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WHAT IS ETHICS?

 

We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live. —Socrates, in Plato’s Republic


A. ETYMOLOGY
(the historical derivation or origin of a word)

1. Ethics: From Greek ethos = character, custom, habitual disposition, manners of a person, community, or people.

  • Plato: one’s ethos is the character produced by habitual responses.
  • Aristotle: one’s ethos is the character produced by moral as opposed to intellectual habits.
  • Stoicism: ethos refers to that which motivates behavior or conduct.
  • Ancient rhetoric: the construction of a person’s ethos, i.e. the depiction of a character, was an important practice.
  • Contemporary English usage: ethos (n.) refers to the spirit or character of a culture, a community, or a group.

2. Morality: From Latin moralis, created or coined by Cicero (106—43 BCE) to translate the Greek term ethos.

3.
General usage: as synonyms, hence the following pairs are typically utilized as rough equivalents or synonyms: moral/ethical, morality/ethics, moral philosophy/ethics.

Specialized usage
: contrastive terms with technical meanings (Hegel, Habermas, etc.).

B. MORALITY:
  A set of standards determining the value (right/wrong, good/bad, praiseworthy/blameworthy, virtuous/vicious, etc.) of character and conduct. It expresses a basic concern, evaluative orientation, value commitment, habitual disposition, or mode of behavior. Morality, at this level, is pretheoretical, i.e. it has not yet explicitly formulated a systematic and comprehensive theory of the fundamental principles on the basis of which particular moral values (e.g. lying is wrong) are justified or derived. In other words, a theoretical account explains or describes why X (a character trait or type of conduct) is morally right or wrong, valued positively or negatively.

1.
Individual or personal morality: Individual profession (what people say or claim) and/or practice (what people actually do) regarding:

a) What is valuable, has value, has moral worth: Examples: life, liberty, privacy, justice, honor, loyalty, honesty, tolerance, etc.

b) What ought to be done/avoided in general, or as a general rule: Examples: Always help others in great need or suffering,
Never inflict unnecessary pain, Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, etc.

c) What ought to be done/avoided in particular contexts or situations: Examples: Don’t drink too much and drive, Don’t use profanity in mixed company, etc.

2.
Group morality
Group profession and/or practices regarding A through C above. Typically more systematic or codified than individual morality, yet still not theoretical. A group is any set of individuals internal to a culture or society.

Examples
: medical ethics, academic ethics, ecological ethics, business ethics, Mafia morality, Gangsta-rap morality, etc.

3. Cultural or social morality
An ethic or morality held in common or shared by individuals and groups within a culture, society, or country. In other words, a morality characteristic of an entire society or culture as a whole.

Examples: contemporary American society, ancient Greek culture, Nazi Germany, colonial American society, Chinese culture, etc.

NOTE:
These three types of morality represent increasing levels of generality or inclusiveness and may therefore be accurately depicted by means of concentric circles.


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