What is Philosophical Ethics?

Left to right: Plato, Kant, Nietzsche, Buddha, Confucius, Averroes

Ethics is that part of philosophy which deals with the good and bad, or right and wrong, in human conduct. It asks: What is the good? What should I do? What is a good life? Is morality objective or subjective? Is it absolute or relative? Why should I be moral? What is the relationship between self-interest and morality? Where does morality come from? What, if anything, provides the ultimate justification for morality? Should one emphasize duty, happiness, or pleasure in moral judgments?

Traditionally, ethicists sought to give general advice on how to live a good and happy life, but contemporary philosophers have increasingly moved to more abstract and theoretical questions. While some contemporary philosophers have voiced alarm at this trend, many contemporary ethicists still ask esoteric questions.

We may conveniently divide contemporary philosophical ethics into at least four parts. Meta-ethics conducts an analysis of moral concepts, ethical justification, and the meaning of moral language. Descriptive ethics describes ethical behavior among various people and in various cultures. (Social scientists now do most of this work.) Normative ethics contemplates the norms, standards, or criteria that serve as theories or principles for ethical behavior. Applied ethics applies normative theories to particular ethical problems like abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, sexuality etc. Some areas of applied ethics have become their own sub-specialties like medical, environmental, business, or computer ethics.

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