Decoding Ethics – Definition and Nature

According to Mackenzie, Ethics is the study of what is good or right in conduct.

According to William Lillie, “Ethics is a normative science of the conduct of human beings living in societies which judges this conduct to be right or wrong, good and bad.”

Ethics is the philosophical study of morality which is the set of beliefs concerning right and wrong, good and bad etc. These beliefs can be our personal judgments and upheld values or principles which guide our actions, define our values and give us reasons for being the persons we are. Ethics attempts to addresses the powerful question that Socrates formulated years ago – how ought we to live?

Do the questions of executive high-handedness, crisis of morality in private and public life, gender biased laws, regressive socio-cultural practices concern you? If these questions concern you then ethics matters to you since these are ethical concerns. Though ethics is inescapable and important in life, still one can look for easy way out – being indifferent to reason over moral questions. Though this approach may seem to be simple and painless but it has some drawbacks which are as follows;

    • Undermining personal freedom – If you directly accept and never question the moral beliefs handed to you by your culture, then those beliefs are not really yours—and they, not you
      control the path you take in life. Only if you critically examine these beliefs and decide for yourself – you can enjoy freedom in real sense.
    • Inability to deal with ethical dilemma – The no-questions-asked approach increases the chances that your responses to moral dilemmas will be incomplete, confused or mistaken. Sometimes in real life, moral principles conflict with one another. Solving these problems requires a moral framework to critically evaluate existing moral beliefs.
    • Halt on intellectual moral growth – To not do ethics is to stay locked in a kind of intellectual limbo where exploration in ethics and personal moral progress are barely possible
    • May end up living a life of Amoral – If someone blindly embraces the societal morality, he will be unable to defend his beliefs derived from upheld morality by rational argument. He will feel lost and bewildered if others contradict his beliefs based on rational arguments. This will compel him to deny all morality and end up living a life of Amoral.

We have seen the drawbacks of being indifferent to ethics and ethical reasoning. Now, it’s high time to decode the nature of ethics for better understanding of the concept. Let’s understand with the following characteristics of ethics;

    • Attributes of Ethics – Some of which are universalistic (Practice of non-violence) and others are relative (Adultery in marriage) in nature. It may be specific to a particular task, profession or area of responsibility, for instance, Ethics of a doctor.
    • Cultivation of Ethics – Ethics can’t be cultivated in insolation but requires involvement of society in order to develop social codes of conduct. This is being used to promote and elevate acceptable behaviour as a social value and rejected and condemn unacceptable behaviour. For instance, Allowing love birds to roam around freely and condemning the Bajrang dal, for their conduct of beating these love birds on Valentine day.
    • Sense of responsibility – Ethics cannot be maintained or sustained by merely accountability to some external agency but also to something within. For instance, Corruption in Public life can’t be deal with merely by being law abiding public servants (Virtue of Honesty and Integrity) but it requires stubborn commitment to expose corrupt activities (Virtue of Probity).
    • Variability – It may vary between cultural and ethnic groups (For e.g. Consumption of Non- veg meals) but there tends to be broad agreement within national communities on what is right and what is wrong. Thus, it is best understood in context of moral standards prevailing in particular societies.

Discussion on the question of nature of ethics take us to another question i.e. subject matter of ethics. How ethics is related to other disciplines of study? Let’s understand relationship of ethics which other sciences;

    • Normative science instead of Positive science – Ethics differs from positive science which is concerned with facts and explains them by their causes, but ethics deals with values. It evaluates standard or norms (Normative Science) by which we can judge human action to be right or wrong.
    • Science of Character – According to Intuitionists, Ethics is the science of right and it ought to be obeyed under all circumstances. Thus, it reflects the moral character of a person in the sense – whether there exists consistency or not in the conduct of a person based on moral principles.
    • Ethics and practical science – Ethics is not like practical science which is a means for the realization of an end. For example, the medical science is a means to remove the causes of disease but ethics tries to see what the ultimate goal of life is and how this goal can be reached.
    • Ethics and Art – Art depends upon result while ethics is based on motive. As Mackenzie described, in art the ultimate appeal is to the work achieved whereas in morals the ultimate appeal is to the inner harmony. Further, he argues that virtue implies activity i.e. virtuous men actually practises morality whereas in case of art the possession of skill is more important than the actual activity. For example, a good painter is one who can paint beautiful whereas a good man is not one who can but one who acts rightly.

We are done with our tasks to decode ethics in detail. Now it’s time to understand some key concepts associated with the domain of ethics. These concepts are in-depth explanation of the core ideas that subject of Ethics contains. Let’s understand them;