What is Ethics?

For a “Quick and Dirty Overview” of ethical theory, please consult St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Philosophy Jason Marsh’s short guide titled “What is Ethics?”

In the most general sense, ethics considers the good and bad, the right and wrong, and the virtuous and vicious in persons and actions.  The practice of descriptive ethics seeks to provide the best account (through description and elucidation) of the ethical values that evident in a person’s actions, whereas evaluative ethics involves an assessment of whether said values are themselves good or bad, reasonable or unreasonable, justified or unjustified, and so on.

While there is a field of study called “ethics” that is often assigned to philosophy or religion departments, ethics has a bearing in every discipline in both the humanities and sciences.  In fact, it seems impossible to imagine any disciplined, systematic inquiry that is not informed by a baseline ethic of respect, trustworthiness, and honesty.  But educational, scholarly, and scientific institutions do not have a monopoly on the practice of ethics.  Indeed, each person who has reflected on the rightness or wrongness of acts, or thought about justice, courage, or mercy has engaged in ethics.  Probably the most commonly known precept in ethics involves an appeal to fairness and consistency–the Golden Rule.  This is found in most moral traditions; we cite three statements of the rule.

Rabbi Hillel:  “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.  That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary.  Go and study it.”

Jesus Christ in Matthew 7:12:  “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Abraham Lincoln:  “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.  This expresses my idea of democracy.  Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is not democracy.”

When we think ethically in evaluative terms we are not just asking about what is the case, but what we think ought to be the case.  A general feature of ethics is that it involves matters that tend to go beyond the expedient, the convenient, the prudent, or an appeal only to self-interest.  This is a controversial claim, as there have been some philosophers who have worked up ethical theories that are justified on the basis of self-interest, prudence, expediency, and convention.  And it must be admitted that each of these elements (e.g. self-interest) can play an important and sometimes quite sensible role in ethical reflection.  And yet, in the practice of evaluative ethics it will always make sense to ask whether acting solely on the basis of self-interest, prudence, expediency, or convention is right or wrong, good or bad.

This is a reflection of what is sometimes called “the open question test.”  It occurs when individuals test their practices through vigorous, critical analysis that (commonly) involves an appeal to impartiality, identification of the foundation on which we base moral evaluations (e.g. in assessing the legitimacy of capital punishment one needs accurate data on when innocent persons have been wrongfully executed, etc.), and we need some affective awareness of the points of view of the involved parties.

Here is a case in which one party argues through little more than an appeal to power and not to ethical reasoning.  This is the dialogue that took place between the Athenians and the Melians during the Peloponnesian War.  Essentially the Athenians present the Melians with a choice: surrender or face annihilation.  Here is the dialogue as recorded in Thucydides:

Athenian:  ‘For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretenses—either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede, or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us—and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Spartans, although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.’

Melian: ‘You may be sure that we are as well aware as you of the difficulty of contending against your power and fortune, unless the terms be equal. But we trust that the gods may grant us fortune as good as yours, since we are just men fighting against unjust, and that what we want in power will be made up by the alliance of the Lacedaemonians, who are bound, if only for very shame, to come to the aid of their kindred. Our confidence, therefore, after all is not so utterly irrational.’

Athenian:  ‘Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist forever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.’”  (5.89)

There may be something vaguely ethical in this exchange insofar as the Athenians appear to reason that if the roles were reversed or if some other party was stronger, they would do what the Athenians are doing.  But this reasoning is not quite an appeal to impartiality or some golden rule.  The Athenians seem to be saying, “We are the winners, you are the losers; we are taking your land because we are stronger and we will show no pity, for if we were the victims we very much doubt that we would receive pity.”

An ethical argument, however, is not just an appeal to physical strength, and sometimes it does not involve any appeal to strength at all.  Here is a successful (both logically and historically) argument against slavery by Abraham Lincoln (this repeats the Golden Rule cited earlier but puts it is different terms):

“He who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave.  Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves, and under a just God, cannot long retain it.”

The importance of ethical arguments on both individual and political scales is evident in those historically significant moments of when nations, empires, corporations, churches, or individuals engage in confession and apology, and make (if possible) restitution for past harms.  This is not a terrain in public and private history in which there is abundant clarity in all matters, but note how today there is great unease when individuals or nations fail to take responsibility for past injustices.  Since World War II, there have been very public cases involving Germany, South Africa, Japan, Australia, Argentina, the United States, the Vatican (or Roman Catholic Church), businesses, and other institutions involving a significant demand for these institutions to engage in ethical self-examination, the issue of power set aside.  True, there are times historically when the cliche “might makes right” was the order of the day, but there is a strong current over many centuries of human history that promotes ethics in the form of rights or justice in which might is called on to serve what is right.

