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Ethics is a branch of philosophy which studies questions pertaining to right and wrong, good and bad. meta:Simple View of Ethics and Morals deals with these in much simpler language.

When balances between these are considered, especially in public policy, ethics becomes politics. When religious concepts are considered to dominate over human conceptions of right and wrong, ethics are presumed to derive from a moral code - usually divinely inspired or revealed.

Ethics is typically broken into at least four sub-disciplines, including meta-ethics, value theory, the theory of conduct, and applied ethics. Some view aesthetics and etiquette and arbitration as more fundamental, percolating 'bottom up' to imply, rather than explicitly state, theories of value or of conduct. In these views ethics is not derived from a top-down philosophy but rather is strictly derived from observations of actual choices made in practice:

  • ethical codes applied by various groups (parties, professions) in society, and the implicit and personal choice that defines relationships with nature, e.g. a land ethic, which is also often called an aesthetic - study of which is aesthetics. Some consider aesthetics itself the basis of ethics - and a personal moral core developed through art and storytelling as very influential in one's later ethical choices.

  • informal theories of etiquette which tend to be less rigorous and more situational. Some consider etiquette a simple negative ethics, i.e. where can one evade an uncomfortable truth without doing wrong? One very notable advocate of this view is Judith Martin ("Miss Manners"). In this view, ethics is more a summary of common sense social decisions.

  • practices in arbitration and law, e.g. the claim by Rushworth Kidder[?] that ethics itself is a matter of balancing "right versus right", i.e. putting priorities on two things that are both right, but which must be traded off carefully in each situation. This view many consider to have potential to reform ethics as a practice, but it is not as widely held as the 'aesthetic' or 'common sense' views listed above.

The rest of this article will focus on the formal academic categories above, which are derived from Early Greek philosophy[?], especially Aristotle. It will characterize the above variants as part of an 'applied ethics' in the terms that are developed using these terms:

First, we need to define an "ethical sentence[?]", also called a normative statement. An ethical sentence is one that is used to make either a positive or a negative (moral) evaluation of something. Ethical sentences typically use words such as "good," "bad," "right," "wrong," "moral," "immoral," and so on. Here are some examples:

  • "Sally is a good person."
  • "People should not steal."
  • "The Simpson verdict was unjust."
  • "Honesty is a virtue."

In contrast, a non-ethical sentence would be a sentence that does not serve to (morally) evaluate something. Examples would include:

  • "Sally is a tall person."
  • "Someone took the stereo out of my car."
  • "Simpson was acquitted at his trial."

Now letıs look at the four branches of ethics mentioned above.

1. Meta-ethics studies the nature of ethical sentences and attitudes. This includes such questions as what "good" and "right" mean, whether and how we know what is right and good, whether moral values are objective, and how ethical attitudes motivate us. Often this is derived from some list of moral absolutes, e.g. a religious moral code, whether explicit or not. Some would view aesthetics as itself a form of meta-ethics.

2. The theory of value, asks: "What sorts of things and situations are good?" For example, the following would be questions in the theory of value: "Is pleasure always good?", "Is it good, ceteris paribus, for people to be equally well-off?", "Is it intrinsically good for beautiful objects to exist?" If value can be quantified at all, it is implied that tradeoffs are at least possible - Kidder[?] would say implied.

3. The theory of conduct studies, on a general level, what sorts of actions are morally wrong, permissible, obligatory, and supererogatory (beyond the call of duty). So theories of conduct propose standards of morality, or moral codes or rules. For example, the following would be the sort of rules that a theory of conduct would discuss (though different theories will differ on the merit of each of these particular rules): "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you"; "The right action is the action that produces the greatest happiness for the greatest number"; "Stealing is wrong." Here is where it is difficult to distinguish a theory from practice of etiquette.

4. Applied ethics applies ethical theories to particular ethical problems. Many of these ethical problems bear directly on public policy. For example, the following would be questions of applied ethics: "Is getting an abortion ever moral?"; "Is euthanasia ever moral?"; "What are the ethical underpinnings of affirmative action policies?"; "Do animals have rights?" Without these questions there is no clear fulcrum on which to balance law, politics, and practice of arbitration - in fact no common assumptions of all participants - so the ability to formulate the questions are prior to rights balancing.

But not all questions studied in applied ethics concern public policy. For example: Is lying always wrong? If not, when is it permissible? Clearly, it is permissible in some situations, at least by default, as research in anthropology shows that humans typically lie several times per day. Underlying patterns must somehow be detected by ourselves before we decide how truthful to be - else we could not manage the many and varying situations outlined in any social etiquette - so the ability to make these ethical judgements is prior to any etiquette.

There are several sub-branches of applied ethics examining the ethical problems of different professions, such as business ethics, medical ethics, engineering ethics[?] and legal ethics[?], while technology assessment and environmental assessment[?] study the effects and implications of new technologies or projects on nature and society. These seek to characterize common issues and problems that arise in the ethical codes of the professions, and define their common responsibility to the public, e.g. to preserve its natural capital, or to obey some social expectations of honest dealings and disclosure.

Casuistry is one approach to applied ethics. Bernard Crick[?] in 1982 offered a variant view, that politics was the only applied ethics, and that "political virtues" were in fact necessary in all matters where human morality and interests were destined to clash.

The view that ethics is innate and tied to a personal moral core or aesthetics is harder to relate to the formal categories above other than as a meta-ethics in itself. It is considered by some ethicists to be just a variant of mysticism or narcissism, permitting those who avow aesthetic choices as being 'above ethics' to justify anything.

See also: morality, epistemology, ontology, etiquette, Mussar movement (Jewish ethical movement), ethical code, moral code, bioethics, Utilitarian ethics, Henry Hazlitt, grey area.

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