5 Ethics: A Discipline Within Philosophy

Ethics: A Discipline Within Philosophy

This material is based on original work by George Matthews, and produced with support from the Rebus Community https://press.rebus.community/intro-to-phil-ethics

Is it ever acceptable to lie in order to protect someone from harm? Is selfless generosity really possible, or are we humans always in one way or another motivated by selfish concerns? Should loyalty to family, friends and one’s immediate community take precedence over one’s duty to obey the law? Such questions, which belong to the rich and complex domain of moral reflection, are no doubt familiar sorts of questions, even if there may seem to be no clear way of answering them with more than a shrug of the shoulders and the assertion that “it all depends….”Moral philosophy or ethics (I am here using these terms as broadly synonymous in spite of distinctions between these terms that are sometimes made) is that branch of philosophy which is concerned with the critical examination of these kinds of questions, along with the implicit assumptions and theoretical commitments that lie behind them.


Ethics is a branch of philosophical value theory devoted to exploration of the broad rules which define, regulate and constrain our social lives, as well as with the more abstract consideration of moral evaluation itself. Thus it also considers such questions as whether there are general or even universal principles to which we may appeal in our attempt to negotiate particular ethical dilemmas we may face. What might such principles look like and why should we in fact follow them when they require us to set aside our impulses or interests? Are universal principles even desirable as a goal in ethical deliberation and human development?Clearly moral reflection and deliberation lie at the core of what it means to be human, members of a species dependent upon each other and yet often unreliable and opportunistic at the same time. Nevertheless moral thinking presents us with a deep puzzle. We are all intimately familiar with moral thinking, while at the same time it may seem completely unclear how to approach it in anything but a piecemeal fashion, reliant upon received ideas, customary approaches, and gut feelings. And this is certainly not for a lack of attempts to get things right about the nature, origin, and basis of judgments about right and wrong. These go back to at least the beginning of recorded history as is evident in some of the earliest extant written artifacts, such as the stele of Hammurabi from ancient Mesopotamia and the Buddhist King Ashoka’s inscriptions on pillars and boulders from the Gangetic plain in ancient India.


This book explores some of the major theoretical approaches to moral philosophy under the conviction that we both can and should subject moral reflection to critical analysis in search of the truth (or maybe the truths) about ethics.As a way of setting the stage for the detailed accounts of various philosophical approaches to morality and moral thinking, it may be helpful at the outset to distinguish between three different ways in which we might approach moral thinking. We might first of all take an approach similar to that of scientists interested in understanding and explaining some given set of phenomena. We can call such an approach “descriptive ethics” since it is concerned with describing and explaining the workings of moral deliberation as it actually takes place in the minds of real people. Although this approach serves as the starting point for some contemporary approaches to ethics, by and large philosophers are less interested in describing and explaining moral thinking than they are in the second of the two approaches, which more directly engages the evaluative side of the questions with which we started. That is, philosophers, unlike scientists, are interested not only in clarifying and explaining the workings of ethical thinking but also in examining the cases that can be made for particular moral principles and approaches. This “normative” or “prescriptive” side of philosophical ethics will be central to many of the chapters of this text, since they examine various philosophical arguments as to why some particular approach to ethics should in fact be the one we accept as opposed to its theoretical rivals. We may wonder, however, about the justification for this kind of partisan approach to ethics in the first place. This brings us to the third way we might approach ethics, by taking a step back from particular approaches to look at ethical thinking as such, as it relates to other aspects of our intellectual and emotional lives. That is, we might ask more abstract theoretical questions about the warrant for both rational ethical deliberation and prescriptive approaches to ethics. This “meta-ethical” approach is important not only since it addresses the place of ethics in our larger mental lives, but also as a way of addressing concerns that seem to get in the way of the normative approaches we will be exploring.


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Ethics: A Discipline Within Philosophy Copyright © 2020 by This material is based on original work by George Matthews, and produced with support from the Rebus Community https://press.rebus.community/intro-to-phil-ethics is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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