thus endorsing some ethical evaluations and rejecting others, meta-ethics addresses questions such as “What is goodness?” and “How can we tell what is good from what is bad?”, seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.
  • A meta-ethical theory, unlike a normative ethical theory, does not attempt to evaluate specific choices as being better, worse, good, bad, or evil.
  • There are three kinds of meta-ethical problems, or three general questions:
    • What is the meaning of moral judgements?For Ex: “What do the words ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ mean”
    • What is the nature of moral judgements?For Ex: Are moral judgements are universal or relative, of one kind or many kinds, etc.
    • How moral judgements be supported or defended?For Ex: How we can know if something is right or wrong, if at all.
    • Answers to the three basic questions are not unrelated, and sometimes an answer to one will strongly suggest, or perhaps even entail, an answer to another.

There are three theories to answer above three questions:

(A) Semantic theories

  • These theories mainly put forward a position on the first of the three questions above, “What is the meaning of moral terms or judgements?” They may however imply or even entail answers to the other two questions as well.
  • Meta-ethical theories are commonly categorized as Cognitivist theories or Non-Cognitivist theories.

Cognitivist theories:

  • Cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences express propositions and can therefore be true or false, as opposed to non-cognitivism.
  1. Moral realism or Ethical Objectivism
    • It holds that such propositions are not facts about any person or group’s subjective opinion, but about objective features of the world, independent of human opinion.
    • Ethical naturalism a definist form of moral realism, which says that moral features of the world are reducible to some set of non-moral features. Ethical naturalism suggests that inquiry into the natural world can increase our moral knowledge in just the same way it increases our scientific knowledge.
    • Ethical non-naturalism is a non-definist form of moral realism, which says that moral features of the world are irreducible to any set of non-moral features. For Example: Goodness is a simple, undefinable, non-natural property. It means that goodness cannot be reduced to natural properties such as needs, wants or pleasures. Goodness cannot be defined in any other terms. This is the central claim of non-naturalism. One cannot substitute words referring to pleasure, needs or anything else in place of  “good.”
    • Advantages of Moral Realism: Moral realism allows the ordinary rules of logic to be applied straightforwardly to moral statements. We can say that a moral belief is false or contradictory in the same way we would about a factual belief. Another advantage of moral realism is its capacity to resolve moral disagreements: If two moral beliefs contradict one another, realism says that they cannot both be right, and therefore everyone involved ought to be seeking out the right answer to resolve the disagreement.
    • Disadvantages of Moral Realism: while realism can explain how to resolve moral conflicts, it does not explain how these conflicts arose in the first place. Others are critical of moral realism because moral truths cannot be observed in the same way as material facts (which are objective), so it seems odd to count them in the same category.
  2. Ethical subjectivism
    • It is one form of moral anti-realism. It holds that moral statements are made true or false by the attitudes and/or conventions of people.
    • The most common forms of ethical subjectivism are also forms of moral relativism, with moral standards held to be relative to each culture or society, or even to every individual.
    • Ethical subjectivism is also compatible with moral absolutism, in that the individual or society to whose attitudes moral propositions refer can hold some moral principle to apply regardless of circumstances. (That is, a moral principle can be relative to an individual, but not relative to circumstances).
    • Ethical subjectivism stands in opposition to moral realism, which claims that moral propositions refer to objective facts, independent of human opinion.
    • Ideal observer theory holds that what is right is determined by the attitudes that a hypothetical ideal observer would have. An ideal observer is usually characterized as a being who is perfectly rational, imaginative, and informed, among other things. Though a subjectivist theory due to its reference to a particular subject, Ideal Observer Theory still purports to provide universal answers to moral questions.
  3. Error theory
    • It is another form of moral anti-realism, holds that although ethical claims do express propositions, all such propositions are false. Thus, both the statement “Murder is bad” and the statement “Murder is good” are false, according to error theory.
    • Since error theory denies that there are moral truths, error theory entails moral nihilism (Moral nihilism is the meta-ethical view that nothing is intrinsically moral or immoral) and, thus, moral skepticism (Moral skepticism is metaethical view that no one has any moral knowledge).
    • Error theory is built by three principles:
      1. There are no moral features in this world; nothing is right or wrong.
      2. Therefore no moral judgements are true; however,
      3. Our sincere moral judgements try, but always fail, to describe the moral features of things.