Because ethics can involve challenging “might” and checking our desires to extend our power over others, ethics is thought to have a strident authority or normativity.  In a sense, “ethics” refers to the most stringent domain of what persons think ought to be the case, but “ethics” can be defined narrowly so that it competes with other domains of value such as aesthetics (matters of beauty and ugliness) or a person’s conception of an overall good life.  Bernard Williams and Susan Wolf contend that there are times when our moral duties should not (or need not) trump or deprive us of pursuing goals that are not ethically optimal.  For example, pursuing a career in opera may be good, even though it does not involve the use of one’s resources and talents to rescue those whose premature deaths are preventable.  Others will use a broad concept of ethics to include the aesthetic, perhaps contending that some persons should contribute to works of great beauty or educational value.

In normal usage, “ethics” refers to agents and patients (the later being those who can be morally wronged), but there are value judgements of good and evil that we make that do not involve agency.  So, one might judge a drought to be bad, but one is not thereby claiming that either some meteorological elements or persons bear any blame.


An important distinction in ethics is between the assessment of actions (including the act of not acting or matters of omission) and of persons.  One may, for example, judge a person’s action to be wrong and yet, for a variety of reasons, believe that the person herself is not worthy of blame.  There is also a related distinction of significance that may be obvious–but is still worth noting–between guilt and guilty feelings.  Someone may be guilty of some crime and yet not feel guilty (and vice versa).  Arguably, guilty feelings in a person may be manipulated, but guilt is by nature self-imposed.

One important reason to study ethics is so that you may exercise one of the most important human rights, as identified in The United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Having the freedom and opportunity to think, to exercise one’s conscience, or to practice religion will amount to very little unless a person both realizes she has this freedom and has the space and time to develop her skills in thinking ethically about what she believes to be ultimately worthwhile.  How could you acquire a religious practice or change religions unless you had some opportunity to view matters of religion and spirituality from different perspectives?  The practice of ethics in a college course, in the context of the discipline of ethics (as identified by institutions such as the American Philosophical Association), on your own, or in a group should (in our view) lead one to appreciate and act on the above important right that has been declared to have universal scope by the UN.

We highlight two areas in which there may be some room for misunderstanding when it comes to ethics.  The first one we identify, though we believe the issue is rather uninteresting and not worthy of significant attention.

Some distinguish between what is called “ethics” and what is called “morality.”  We admit that one can (with some plausibility) make such a contrast.  In our view, “ethics” most commonly refers to states of character that are virtuous or vicious (involving vices) and “morality” refers to assessing action, but we also believe that this distinction is rarely recognized in English; we do not recommend assuming that the terms are different in meaning.

To justify our recommendation to not observe a sharp distinction between “ethics” and “morality” consider the following entry from the first website that appears in a Google search for “Is there a difference between ethics and morality?”:

“Ethics and morals both relate to ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ conduct. However, ethics refer to the series of rules provided to an individual by an external source, e.g. their profession or religion. Morals refer to an individual’s own principles regarding right and wrong.”

Contrast the above with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The term “morality” can be used either

  1.  Descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
  2.  Some other group, such as a religion, or
  3.  Accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
  4.  Normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.

So, the first website would define “morality” in terms of an individual’s principles, and this is acknowledged in the Encyclopedia as definition (or usage) 1.b, but the first website defines “ethics” in a way that the Encyclopedia would define as ‘ethics’ is definition 1 and 1a.

We respectfully recommend that if you wish to make a distinction between the values of individual and the values of “external” or social institutions that you do so (with spirit and enthusiasm), but we think that it would be imprudent to take a stand on the “proper” use of the terms “ethics” and “morality.”

On another matter, there is more at stake when it comes to the use of the term “ethics” (or “morality”) and its cognates.  This concerns the difference between what is often referred to as customs, conventions, or culture-specific practices versus the idea of ethics in a fashion distinct from customs.  Presumably, bowing to one another in Japan is a custom that has an importance in a cultural context that is not present on, say, a cattle ranch in Texas run by Texans (unless of course the Texans are Japanese or of Japanese origin or the non-Japanese Texans are negotiating the sale of beef to Japan).  But while the custom of bowing may differ from culture to culture, there may be an underlying, more comprehensive value:  respect for other persons.  In this regard, the difference between customs and ethics can perhaps be most appreciated in cases of conflict:  in the United States, racial segregation was defended on the basis of the racial inferiority of black Americans.  The Civil Rights Movement and the subsequent repudiation (at least officially) of racism was a case in which a movement motivated by an ethical (or moral or religious) commitment to equality trumped the custom of racial segregation.

As you explore ethics in your EIN course (or in your daily life), try to keep the above considerations in mind.