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Ethics (Greek, ethika, from ethos, "character" or "custom"), are the principles or standards of human conduct, sometimes called morals (Latin, mores, "customs"), and, by extension, the study of such principles, sometimes called moral philosophy.
Ethics studies human conduct; it is concerned with questions such as "When is an act right?", "When is an act wrong?", and "What is the nature, or determining standard, of good and bad?". In asking these questions, ethical theorists have proposed differing accounts of the nature of ethical knowledge, the measure of it, the source of it, the means of knowing it, and how it ought to be applied.
Ethics, as a branch of philosophy, is considered a normative science, because it is concerned with norms of human conduct, as distinguished from the formal sciences, such as mathematics and logic, and the empirical sciences, such as chemistry and physics.
Philosophers have attempted to determine goodness in conduct according to two chief principles, and have considered certain types of conduct either good in themselves or good because they conform to a particular moral standard. The former implies a final value, or summum bonum, which is desirable in itself and not merely as a means to an end. In the history of ethics there are three principal standards of conduct, each of which has been proposed by various groups or individuals as the highest good: happiness or pleasure; duty, virtue, or obligation; and perfection, the fullest harmonious development of human potential.
Depending on the social setting, the authority invoked for good conduct is the will of a deity, the pattern of nature, or the rule of reason. When the will of a deity is the authority, obedience to the divine commandments in scriptural texts is the accepted standard of conduct. If the pattern of nature is the authority, conformity to the qualities attributed to human nature is the standard. When reason rules, moral behavior is expected to result from rational thought.
Early Greek Ethics
In the 6th century BCE the Greek philosopher Pythagoras developed one of the earliest moral philosophies from the Greek mystery religion Orphism. Believing that the intellectual nature is superior to the sensual nature and that the best life is one devoted to mental discipline, he founded a semi-religious order with rules emphasizing simplicity in speech, dress, and food. Its members observed rituals that were designed to demonstrate the decreed ethical beliefs.
In the 5th century BCE the Greek philosophers known as Sophists, who taught rhetoric, logic, and civil affairs, were skeptical of moral absolutes. The Sophist Protagoras taught that human judgment is subjective, and that one's perception is valid only for oneself. Another, Gorgias, even went to the extreme of arguing that nothing exists; that if anything does exist, human beings could not know it; and that if they did know it, they could not communicate that knowledge. Other Sophists, such as Thrasymachus, believed that might makes right.
Socrates opposed the Sophists. His philosophical position, as represented in the dialogues of his pupil Plato, may be summarized as follows: virtue is knowledge; people will be virtuous if they know what virtue is; and vice, or evil, is the result of ignorance. Thus, according to Socrates, education as to what constitutes virtue can make people moral.
Greek Schools of Ethics
Most later Greek schools of moral philosophy were derived from the teachings of Socrates. Four such schools originated among his immediate disciples: the Cynics, the Cyrenaics, the Megarians (a school founded by Euclid of Megara), and the Platonists.
The Cynics, notably the philosopher Antisthenes, maintained that the essence of virtue, the only good, is self-control and that it is capable of being taught. The Cynics disdained pleasure as an evil, if accepted as a guide to conduct. They considered all pride a vice, including pride in appearance or cleanliness. Socrates is reputed to have said to Antisthenes, "I can see your pride through the holes in your cloak".
The Cyrenaics, notably Aristippus of Cyrene, were hedonists, postulating pleasure as the chief good (as long as it does not dominate one's life), that no one kind of pleasure is superior to another, and that it is measurable only in degree and duration.
The Megarians, Euclid's followers, posited that although good may be called wisdom, God, or reason, it is "one", and that the Good is the final secret of the universe, which can be revealed only through logical inquiry.
According to Plato, good is an essential element of reality. Evil does not exist in itself but is, rather, an imperfect reflection of the real, which is good. In his Dialogues (first half of the 4th century BCE) he maintains that human virtue lies in the fitness of a person to perform that person's proper function in the world. The human soul has three elements-intellect, will, and emotion-each of which possesses a specific virtue in the good person and performs a specific role. The virtue of intellect is wisdom, or knowledge of the ends of life; that of the will is courage, the capacity to act; and that of the emotions is temperance, or self-control. The ultimate virtue, justice, is the harmonious relation of all the others, each part of the soul performing its appropriate task and keeping its proper place. Plato maintained that the intellect should be sovereign, the will second, and the emotions third, subject to intellect and will. The just person, whose life is ordered in this way, is therefore the good person.
Aristotle, Plato's pupil, regarded happiness (eudaimonia) as the aim of life. In his principal work on ethics, the Nicomachean Ethics (late 4th century BCE), he defined happiness as activity that accords with the specific nature of humanity; pleasure accompanies such activity but is not its chief aim. Happiness results from the unique human attribute of reason, functioning harmoniously with human faculties. Aristotle held that virtues are essentially good habits, and that to attain happiness a person must develop two kinds of habits: those of mental activity, such as knowledge, which lead to the highest human activity, contemplation; and those of practical action and emotion, such as courage. Moral virtues are habits of action that conform to the "golden mean", the principle of moderation, and they must be flexible because of differences among people and conditioning factors. For example, the amount one should eat depends on one's size, age, and occupation. In general, Aristotle defines the mean as being the virtuous state between the two extremes of excess and insufficiency; thus, generosity, a virtue, is the mean between rashness and meanness. For Aristotle, the intellectual and the moral virtues are merely means towards the attainment of happiness, which results from the full realization of human potential.
Copyright ©1998-1999 Roy George