What Is the Meaning of Ethics?


Ethical considerations arise every day of our lives. Whether we are using the Internet, working at a job or receiving a blood transfusion, we cannot avoid being involved in acts that carry ethical or unethical outcomes. By understanding the meaning of ethics, we can endeavor to live productive lives while also serving to enrich the lives of those with whom we interact.


  • Moral judgments differ depending on who is stating them. A person's religious heritage, national background or income level may deeply affect the content of his judgments. Metaethics is a branch of ethics that is concerned with analyzing such issues as whether true definitions of "right" or "wrong" exist, or whether acts of altruism and self-interest are necessarily mutually exclusive in nature. In essence, metaethics is the study of ethics itself (see Reference 1). It questions the feasibility and reliability of ethical statements and frameworks.

Normative ethics

  • Ethical theory that is prescriptive in nature (i.e., seeking to provide remedies to alleviate the ills of society) belongs to a field of study called normative ethics. Moral theories that are normative in nature are generally concerned with how people of a society ought to behave. Religious texts usually abound with examples of ethical statements that are normative in nature, such as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (see Reference 2). Similarly, practitioners of normative ethics in a secular context are interested in advancing fundamental moral principles for use in determining desirable conduct within a society.

Types of systems

  • Whether ethical systems are carefully codified or casually transmitted, they are vital to the livelihood and development of civilizations. Different types of systems include ethical relativism, deontology and virtue ethics (see Reference 3). Ethical relativism is a system of ethics that is often used by anthropologists, and it asserts that the norms of morality from one person's culture may differ drastically from the norms observed by a person from another culture. Deontological ethics considers the concept of duty to be essential to our everyday actions, despite whether these actions bear good or bad consequences. Virtue ethics champions ethical behavior that is based upon a person's good character.


  • Ethical considerations bear relevance in a variety of contexts. Applied ethics is a branch of study that examines moral issues that must be addressed in different fields of human affairs. Business ethics examines whether CEOs of unprofitable companies should receive lavish bonuses, while workplace ethics may be concerned with the issue of sexual harassment. Bioethics has been concerned with cloning in recent years, as military ethics may question the right of a nation to seize power within another weaker nation in order to bolster the expansion of its own business interests.

Key literature

  • Three indispensable works of literature that provide readers with a general understanding of ethics are Aristotle's "Nichomachean Ethics," Kant's "Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals" and John Stuart Mill's "Utilitarianism." Aristotle's work urges readers to rationally contemplate their lives in order to live in agreement with overriding virtues; Kant's work emphasizes living by the maxim that others should be treated with as much value as we ourselves wish to receive; and J.S. Mill's work examines the importance of balancing the interests of a society against those of an individual.


  • Photo Credit "The Death Of Socrates," by Ben Sutherland
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