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Ethics

“What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope?”
Immanuel Kant, 18th Century Philosopher

That's a central part of philosophy, of ethics. What do I owe to strangers? What do I owe to my family? What is it to live a good life? Those are questions which we face as individuals.
Peter Singer, 20th Century Philosopher

Ethics is a branch of philosophy. According to the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, “Ethics is the study of human conduct, focusing particularly on attitudes and actions that are considered to be ‘right’ or ‘wrong.’” The word “ethics” comes from the Greek word ethos which can be translated as “custom” or “way of life.” In other words, a study of ethics deals with moral development and how that particular development influences how we answer the questions that inundate us as human beings on a daily basis. These questions range from the profound to the practical, such as: “Which partner should I be with? What kind of job is good for me? Why am I here?” Why does our economic system benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor?”

Philosophical ethics is an investigation into what makes a good life, but over the centuries many questions have been asked by philosophers that we can call ethical questions. Doing philosophical ethics is more than just learning about a moral code. At a job your boss may present you with the company’s ethical code. A doctor follows a moral code when treating his patients. Most of us probably learned moral values from our parents or perhaps from our religious upbringing. What grounds these moral values? How do I discover for myself the right way to act. Or we might ask, why should we be moral at all?

Different answers have been given to these ethical questions. Aristotle thought a good life was one based on virtuous living. The Utilitarians thought the best way to act was according to the happiness principle which states the greatest good for the greatest amount of people. Immanuel Kant thought ethical reasoning worked according to its own rationality that any reasonable person could discern. Friedrich Nietzsche thought morality was a tool for those in power to enslave those underneath them.

Someone once said if I think I am a moral person and I never question the moral decisions I make, then how ethical am I really? The truly ethical person is the one who is unsure of whether they are acting in the right way. The unethical person acts blindly without consideration for why they ought to act a certain way. Sometimes we are drawn into ethical thinking when presented with a complex moral dilemma. Is it ever right to take someone’s life? Under what conditions is it right to take one’s own life? What is our moral obligation to others? Should I only act in a way that benefits myself or should I act in a way that benefits others?

By the time a student is finished with a college course in ethics, the following should have been covered thoroughly; an overview of important facts, concepts, and theories pertaining to ethics; the different types of ethics that exist and how they guide our behavior and decision-making; effective ways to critically evaluate ethical issues and problems; and the ability to ask the right questions, even when the answers are not available to us.

A college course in ethics will normally cover the following topics:

  • Foundations of Ethics and Moral Development
  • Critical Thinking in Ethics
  • Personal Ethics
  • Social Ethics
  • Sexual Ethics
  • Consequential Ethics
  • Situation/Contextual Ethics
  • Norms for Ethics
  • Religious and Biblical Ethics

Some of the different types of undergraduate ethics courses that students will be able to take at most colleges and universities would be:

● Introduction to Ethics
Applied Ethics
● Feminist Ethics
● Religion and Morality
Environmental Ethics
● Business Ethics

A good course in ethics should leave students with an ability to think critically and to recognize, accept, and appreciate the various ways in which people express their beliefs and opinions. In addition, it should give students an awareness of the role ethics plays in every area of human life, and the need to build healthy and fulfilling relationships.

As you can see, the study of ethics in philosophy is both learning what philosophers have had to say about ethical issues, and thinking about tough moral problems we face in our everyday lives. Ethics homework at the college level will ask a student to either write about an ethical theory or to address a particular ethical problem (or both). As with any philosophy class, reading and writing in ethics takes time, patience, and the use of critical thinking.

Students interested in ethics should thoroughly explore the websites of The Society for Ethics, the American Philosophical Association, and the Association for Informal Logic & Critical Thinking. An additional place to visit would be the ethics section of the American Academy of Religion.

College students will find the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy to be a great free reputable source. And for understanding your college philosophy homework at all levels, don't forget to visit MIT's OpenCourseWare for the many online philosophy tutorials they offer such as the one called Ethics.

Online Resources in Philosophical Ethics

A Dictionary of Philosophical Terms and Names
Ethics Resource Center
Ethics Update
How to Write an Ethics Paper
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Online Ethics Center
Aristotle and Virtue Ethics
Virtue Ethics (Not Too) Simplified

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