Philosophy 160
Introduction to Ethics

Handout 1 - What is Ethics?

Ethics (also called 'Moral Philosophy') is the branch of philosophy that contains the following areas:

A. Core Areas of Ethics

1. Normative Ethics of Behavior -- the attempt to discover a criterion of morally right behavior.

A criterion of morally right behavior (also called a theory of right and wrong) is an explanatory statement of the necessary and sufficient conditions for an action's being morally right.

Any such theory will look like this:

An act is morally right if and only if ___________________ .

2. Axiology (also called 'Value Theory') -- the attempt to discover what things are good in themselves and what things are bad in themselves, as well as what things are good or bad for someone.

3. Virtue/Vice Theory -- the attempt to discover criteria of excellence and deficiency of character.

B. Other Areas of Ethics

1. Meta-Ethics -- the attempt to discover the meanings of the central concepts of the core areas of ethics.

2. The Logic of Ethics -- the attempt to discover the logic of the central concepts of normative ethics and axiology.

3. Moral Epistemology -- the attempt to discover if and how we can have knowledge of moral facts.

4. Moral Psychology -- the attempt to answer certain morally relevant questions about human psychology.

5. Applied Ethics -- the attempt to put forth and critically assess views and arguments pertaining to particular moral issues, such as abortion, human cloning, world poverty, euthanasia, animal rights, war, capital punishment, etc.

6. History of ethics -- the attempt to understand and evaluate the doctrines and arguments contained in historically important texts of moral philosophy.

7. Moralizing -- the attempt to get people to behave in better ways, to become better people, to adopt your moral views.

Some sample theories in the Normative Ethics of Behavior (in other words: some sample criteria of moral rightness):

GHP:  an act is morally right if and only if it produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

10C:  an act is morally right if and only if it does not violate any of the Ten Commandments.

GR:   an act is morally right if and only if the agent of the act, in performing the act, treats others as he or she would want to be treated.

Some sample moral principles (they are not theories because they are not fully general):

PGP:  it is always morally wrong to "play God."

BP:     if we can benefit someone, without harming anyone else, we ought to do so.

WKS: if it wrong to kill one person to save another.

(these last two principles are from Rachel's, EMP, pp. 3 and 4, respectively)

(parts of this handout are from Fred Feldman's Phil 160 course)