Ethics | Definitions & Importance of Ethics

Ethics is that area of philosophy which investigates the principles governing human actions in terms of their goodness, badness, rightness and wrongness. It is philosophical study of right and wrong modes of behavior, which includes the nature and meaning of moral predicates and judgments.

We can therefore rightly say that ethics is a theoretical study. It is an important branch of philosophy because it directs our attention not only to human morality but also to values in general. Ethic shows us the way to behave in order to live happily. Thus, according to Eliot Sober, “the philosophical study of ethics concerns the nature of good and bad, right and wrong, justice and injustice”.

For Sober, ethics is the systematic study of the fundamental principles of the moral law, the branch of philosophy which deals with the morality of human actions.

The philosophical study of ethics also seeks to give us general guidance concerning what to do, what to seek, and how to treat others. The essence of ethics is to enable man to fully understand the reasons underlying the approval and disapproval of both his actions and that of his fellow men.

In other words, ethics, as a systematic study, concerns itself with two main tasks: first , that of deciding general principles on which  ethical terms, i.e. good, bad, duty etc, are to be applied to anything and, secondly, with deciding exactly the meaning of these terms.

The Importance of Ethics

Ethics is a requirement for human life. It is our means of deciding a course of action. Without it, our actions would be random and aimless. There would be no way to work towards a goal because there would be no way to pick between a limitless numbers of goals.

Even with an ethical standard, we may be unable to pursue our goals with the possibility of success. To the degree which a rational ethical standard is taken, we are able to correctly organize our goals and actions to accomplish our most important values. Any flaw in our ethics will reduce our ability to be successful in our endeavors and to function properly in the human society.

Elements of Ethics

A proper foundation of ethics requires a standard of value of which all goals and action can be compared to. This standard is our own lives, and the happiness which makes them livable.

This is our ultimate standard of value, the goal in which an ethical man must always aim. It is arrived at by an examination of man’s nature, and recognizing his peculiar needs. A system of ethics must further consist of not only emergency situations, but the day to day choices we make constantly.

It must include our relations to others, and recognize their importance not only to our physical survival, but to our well-being and happiness. It must recognize that our lives are an end in themselves.

Moral Law

The moral law is taken to be the law which obliges all men to refrain from evil and to do what is good.

The moral law is also known as “natural law”, all men who possess the ability to reason are obliged by the moral law to behave in a certain way.

For Aristotle, the natural law (that is, the moral law) is a rule of reason which is the standard of moral behavior.

The moral law is described by St. Paul as the law written by God in the hearts of all men, which he says no man should have any excuse to disobey.

For according to St, Paul, every man’s conscience bears witness to the fact that God has written this law in his hear.

St. Thomas Aquinas defined the moral law as the law by which God governs rational creatures; a rational participation in eternal law.

According to Aquinas, the fundamental principle of the moral law is that good should be done and evil avoided.

Moral Principles

In ethics moral principles are standards of moral behavior and norms with which our conducts should conform.

They guide human conduct and indicate certain things or certain ways of behavior which should be adopted and others to be avoided.

There are however, two kinds of moral principles, namely, positive moral principle and negative moral principle.

 The positive moral principles lay down what we ought to do, how we ought to behave or the attitude of mind we ought to cultivate and adopt.

They demand that we  cultivate virtues such as justice, honesty, fidelity to one’s duty, generosity, respect of human life etc. the negative moral  principles, on the  other hand, tell us specially the evil to be avoided.

They tell us not to kill, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to cheat, not to commit suicide etc. Moral principles are therefore explicit formulations of the moral law.

By their very nature they are universal and are valid and applicable to at all times and in all societies.

Moral Standard

Moral standard means that which determines the rightness or wrongness of an action. But then, there is variation in ethical opinions as to how we acquire the knowledge of right and wrong actions.

For instance, the intuitionists see intuition as the moral standard. They only major problem with this view is that as there so many different people in the world, so also many intuitions which often conflict.

Furthermore, according to John Hospers, intuition itself provides no way of deciding which of two or more conflicting intuitions are correct.

In this case, it will be difficult to decide whose intuition is right.

On the other hand, some moral thinkers and philosophers like John Locke and William of Ockham posited that revelation is the moral standard.

According to them, it is God himself who has made known to all men through revelation all things which he wants them to consider morally good and those to consider morally wrong.

The problem here is that nobody can say exactly when where, how and to whom God made this revelation to and this leads to so many conflicting views.

Other philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas, Don Scotus, the Stoics, etc. believe that we come to know right and wrong actions through “right reason”.

In other words, “right reasons” for them is the moral standard. This  implies that whatsoever that is in accordance with  the right reasons is morally right while that which is opposed to right reasons is morally wrong.

For Immanuel Kant, the moral standard is the categorical imperative. That is, the principles of universability of universalization of a maxim. Some other thinkers have variously posited the conscience or social customs as the moral standard.

But these also are not without difficulties. At this juncture, we must note and at the same time state that there is no one moral standard.

However, the different moral standards collectively act as guide in moral decision making.