Non-cognitivist theories:

  • Non-cognitivism is the meta-ethical view that ethical sentences do not express propositions (i.e. statements) and thus cannot be true or false. Non-cognitivism is another form of moral anti-realism.
  • If moral statements cannot be true, and if one cannot know something that is not true, noncognitivism implies that moral knowledge is impossible.
  • One argument against non-cognitivism is that it ignores the external causes of emotional and prescriptive reactions. If someone says, “John is a good person,” something about John must have inspired that reaction. If John gives to the poor, takes care of his sick grandmother, and is friendly to others, and these are what inspire the speaker to think well of him, it is plausible to say, “John is a good person because he gives to the poor, takes care of his sick grandmother, and is friendly to others.”
  1. Emotivism
    • Emotivism is a meta-ethical view that claims that ethical sentences do not express propositions but emotional attitudes.
    • It holds that ethical sentences serve merely to express emotions. So “Killing is wrong” means something like “Boo on killing!”.
  2. Universal prescriptivism
    • Universal prescriptivism is the meta-ethical view which claims that, rather than expressing propositions, ethical sentences function similarly to imperatives which are universalizable—whoever makes a moral judgement is committed to the same judgement in any situation where the same relevant facts obtain.
    • Ex: Consider the moral sentence “Murder is wrong.” According to moral realism, such a sentence claims there to be some objective property of “wrongness” associated with the act of murder. According to emotivism, such a sentence merely expresses an attitude of the speaker; it only means something like “Boo on murder!” But according to prescriptivism, the statement “Murder is wrong” means something more like “Do not murder”—what it expresses is not primarily a description or an emotion, it is an imperative.
    • Criticism: It is the matter of weakness of will. Simply knowing what is right, does not seem to motivate people to do right.

(B) Substantial theories:

  • These theories attempt to answer the second of the above questions: “What is the nature of moral judgements?”
  • Amongst those who believe there to be some standard of morality (as opposed to moral nihilists), there are two divisions: universalists, who hold that the same moral facts or principles apply to everyone everywhere; and relativists, who hold that different moral facts or principles apply to different people or societies.

Moral universalism (or universal morality)

  • It is the meta-ethical position that some system of ethics, or a universal ethic, applies universally, that is to all people regardless of culture, race, sex, religion, nationality, sexuality, or other distinguishing feature.
  • The source or justification of this system may be thought to be, for instance, human nature, shared vulnerability to suffering, the demands of universal reason, etc.
  • Not all forms of moral universalism are value monist; many forms of universalism may be value pluralist.
  • Value monism is the common form of universalism, which holds that all goods are commensurable on a single value scale.
  • Value pluralism is the idea that there are several values which may be equally correct and fundamental, and yet in conflict with each other. A value pluralist might, for example, contend that both a life as a nun and a life as a mother realize genuine values (in a universalist sense), yet they are incompatible (nuns may not have children), and there is no purely rational way to measure which is preferable.

Moral relativism

  • It maintains that all moral judgements have their origins either in societal or in individual standards, and that no single objective standard exists by which one can assess the truth of a moral proposition.
  • Moral relativism may be any of several philosophical positions concerned with the differences in moral judgements across different people and cultures.
  • Meta-ethical relativists, in general, believe that the descriptive properties of terms such as “good”, “bad”, “right”, and “wrong” do not stand subject to universal truth conditions, but only to societal convention and personal preference.

Moral nihilism

  • Moral nihilism is the meta-ethical view that nothing is morally preferable to anything else. For example, a moral nihilist would say that killing someone, for whatever reason, is neither morally right nor morally wrong.
  • Moral nihilism must be distinguished from moral relativism, which does allow for moral statements to be true or false in a non-universal sense, but does not assign any static truth-values to moral statements.

