Human beings are considered rational animals that are capable of thinking at very high order. For more than a millennium, we have produced great thinkers who have laid foundation to the institution of philosophy.
The study of general and fundamental questions raised about abstract subjects like existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind and language are tried to be resolved by both subjective and objective reasoning.
Amongst the various branches of philosophy, one of the most studied as well as applied division is moral philosophy, which in a single term, is denoted by ‘ethics’. This study involves systemizing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct in the society that we live in.
The concepts of good and bad are a subject of perspective and are bound to change periodically. It is the studies undertaken by ethics which try to form a collective outlook which decides what is considered to be good and bad.
For example, capital punishments and torture had been a good example of punishments for crimes against the society. But today, brutal executions are frowned upon by majority of the nations of the world.
The questions of human morality regarding good and evil, virtues and vices, justice and injustice and related matters are raised under four major dimensions of ethics- Meta-ethics, Prescriptive Ethics, Descriptive Ethics and Applied Ethics.
These four branches of ethics have been systematically answering to all the moral philosophical queries that have been raised or are being raised in today’s society.
In a single phrase, this sub-division of ethics can be described as the ‘ethics of ethics’. Meta-ethics deal with the questions which determine if a raised subject or matter is morally right or morally wrong. It asks about our understanding- how we interpret if a decision, action or a motive is good and bad.
From ancient times, philosophers have been trying to give a definitive description to meta-ethics. Aristotle for example, had theorised that our interpretation of right and wrong is based on our understanding of other subjects and relative ethical wisdom that we passively gain from it.
For instance, the differentiation of healthy food items from junk food items is on the basis of our understanding of factors like taste, appetite and effects on our body. Additionally, Aristotle also claimed that acculturation plays an important role to influence our thoughts and ideologies regarding a subject.
When two or more cultures combine in a geographical region to co-exist, the various aspects of every culture are integrated in their daily lives and broaden their horizon of knowledge and influence their understanding of good and bad.
But modern philosophers hold a divided view on meta-ethics. This subject is divided into two schools of thought who try to describe meta-ethics. One holds the opinion that when we describe something as right or wrong on our understanding of morality, our judgement is neither true nor false.
This abstract ideology is classified under non-cognitivism. While the other school of idea stresses on the importance of facts and figures while judging moral good and bad. This difference is akin to non-descriptive and descriptive ideologies.
Non-cognitivists are non-realists are they do not feel that there is need of specific ontology for meta-ethics whereas cognitivists are realists who must explain what kind of properties or states are relevant for this subject, what values do they possess and why they guide and motivate our decisions and actions.
This division of ethics deals with the study of ethical action. It extensively investigates questions which ask whether the action one implements is actually right or not. Prescriptive ethics are also known as normative ethics. It is a vast subject and is conveniently divided into sub-divisions that helps in better organisation and analysis of questions and ideas raised.
The first division is termed as virtue ethics, also called as the ethics of Socrates. This describes the character of a moral agent as the driving force behind ethical behaviour.
Another branch known as stoicism, based on the teachings of Heraclitus and heavily influenced by Socrates, maintains the abstract chain of ideologies of the greatest good being achieved in contentment and serenity.
This field promotes detachment from materialism; self-mastery over ones desires and accepts things at their face value. While on the other hand, hedonism serves as a stark contrast to stoicism as it prioritises on maximising pleasures and minimising pain, even at the expense of others.
A fourth set of teachings are compiled under intuitive ethics which theorises that our intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge.
Further division of prescriptive ethics classifies the subject under consequentialism which refers to moral theories that hold the consequences of a certain action as the foundation for any relevant moral judgement regarding the particular action.
This view is easily understood in the aphorism- ‘The ends justify the means.’ Further branches of Deontology, pragmatic ethics and anarchist ethics further classify prescriptive ethics on the basis of a multitude of factors that determine the answer to ‘is the action or decision being implemented is wrong?’
This dimension of ethics is on the least philosophical end of the spectrum of ethics. It seeks information on how people live; observe the patterns of situations arising in their surroundings and draw general conclusions based on these observations.
Descriptive ethics identify more as a branch of social science rather than human morality, by offering a value-free perspective of ethics. Descriptive ethics do not start with preconceived theories and hypotheses but rather prefer to thoroughly investigate the existing facts and cases relating to the subject- making observations of actual choices which are made by moral agents in a practical world.
The study of descriptive ethics includes various fields of examinations ranging from ethical codes that lay down rules and regulations for the society, informal theories on etiquette, practices of law and arbitration and finally, observing choices made by ordinary people without the assistance or advice of an expert.
This is the subject of ethics which finds use in practical life in various fields of work and life. This discipline applies ethical philosophy in real-life situations. Some common fields of specialised applied ethics include engineering ethics, bioethics, geoethics, military ethics, public services ethics and business ethics.
Under this discipline, various specific questions have been raised which require a philosophical approach rather than technical interpretation to satisfy the morality of the human nature. Many public policies are decided upon the answers to such questions. For example- is abortion immoral?
Should euthanasia be legalised? What are the fundamental human rights? – And others. While dichotomies are preferred due to the convenience of taking a decision, most of the questions raised are generally multifaceted in nature and the most efficient answers are able to solve many areas coherently.
Approaching the dimensions of ethics
Conceived in the 1800’s by famous philosophers Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill, this approach was used by the legislators to determine which laws were morally upright and which ones were not.
The foundation of this approach lies on the fact that the laws are to be formulated to provide the best balance between right and wrong. For instance, ethical warfare is trying to curb terrorism for the greater good by killing and destroying the terrorist organisations.
The Rights Approach
This discipline stems from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant which focused on the rights of a person to choose from their free will. This approach stresses on the fact that humans are not a subject to manipulation and their dignity and decisions should be respected. Many fundamental and legal rights like right to privacy, right of freedom, etc. find their roots in this form of approach.
Fairness or justice approach
First described by Aristotle and his contemporary philosophers, this approach propagates the idea of equality to all irrespective of their origins or creed in every aspect of life.
Common goods approach
First described by the Greek philosophers as an approach which denotes life in a society as a good commodity in itself and the actions of each and every individual should contribute to this common good.
Modern philosopher John Rawls gives a better definition of common good as ‘certain general conditions those are equally applicable to everyone’s advantage.’ Affordable healthcare, transparent administration, environmental uplifting are some of the most cited examples of this ethical approach.
The most primitive approach in the list, it adheres to the fact that ethical actions are supposed to be consistent and at par with certain ideal virtues that provide for the holistic development of our humanity. These virtues are temperaments and practices of day to day lives that enable us to act according to the highest potential of our character and propagate the moral values.
Honesty, courage, compassion, generosity, tolerance, love fidelity, integrity, fairness, self-control, and prudence are some of the examples of virtues.
The response that an average human being is able to generate to the stimulus of a situation or a task assigned is directly dependent upon the nature of system of ideologies that resides in their minds. And the ideologies are nothing but propagation of our ethical values.
Our understanding of ethics and its dimensions, no matter how advanced we are today, has still remained very vague. The abstract nature of this subject tends to make it difficult to analyse or assign a certain definition. But a curios mind is always looking forward to answer questions that are poised in front of it.
As long as mankind possesses this unadulterated curiousness in every aspect of life, a philosophical question will arise as a result and will definitely change the existing comprehension of ethics and its dimensions.
Till then, it is important to understand the current stage of interpretation on this subject as well as positively react to the ideas that are being generated in the society. Because as Albert Schweitzer had aptly stated-
“The first step in the evolution of ethics is a sense of solidarity with other human beings.”