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EthIcs

Today we’re going to start our study of ethics, which is, to put it very roughly, the study of the nature of goodness and of what is morally right.  Ethics is typically broken into four different subjects, including meta-ethics, the theory of value, the theory of conduct, and applied ethics.  By way of introduction, let me say a little bit about each of these areas.

But first I need to introduce a piece of terminology -- without spending too much time on trying to make it very precise, which shouldn’t be necessary for our purposes.  The piece of terminology is ethical sentence.  Another word for it might be normative statement.  But to be consistent with our reading, we’ll stick with "ethical sentence."  An ethical sentence is a sentence which contains the words "good," "bad," "right," "wrong," "moral," "immoral," or any other such word.  In other words, these are words that we use to morally evaluate people, intentions, actions, and other sorts of things.  So here are a few examples of ethical sentences: "Sally is a good person"; "it is wrong to steal"; "it is totally evil to do what they are contemplating"; "the senator’s actions were thoroughly unethical."  And correspondingly a non-ethical sentence would be a sentence that does not contain one of these terms of moral evaluation.  Examples would include: "That flower is red"; "Norman is six foot three"; "Juneau is the capital of Alaska"; and so forth.

So now let’s look at those four different areas of ethics I mentioned.

Meta-ethics is the study of what sort of meaning ethical sentences have.  If you’ll remember when we talked about philosophy of language, we focused in on the meaning of proper names.  Well, meta-ethics focuses in on the meaning of ethical sentences.  What sort of meaning do they have?  More about that topic in just a bit; meta-ethics is the first topic we’re going to take up today.

The second topic, the theory of value, asks: "What sorts of things, and situations, are good?"  Notice, the goodness we’re talking about here is primarily the goodness, or desirability, or the value, of things -- not of people or actions.  The goodness of people and their actions is studied under the next heading, the heading of the theory of conduct.

I’m sure you can see the difference I mean here.  Obviously, there is a difference between calling a banana split "good" and calling a human being "good."  The theory of value is more concerned about the sense in which objects like banana splits, or situations like a well-paying job, or mental states like pleasure, are good.  That’s not to say, however, that ultimately, the sense in which we call a human being "good" can’t ultimately be reduced to the sense in which objects and mental states and situations can be good.  I mean, maybe that’s the case -- maybe ultimately we will be able to define what it means to be a good person in terms of that person’s tendency to create good things and situations for himself and other people.  In other words, maybe what we mean by calling someone "a good person" is, very roughly speaking, "a person who creates a lot of good for the world."  We’ll examine such possibilities next time, when we talk about the theory of conduct.

But now just a little bit by way of introducing the theory of conduct is.  This is the study of right and wrong, of obligation and permissions, of duty, of what is above and beyond the call of duty, and of what is so wrong as to be evil.  If you would like a single question that might best encapsulate what the theory of conduct asks, I think the question would be this: How should I act, and why?  So the theory of conduct involves debates over what the ultimate standards of right and wrong are -- standards of morality, or moral rules, if you will.  One familiar moral rule is the so-called "Golden Rule": "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  So next time we are going to look at some theories of conduct and see whether they actually can give us adequate standards of right action.

There is a fourth area is called applied ethics, and this is an area that we will not have time to discuss, although it’s very interesting.  Basically, it’s just as its name suggests: it is the application of ethical theories to particular ethical problems.  Actually, most of the ethical problems you’ll study if you study applied ethics are about ethical questions public policy implications.  Such as: Is getting an abortion ever moral?  Is euthanasia ever moral?  What are the ethical underpinnings of affirmative action policies?  And so forth.

But not all questions studied in applied ethics have immediate public policy implications.  For example, one such question is: What is lying and is lying always wrong?  If not, when is lying permissible?

And then there is a whole raft of separate branches of applied ethics, which examine ethical problems of different professions.  There are business ethics, medical ethics, and legal ethics, which examine the moral dilemmas faced by business people, doctors, and lawyers, respectively.