(C) Justification theories:

  • These are theories that attempt to answer questions like, “How moral judgments be supported or defended?” or “Why should I be moral?”

Moral Knowledge is gained by inference:

  • Most posit that moral knowledge is somehow possible, as opposed to moral skepticism. Amongst them, there are those who hold that moral knowledge is gained inferentially as opposed to ethical intuitionism.
  • Empiricism is the doctrine that knowledge is gained primarily through observation and experience.
  • Moral rationalism is the view according to which moral truths are knowable a priori, by reason alone. Some prominent figures who have defended moral rationalism are Plato and Immanuel Kant. Others who have rejected moral rationalism are David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Moral Knowledge is gained without inference:

  • Ethical intuitionism is the view according to which some moral truths can be known without inference  (i.e., known without one needing to infer them from other truths one believes).
  • Ethical intuitionism is the thesis that our intuitive awareness of value, or intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge.


  • Descriptive ethics, also known as comparative ethics, is the study of people’s beliefs about morality. It contrasts with prescriptive or normative ethics, which is the study of ethical theories that prescribe how people ought to act, and with meta-ethics, which is the study of what ethical terms and theories actually refer to. For Ex:
    • Descriptive ethics: What do people think is right?
    • Meta-ethics: What does “right” even mean?
    • Normative (prescriptive) ethics: How should people act?
    • Applied ethics: How do we take moral knowledge and put it into practice?
  • Descriptive ethics is a form of empirical research into the attitudes of individuals or groups of people. Those working on descriptive ethics aim to uncover people’s beliefs about such things as values, which actions are right and wrong, and which characteristics of moral agents are virtuous.
  • Research into descriptive ethics may also investigate people’s ethical ideals or what actions societies reward or punish in law or politics. What ought to be noted is that culture is generational and not static. Therefore a new generation will come with its own set of morals and that qualifies to be their ethics. Descriptive ethics will hence try to oversee whether ethics still holds its place.
  • Descriptive ethics is on the less philosophical end of the spectrum, since it seeks to gather particular information about how people live and draw general conclusions based on observed patterns.


  • Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act. Normative ethics is distinct from meta-ethics because it examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions, while meta-ethics studies the meaning of moral language and the metaphysics of moral facts.
  • Normative ethics is also distinct from descriptive ethics, as the latter is an empirical investigation of people’s moral beliefs. To put it another way, descriptive ethics would be concerned with determining what proportion of people believe that killing is always wrong, while normative ethics is concerned with whether it is correct to hold such a belief. Hence, normative ethics is sometimes called prescriptive, rather than descriptive.

Normative ethical theories:

  • There are disagreements about what precisely gives an action, rule, or disposition its ethical force.
  • Broadly speaking, there are three competing views on how moral questions should be answered:
    1. Virtue ethics
    2. Deontological ethics
    3. Consequentialism
  • Virtue ethics focuses on the character of those who are acting, while both deontological ethics and consequentialism focus on the status of the action, rule, or disposition itself. The latter two conceptions of ethics themselves come in various forms.
  • For example, a consequentialist may argue that lying is wrong because of the negative consequences produced by lying—though a consequentialist may allow that certain foreseeable consequences might make lying acceptable. A deontologist might argue that lying is always wrong, regardless of any potential “good” that might come from lying. A virtue ethicist, however, would focus less on lying in any particular instance and instead consider what a decision to tell a lie or not tell a lie said about one’s character and moral behavior. As such, the morality of lying would be determined on a case-by-case basis, which would be based on factors such as personal benefit, group benefit, and intentions (as to whether they are benevolent or malevolent).
  1. Virtue ethics:
    • Virtue ethics, advocated by Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, focuses on the inherent character of a person rather than on specific actions. Virtue ethics emphasizes the role of one’s character and the virtues that one’s character embodies for determining or evaluating ethical behavior.
    • The cardinal virtues are a set of four virtues derived initially from Plato‘s scheme, discussed in Republic. They consist of:
      1. Prudence: also described as wisdom, the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time.
      2. Justice: also considered as fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue.
      3. Temperance: also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, and moderation tempering the appetition.
      4. Courage: also named fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.
    • Aristotle categorized the virtues as moral and intellectual. He identified a few intellectual virtues, the most important of which was wisdom. The approximately two dozen moral virtues he identified includes above four i.e. Prudence, Justice, Fortitude (Courage), Temperance
    • Aristotle argued that each of the moral virtues was a mean (called golden mean) between two corresponding vices, one of excess and one of deficiency. For example: courage is a virtue found between the vices of cowardliness and recklessness.
    • In Chinese philosophy, a similar concept, Doctrine of the Mean, was propounded by Confucius. Buddhist philosophy likewise includes the concept of the Middle Path.
      Criticism of Virtue theory:

      • Regarding virtues once supposedly applicable to women, many would have once considered a virtuous woman to be quiet, servile, and industrious. This conception of female virtue no longer holds true in many modern societies. Proponents of virtue theory sometimes respond to this objection by arguing that a central feature of a virtue is its universal applicability. In other words, any character trait defined as a virtue must reasonably be universally regarded as a virtue for all sentient beings. According to this view, it is inconsistent to claim for example servility as a female virtue, while at the same time not proposing it as a male one.
      • Another objection to virtue theory is that the school does not focus on what sorts of actions are morally permitted and which ones are not, but rather on what sort of qualities someone ought to foster in order to become a good person. In other words, while some virtue theorists may not condemn, for example, murder as an inherently immoral or impermissible sort of action, they may argue that someone who commits a murder is severely lacking in several important virtues, such as compassion and fairness.
  1. Deontological ethics
    • Deontological ethics is the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action’s adherence to rules. It is sometimes described as “duty” or “obligation” or “rule” based ethics, because rules “bind you to your duty.”
    • Deontology argues that decisions should be made considering the factors of one’s duties and others’ rights.
  • Some deontological theories include:
    • (a) Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Kantianism:
      • Central to Kant’s construction of the moral law is the categorical imperative, which acts on all people, regardless of their interests or desires. Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative, which roots morality in humanity’s rational capacity and asserts certain inviolable moral laws.
      • According to Kant, human beings occupy a special place in creation, and morality can be summed up in an imperative, or ultimate commandment of reason, from which all duties and obligations derive. He defined an imperative as any proposition declaring a certain action (or inaction) to be necessary.
      • Kant formulated the categorical imperative in various ways:
      • His principle of universality requires that, for an action to be permissible, it must be possible to apply it to all people.
      • His formulation of humanity as an ends in itself requires that It is immoral to use another person merely as a means to an end, and that people must, under all circumstances, be treated as ends in themselves. In other words,  it was not the consequences of actions that make them right or wrong but the motives of the person who carries out the action. Kant argues that to act in the morally right way, people must act from duty (deon). [Means to an end refers to any action (the means) carried out for the sole purpose of achieving something else (an end)].
      • Kant argues that those things that are usually thought to be good, such as intelligence, perseverance and pleasure, fail to be either intrinsically good or good without qualification. Pleasure, for example, appears not to be good without qualification, because when people take pleasure in watching someone suffering, this seems to make the situation ethically worse.
    • (b) Moral absolutism:
      • Some deontologists are moral absolutists, believing that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of the intentions behind them as well as the consequences. Immanuel Kant, for example, argued that the only absolutely good thing is a good will, and so the single determining factor of whether an action is morally right is the will, or motive of the person doing it. If they are acting on a bad maxim, e.g. “I will lie”, then their action is wrong, even if some good consequences come of it.
      • Non-absolutist deontologists hold that the consequences of an action such as lying may sometimes make lying the right thing to do.
    • (c) Divine command theory:
      • Although not all deontologists are religious, some believe in the ‘divine command theory’. The divine command theory states that an action is right if God has decreed that it is right.
      • The Divine Command Theory is a form of deontology because, according to it, the rightness of any action depends upon that action being performed because it is a duty, not because of any good consequences arising from that action.
      • If God commands people not to work on Sunday, then people act rightly if they do not work on Sunday because God has commanded that they do not do so. If they do not work on Sunday because they are lazy, then their action is not truly speaking “right”, even though the actual physical action performed is the same.
  1. Consequentialism  (Teleology)
    • Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one’s conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness or wrongness of that conduct. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right act (or omission from acting) is one that will produce a good outcome, or consequence. In other words, “the ends justify the means”.
    • Consequentialism is usually distinguished from deontological ethics (or deontology), in that deontology derives the rightness or wrongness of one’s conduct from the character of the behaviour itself rather than the outcomes of the conduct. It is also distinguished from virtue ethics, which focuses on the character of the agent rather than on the nature or consequences of the act (or omission) itself.
  • Some Consequentialism theories include:

(a) State consequentialism or Mohist consequentialism

  • It holds that an action is right if it leads to state welfare, through order, material wealth, and population growth.

(b) Ethical egoism

  • Ethical egoism is  consequentialist ethics in which moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest. In ethical egoism, the consequences for the individual agent are taken to matter more than any other result. Thus, egoism will prescribe actions that may be beneficial, detrimental, or neutral to the welfare of others.

(c) Ethical altruism

  • Ethical altruism can be seen as a consequentialist ethics which prescribes that an individual take actions that have the best consequences for everyone except for himself.

(d) Utilitarianism

  • Utilitarianism is a theory in normative ethics holding that the moral action is the one that maximizes utility. Utility is defined in various ways, including as pleasure, economic well-being and the lack of suffering. Utilitarianism is a form of consequentialism, which implies that the consequences of an action are of moral importance.
  • Classical utilitarianism’s two most influential contributors are Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
  • Bentham, who takes happiness as the measure for utility, says, “it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong”. Bentham introduces a method of calculating the value of pleasures and pains, which has come to be known as the hedonic calculus. [Hedonism is a school of thought that argues that pleasure is the primary or most important intrinsic good. A hedonist strives to maximize net pleasure (pleasure minus pain)]. Bentham says that the value of a pleasure or pain, considered by itself, can be measured according to its intensity, duration, certainty/uncertainty and propinquity/remoteness. In addition, it is necessary to consider “the tendency of any act by which it is produced” . Finally, it is necessary to consider the extent, or the number of people affected by the action.
  • Mill was brought up as a Benthamite with the explicit intention that would carry on the cause of utilitarianism. In Mill’s book Utilitarianism, he rejected a purely quantitative measurement of utility (unlike Bentham).

Q. What is the difference between the Theories of Mill and Bentham?

  • On the one hand J.S. Mill popularised the Utilitarianism of his father James Mill and his friend Bentham and on the other hand, he continued his enquiry into truth. Mill’s theory differs from Bentham’s even though Mill has founded the school of Utilitarianism on Bentham’s principles. The theories of Mill and Bentham differ from each other in the following respects.
  • Qualitative distinction in pleasures: Mill made qualitative distinctions in different pleasures. According to Bentham, all pleasures are similar if the quantity of pleasure be the same. Contrary to this, according to Mill, ‘It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied, better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.’ In this way Mill clearly states that sensous pleasure originating from animal tendencies is not everything. Mental or intellectual pleasure is far superior.
  • Differences in the assumptions about human nature: Actually Mill and Bentham differed in their assumptions relating to human nature. Bentham did not look upon man as anything better than animal. According to him, man is always in search of pleasure. Pleasures do not have qualitative distinctions. According to Mill, man is not, merely an animal. He is superior to animals. He has intellect and intellectual pleasure is superior to sensual pleasure. Man’s importance is due to his intellect. He does not run blind folded after pleasures. He makes qualitative distinctions in pleasures.
  • Difference in ethical principles: The ethical principles of Mill and Bentham also differ. According to Bentham man should carry out activities yielding the maximum pleasure, without making qualitative distinctions. According to Mill, Man is not to become an animal. His humanity is valuable. It is creditable to be human being even by designing sensual pleasure. Man’s duty is to attain high qualities and nobler or great pleasures.
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