What are ethics?

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” This is a statement made by
Socrates before the Athenian court. The jury gave him a death sentence for
his menacing practice of going around Athens asking its citizens the ultimate
questions of human existence.1 Socrates agreed to drink hemlock and kill himself for his belief in a science that represents a rational inquiry into the meaning
of life. Socrates’s pursuit was a result of the Greeks’ curiosity and their desire
to learn about themselves, human life and society. This led to the examination
of all human life, to which Socrates devoted his life. Philosophers call this
ethics. Ethics is, therefore, the study of right and wrong in human conduct.
Ethics can also be defined as a theoretical examination of morality or “theory
of morals.” Other philosophers have defined ethics in a variety of ways.
Robert C. Solomon, in Morality and the Good Life,
2 defines ethics as a set
of “theories of value, virtue, or of right (valuable) action.” O.J. Johnson, on the
other hand, defines ethics as a set of theories “that provide general rules or
principles to be used in making moral decisions and, unlike ordinary intuitions,
provides a justification for those rules.”3The word ethicscomes from the ancient
Greek word eché,
4 which means character. Every human society practices ethics
in some way because every society attaches a value on a continuum of good to
bad, right to wrong, to an individual’s actions according to where that individual’s actions fall within the domain of that society’s rules and canons.The role of ethics is to help societies distinguish between right and wrong
and to give each society a basis for justifying the judgment of human actions.
Ethics is, therefore, a field of inquiry whose subject is human actions, collectively called human conduct, that are taken consciously, willfully, and for which
one can be held responsible. According to Fr. Austin Fagothey,5 such acts must
have knowledge, which signifies the presence of a motive, be voluntary, and
have freedom to signify the presence of free choice to act or not to act.
The purpose of ethics is to interpret human conduct, acknowledging and
distinguishing between right and wrong. The interpretation is based on a system which uses a mixture of induction and deduction. In most cases, these
arguments are based on historical schools of thought called ethical theories.
There are many different kinds of ethical theories, and within each theory
there may be different versions of that theory. Let us discuss these next.


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