What is Ethics?

What is Philosophy?

In order to answer any question in philosophy, such as the very general question ‘What is Ethics?’, one must first understand what is meant by philosophy itself and what philosophical discourse contains. For most philosophy students and philosophy freaks, being asked ‘What is philosophy?’ is one of the most open and challenging questions that can be asked. This is not due to its difficulty, but due to there being no definite or exhaustive answer. Philosophy can be described as one of the broadest and most powerful disciplines, as it can turn almost any question into a philosophical question. Nevertheless, one can attempt to give a grasp of what philosophy is, and what philosophers do.

The etymological analysis of the word can give a good insight of what philosophy is. The word ‘philosophy’ comes from Ancient Greek and is comprised of two words: ‘philo’ which meant ‘love’, and ‘sophia’ which means wisdom. Thus, philosophy is love of wisdom. It is a never-ending pursuit for knowledge where philosophers never stop looking for the truth (if there is one, according to some) and continuously challenge themselves and others in a collective attempt to expand humanity’s wisdom.

The philosopher, basically, constantly looks to satisfy his thirst of knowledge, by leaving no question go unchallenged. Or as Existential Comics better put it: Philosophy is asking “why” until you can’t answer anymore, and then asking “why not?”

Philosophy deals with the very fundamental and abstract aspects of reality and everything that exists. Thus, ‘Do we have free will?’, ‘What is the meaning of life?’, ‘Can language accurately describe reality?’, ‘What makes you you?’, ‘What is the point of prayer?’, are all philosophical questions on which philosophers have pondered on for centuries. It is needless to say that there has been no absolute answer for these questions, and there probably will never be. This is because philosophers, while looking for the truth, do not consider finding the truth an end in itself. Philosophy develops not by finding truths about the world, because then philosophy would slowly die, but by generating questions about the state of the world and providing a mechanism on which possible answers can be found. 

What is Ethics?

Ethics deal with questions of morality and asks what we ought to do in certain circumstances, as well as what is the best thing to do. The ethicist attempts to answer question such as ‘What is a good action?’, ‘Is a good action a right action?’, ‘Is morality universal?’. In Western ethical theory, there are three main theories to be taken when approaching a question concerning the morality an action’s moral ground.

Utilitarianism states that what makes an action morally right or wrong depends on the action’s effect. The goal of an action, utilitarianists claim, is to increase utility, that is, pleasure and the general good in the world when compared to the unwanted suffering. It aims to achieve greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. The nature of an action per se does not matter, as long as the action has good consequences which outweigh any bad consequences.

This theory was introduced by Jeremy Bentham, who argued that pleasure and utility is something all humans intrinsically want, while they inherently despise pain and suffering. Thus, according to utilitarianism, a moral action is an action which comes to satisfy what humans are predisposed by nature to want; that is, pleasure and happiness.

Another characteristic of utilitarianism is that it treats all subjects equally on the moral scale. This characteristic, however, is one of the most heavily criticized characteristics of the theory as it’s considered non-realistic. When an individual is doing an action, they will inadvertently consider the interests of their own social group, which they will not treat equally to a group of strangers. What is more, utilitarianism seems to ask too much from an individual as it necessitates the weighing of all positive and negative outcomes of an action, something which might be considered impractical and, at times, impossible.

Deontology takes an opposing position. Rather than focusing on the consequences of an action, deontology focuses on actions themselves. Kant, in his theory of ethics, argued that people commit a moral action when they act according to duty and under their own will. While for utilitarianism ‘the end justifies the means’, for deontological ethics the means do matter. An action that has good consequences but was brought about by accident, cannot be considered a moral action. According to Kant, intention matters and the individual that commits an action has to intend to commit it and do so using his own rationality.

Kant’s deontological theory of ethics can be outlined in two of his categorical imperatives: i) Act only in such a way that you would want your actions to become a universal law, applicable to everyone in a similar situation, and ii) Act in such a way that you always treat humanity (whether oneself or other), as both the means of an action, but also as an end.

As with some aspects of utilitarianism, deontology also seems to ignore aspects of natural inclinations and common sense. We do, most of the time, think of the consequences of our actions and act according to them, rather than just stick by the rules. Moreover, under deontological ethics, it would be impermissible, under the two categorical imperatives, to kill a person just to save the lives of hundreds, something which seems absurd.

Virtue Ethics does not deal with acts themselves nor with their consequences, but with an individual’s character. It is a person-based, rather than action-based, ideology. Under virtue ethics, a virtuous action is an action that a virtuous person would choose to carry out under the same circumstances. A virtuous person, according to Aristotle, is a person who acts virtuously, that is, a person who satisfies all or most points of a ‘virtues list’. Some of these virtues are ‘friendliness’, ‘wisdom’, ‘courage’, ‘intelligence’, ‘craftsmanship’, and ‘liberality’. A person who possesses these, and other, virtues, has the capacity to act virtuously and carry out moral actions.

Possessing a virtue, according to Aristotle, allows a person to have phronesis that is, practical wisdom regarding the moral thing to do under certain circumstances. One of the most important characteristics of virtue ethics as developed by Aristotle is the concept of eudaimoniaEudaimonia is the goal state of all humans who choose to live a virtuous life by exercising their rationality and practical wisdom (phronesis). Exercising their virtues, among other traits, humans can flourish and reach a state of completeness.

The above theories concern normative ethics, that is, what determines the morality of an action. Other areas of ethics include metaethics, which deal with the fundamental nature of ethics and ask ‘Do moral facts exist?’, ‘Is morality objective?’, and ‘Should we strive for moral development through our actions?’. Applied ethics deal with moral issues in our everyday lives, such as environmental ethics (‘Why do we have a duty to protect the environment?’, and ‘Why do we have a duty to provide a sustainable world to future generations?’, and questions raised by issues in artificial intelligence (‘Should a self-driving car ever deliberately kill its passengers to save more lives?’, ‘Do robots have rights?’.

These theories only constitute a small part of ethics, and a minuscule part of philosophy. They are, however, centrally important to the development of philosophical thought and discourse and understanding of what issues philosophy deals with. 


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