The Universality of Morality

There are philosophers who argue that morality relative. This is due, according to them, to the fact that we have several different cultures and in these different cultures, there are several different moral practices. For instance, what the Igbo society accept as morally right may be regarded as morally wrong in say, the Yoruba society.

Those who support this type of view are largely anthropologists, and other who rely on the findings and works of the early Christian missionaries. According to this group of scholars, as there are different people in different parts of the world, so are there different moral practices.

For instance, some practices acceptable in American culture like kissing in the public, abortion, and sending of aged parents to the old people’s homes, as well as euthanasia, is morally unacceptable in the African culture.

A group of moral philosophers known as ethical relativist holds that morality is part of culture and as a result differs from one culture to another. That is why American culture is different from the Nigerian culture and so on. Based on this claim, the ethical relativists claim that morality is relative and not universal.

The Universalists claim, on the contrary, that morality is universal and not relative. They argue that human nature is universal and that that being the case, morality is also universal, since morality is based on human nature.

The Universalists view is more acceptable because of the very fact that moral law is the same everywhere for all men despite geographical, historical or cultural differences among different peoples. Obviously, all human beings are subject to the same moral law, which obliges all human beings to do good and to avoid evil.

Thus, though the application of the moral law may sometimes be relative – varying from one situation to another and from one culture to another, the principle guiding them are in them universal. It is this that lends credence to the fact that morality is universal and not relative.

The Concept of Duty

No “thing” is good or evil, when we talk of good and evil, it  rightly applies to an acting will and the acting will is designated by Immanuel Kant – a German Philosopher – as good without qualification duty as that which makes a human action morally good.

According Kant, action done solely out of duty does have distinctive moral worth. On the other hand, actions that spring from personal inclination and interest have no moral worth to an action. In other words, the determination of morally right or morally wrong actions depends on the motive of duty.

For Kant, if an action is to be morally right (good) or wrong (bad), the motive of duty, while it may be present at the same time as other motives, must by itself be sufficient to determine the action as having moral worthiness or not having moral worthiness. Hence, duty for duty’s sake is the only authentically moral motivation. This implies that duty must be done for duty’s sake. For Kant, duty is that which is in man, inside of him and which acts as a tap from which all actions if they are to have moral worth must flow from.


Inclination is a moral term which according to Immanuel Kant is not bad though has no moral worth.

For Kant, it is no merit of yours that you happen to be benevolently inclined towards your neighbours by temperament.

You are just doing what comes naturally and if something entirely different came more naturally to you, you would do that instead.

Thus any action done out of inclination for  Kant, has no moral worth, but if an action is done out of duty with inclination put to one side, then that action has a moral content.

Inclinations, nonetheless, are morally right, but they are not praiseworthy. They are mere actions that have no moral value.

As John Hospers pointed out, Kant recognized that duty and inclination to occur.

For example, if a tradesman is always careful not to overcharge his customers, his behavior is certainly in accordance with duty, but it does not follow that he is acting for the sake of duty.

For Kant, such as a behavior “is in accordance with duty, but it is not done from duty you are acting not from duty but from inclination”.

Sometimes too, duty and inclination propel us towards the same direction. In this kind of situation we do not need the sense of duty to make us do the right thing.

There are two important things Kant says about inclination: first, that “the act done from inclination is not necessarily wrong; rightness or wrongness is unaffected by whether or not the act is depend mainly on the quality of the act. Secondly “what you are inclined to do is very much a matter of what kind of native temperament you have, whether you are naturally warm or outgoing naturally cold and unsympathizing.   

Ethical Theories

  • Platonism

Platonism is an ethical view or doctrine that originated from Plato. According to this view, evil isdue to lack of knowledge. Plato believes that if people can discover what is right, they will never act wickedly.

But the problem is to discover what is right, or as Plato calls it, “the good”. How can this be done when people differ so greatly in their opinions about the good life? Plato’s answer is that finding the nature of the good life is an intellectual task very similar to the discovery of mathematical truths.

Just as the latter cannot be discovered by untrained people, so the former cannot be either.

In other to discover what the good life is, people must first acquire certain kinds of knowledge. Such knowledge can be arrived at only if they are carefully schooled in various disciplines, such as mathematics, philosophy and so on.

  • Epicureanism

Epicureanism is a movement founded by Epicurus of Samos – a type of philosophy that has persisted down to the present time. Epicureanism is therefore a view that a life of wisdom consists in the enjoyment of pleasures.

Thus for Epicurus, pleasure is the beginning and the end of a happy life. He claims that every person is looking for pleasure and happiness consists in pleasure.

He contends that what people need is to be shown where real pleasure is and the means to eliminate obstacles to pleasure.

Epicureanism represents a type of doctrine called hedonism. Hedonism is from the Greek word “hedone” which means pleasure. Hedonism is the doctrine that pleasure is the sole good.

Epicureanism as a doctrine later acquired a negative connation. An “epicurean” is now depicted as a gourmet, as a person whose main delight consists in the enjoyment of exotics or delicately prepared food and rare wines.

As a matter of fact, Epicurus himself suffered for years from stomach trouble and was never an “epicure” in the modern sense. He ate frugally, and drank only water, and lived a highly self-disciplined life.

