Dimensions of Ethics

There are four branches of Ethics, in general, which are as follows;

Descriptive Ethics

– It is empirical investigation of people’s moral beliefs on the basis of law and customs. It studies the history and evolution of Ethics and gives a record of certain taboos, customs or conventions. Kohlberg’s theory of moral consciousness is an example of Descriptive Ethics.

Normative Ethics 

It is the study of ethical theories that prescribe how people ought to act and behave in society. In addition, it examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions. If someone deviates from established standards, there are provisions for punishment and also the justification for the same. Some of the dimensions of normative tradition are as follows;

  • Virtue Ethics – Ethical actions ought to be consistent with certain ideal virtues that provide for the full development of our humanity. These virtues are dispositions and habit that enable us to act according to the highest potential of our character and on behalf of attribute values like truth, honesty, courage, compassion etc.Its foundation was laid by Plato who said that justice and other virtue as harmony of the soul. According to Plato internal qualities and brave man can be brave even if he never has opportunity to show it. Aristotle presents virtue as a mean between two vices i.e. Generosity between miserliness and prodigality. Further, he argues for habit of virtue i.e. someone who doesn’t have correct virtue but his internal dispositions might attain it gradually through practice. Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas were the major advocates of virtue ethics.
  • Deontology Ethics – It argues that ethical action is one that best protects and respects the moral rights of those affected. The underlying belief is – humans have a dignity based on their human nature per se or free will. On the basis on such dignity, they have a right to be treated as ends and not merely as means to other ends. Thus, means are more important than ends. Some of deontological theories are as follows;
    • Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative – It consists of two principles – Universality and Principle of reciprocity. By Universality, Kant implies that a moral law must be possible to apply it to all people (For e.g. – Basic Human rights of Life, Liberty and Property) and by principle of reciprocity he meant “do as you would be done by’ (For e.g. – Help someone in need if you want to be helped in the event of adversity).
    • Moral absolutism – According to this perspective, there are absolute standards against which moral question can be judged to determine rightness and wrongness of conduct irrespective of circumstances. For example, if telling lie is immoral then concept of Ethical lie is insignificant on moral parameters.
    • Divine Command theory – It says that an action is right if God has decreed it to be right. As per this theory, the rightness of any action depends upon that action being performed because it is duty, not because of any good consequences arising from that action.
    • ContractarianismAccording to this perspective, Moral laws are the ones which is agreeable to all individuals in the society but they have to be unbiased while examining its moral significance. For example, John Rawls’ Veil of ignorance and Thomas Hobbes’ Social contract.
    • Natural rights theory – This perspective believes in the existence of absolute natural rights that are conferred to human beings by virtue of being Human. For example, Thomas Aquinas (Natural right theory) and John Locke (Life, liberty and property rights being unalienable).
  • Teleological Ethics – According to this perspective, morality of an action is decided on the basis of the outcome of that action. It means that morally right action would produce good outcome whereas morally wrong action would produce bad outcome. In this perspective, ends (outcome) are more important that means (Process), thereby, “Ends justify the means”.
    • Utilitarianism – Best action/decision is one that results in the most happiness for the greatest number of individuals.
    • Egoism – Best action/decision is one that maximizes good for oneself.
    • Hedonism – Best action/decision is one that will maximize pleasure.
    • Intellectualism – Best action/decision is one that best promotes knowledge.
    • Consequentialist LibertarianismLiberty should be maximised.
    • Welfarism – Best action/decision is one that best increases economic well-being.
    • Situation Ethics – Best action/decision is one that results in the most love.
    • Asceticism – Abstinence from egoistic pleasures to achieve spiritual goal is right action.
    • Altruism – To live for others and not caring for self is right action.
  • Egalitarianism Approach (Fairness and Justice and Equality Approach) – According to the egalitarianism, all benefits and burdens should be distributed by the following formula “Every person should be given exactly equal share of societies’ benefits and burdens”. Today we use this idea to justify Affirmative action, for instance, Reservation system in India for vulnerable sections of society.

Meta Ethics 

It focuses on the meaning of ethical terms themselves, besides applied question of ‘what should be done in a particular situation?’ It doesn’t consider, whether an action is good or bad, rather it questions the goodness and badness of morality itself. The key theory in meta- ethics is naturalism, non-naturalism and prescriptivism. ( We will learn in detail in the section of Western moral thinkers)

Applied Ethics

It is concerned with the philosophical examination of particular moral issues in private and public life which involve moral judgments. It examines specific controversial issues, such as abortion, infanticide, animal rights, environmental concerns, homosexuality, capital punishment, nuclear war etc. by using the conceptual tools of meta-ethics and normative ethics.

  • Normative Principles in Applied Ethics – These principles are the most commonly used in the realm of applied ethics. Some of them are as follows;
    • Personal benefit – acknowledge the extent to which an action produces beneficial consequences for the individual in question.
    • Social benefitacknowledge the extent to which an action produces beneficial consequences for society.
    • Principle of benevolencehelp those in need.
    • Principle of paternalism – assist others in pursuing their best interests when they cannot do so themselves.
    • Principle of harm – do not harm others.
    • Principle of honesty – do not deceive others.
    • Principle of lawfulnessdo not violate the law.
    • Principle of autonomyacknowledge a person’s freedom over his actions or physical body.
    • Principle of justiceacknowledge a person’s right to due process, fair compensation for harm done, and fair distribution of benefits.
    • Rights – acknowledge a person’s rights to life, information, privacy, free expression, and safety.

The first two principles – personal benefit and social benefit are consequentialist since they appeal to the consequences of an action whereas the principles of benevolence, paternalism, harm etc. are based on duty. The principles of autonomy, justice, and the various rights are based on moral rights.