Ethics and morals help people make good choices. Different ethical codes provide various standards for sorting through and settling moral questions. Ethical ideals can come from ancient philosophers, religious figures, modern scholars and philosophers, and personal beliefs. Though different in each specific philosophy, each type of ethical code contains important core values.
Ethics and morals direct decision-making and regulate how people should behave in a given culture. Everyone has a slightly different personal ethical code, derived from spiritual and historical sources and from individual experience. People rely on ethical standards to guide them through both routine and unusual situations. Ethical rules and virtuous business practices rely on moral standards as their basis. Ethics and morals help keep nations and cultures from descending into anarchy.
The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Aristotle and Plato, writing in the 4th and 3rd centuries BCE, were among the first people to record conversations about ethics and morals. Each philosopher had a different take on the importance of ethics. Socrates believed that good morals are necessary for happiness. Aristotle believed that virtues are prescribed and enforced by society for society's benefit. Plato believed that goodness is an inherent human trait. During the Middle Ages, Christian moral philosophy was a leading influence on Western views about ethics and morals. Many modern ethical philosophers tend to focus on equality, freedom and common duty.
Utilitarian ethics strives to do the most good, or at least the smallest amount of harm. Rights ethics bases decisions on the concept of basic human rights such as freedom, dignity, respect and truth. Justice ethics focuses on equality for every person, if all other things are equal in their situations. Common-good ethics dictates which actions would create the best community. Virtue ethics encourages people to act according to the best aspects of their personalities, assuming each has the capacity to act with prudence, honesty, courage and fairness.
Ethics and morals help keep people from acting in ways that harm others. Ethics and morals encourage people to make beneficial, respectful and fair decisions. They encourage equality and common good. One perspective is that a person ideally makes choices based first on ethics, then on legality and finally on efficiency. That is, if two choices are both equally ethical, choose the more lawful one. If both options are equally lawful and ethical, choose the most efficient. This is the kind of issue that has occupied moralists and ethical thinkers since antiquity.
Many people think that acting lawfully is the same as acting ethically. It's true that good governments generally create ethical laws, but not all laws are based on ethics. For example, it may be unethical to follow the laws of a tyrannical dictator. Ethical laws can serve as moral baselines. According to ethical philosopher Immanuel Kant, ethical actions are not instinctual or inborn. Whereas instinct is concerned primarily with self-preservation, morality and ethical thinking promote "conservation, welfare and happiness," Kant believed.