Epicurus’ ethical philosophy consists mainly of advice for living moderately but pleasurably.

He considered pleasure to be the good, but he also realized that if a person pursues pleasure too arduously, pain will follow.

If a person drinks too much, he will suffer headaches and stomach pains the next day. The proper way to proceed in life says Epicurus, is to live pleasantly without suffering from any of the undesirable effect of such living.

  • Cynicism

Cynicism is an ethical doctrine which holds that the world was fundamentally evil; in order to live properly, people must withdraw from participation in it.

The Cynics advocated a rejection of the goods of the worlds, and in this way tried to show people that by ignoring such externals they would be liberated from fear.

Cynicism is primarily a doctrine that is antisocial. It does not attempt to describe how people can be happy as social beings, but instead, it tries to propose ways for achieving individual salvation.

  • Stoicism

Stoicism was founded by Zeno. It later developed and became the most influential ethical doctrine of the ancient Western world before Christianity began as a development of cynicism and ended as a form of Platonic idealism.

The stoics were seriously disconnected by the collapse of the Greek city- states and believed there was no hope for social restoration.

Consequently, their philosophy consists of advice to individual for attaining personal salvation in a degenerating world. Like the Cynics, the Stoics advised people to learn to be indifferent to external influences.

The stories believed that good or evil depends upon oneself.     

The stoics believed that by practicing indifference one becomes independent of the world.

They equally believed in predestination. i.e., that all happenings in the world are fixed by God according to some preconceived plan. Stoics felt it was important to free oneself from desires and passions.

  • Skepticism

The word skepticism comes from the Greek word “Skepsis”, which means suspension of judgement.

For examples, one should not attempt to evaluate any assertion as true or false. Radical Skeptics hold that human reason has no capacity at all to reach any conclusions about anything.

Moderate ones say that reason is capable of very limited achievements in its efforts to know.

Ethical skepticism holds that morality is relative. That action is neither right nor wrong, since what is good for one person is not what is good for the other.

In other words, ethical skepticism demands that people should not pass ethical judgment on the action of man. For any act can either be right or wrong depending on how one views it.

The basic reason for the skeptical attitude was that things can only be known as they seem to be, and not at all as they actually are.

Therefore, it is better to abstain from asserting or denying anything. Another reason for the skeptical attitude is that many contradictory doctrines are found among philosophical schools.

Suspension of judgment however, does not work so well in practical life, where decisions must be made.

The solution, for the wise person, is to go according to the appearance of things (i.e. information given by the senses) and to follow the request of law and customs. But the wise person will refrain from making any judgment about those things,

(f)  Utilitarianism

Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are the most famous exponents of the doctrine of utilitarianism.

The utilitarian’s conceived of their philosophical work as an attempt to lay down an objective principle for determining when a given action was right or wrong.

They called this maxim the principle of utility. The principle state: an action is right in so far as it tends to produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number.

Mill and Bentham however, interpreted these principles as a form of hedonism by identifying happiness with pleasure.

Hence, they state that an action is right if it produces the greatest amount of pleasure for the greatest number; otherwise, it is wrong.

But then many utilitarian’s are not hedonists, and so the essence of utilitarianism as a philosophy is then seen in the fact that it lays stress upon the effects that an action has.

If an action produces an excess of beneficial effects over harmful ones, then it is right otherwise it is not.

The fundamental point is this: the consequences of a given action determine its rightness or wrongness, not the motive from which it is done.

(g)  Subjectivism and Objectivism

Subjectivism is an ethical theory that holds on the one hand that, what are ordinarily called “ethical” judgments (such as “stealing is wrong”) is neither true nor false.

One  the other hand, it also holds that ethical judgment are true or false but that they are  always about the psychology of the person who utters them and only that people.

Hence subjectivism holds that there are no moral standards for actions that are independent of the way people feel about those actions.

Objectivism can be defined by saying that any theory that is non-subjectivistic is objectivistic.

What this means is that there are moral facts in the world independent of anyone’s psychology. In other words, ethical judgment are true or false independent of the observer.

 (h)  Motivist Theory (Motivism)

This is an ethical theory which holds that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends upon the motive from which the act was done or performed.

In other words, the motivist theory claims that if an evil act is committed with a good motive, then that act is not wrong but right.

On the other hand, if a good act is performed with a bad motive, then the act is wrong.

 (i)  Emotivist Theory (Emotivism)

A theory is emotivist if it contends that moral judgments are neither true nor false but are merely expressive of the feelings of those who utter them and evocative of the feelings of those who hear them.

 (j)  Consequences Theory (Consequentialism)

A theory will be called a consequence theory if it holds that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends entirely upon the effects that the action has. Utilitarianism is a classic example of a consequence theory.

The consequence theory is divided into two groups: hedonistic consequence theory, which holds that the rightness and wrongness of an action depends upon whether it produces consequences that are painful or pleasant; and agathistic consequence theory,which holds that goodness, is not to be identified with pleasure, or badness with pain, but is something unique. Just as redness is unique and cannot be reduced to anything else.

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