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What is meant by the term ethics?

Definitions and approaches

Broadly speaking, ethics is a branch of philosophy which seeks to address issues related to concepts of right and wrong. It is sometimes referred to as moral philosophy and can be broadly divided into four subject areas which are as follows:

  • Meta-ethics aims to understand the nature of ethical evaluations, the origin of ethical principles and the meanings of terms used but is value-free.
  • Descriptive ethics involves, for example, determining what proportion of the population or a certain group considers that something is right or wrong.
  • Normative ethics, sometimes referred to as moral theory, focuses on how moral values are determined, what makes things right or wrong and what should be done.
  • Applied ethics examines controversial issues (such as euthanasia, abortion and capital punishment) and applies ethical theories to real life situations. Applied ethical issues are those which are clearly moral issues and for which there are significant groups of people who are either for and against. Often there is no simple answer as to whether something is right or wrong as ethical issues tend to be multi-faceted. Possible solutions may appeal to some ethical principles and not others, just as they may benefit certain groups of people and not others.
    • medical and nursing ethics (considers moral values and judgements linked to medicine and nursing)
    • bioethics (considers ethical issues which arise in connection with the advances in biology and medicine) – medical ethics and bioethics are closely linked and there is sometimes overlap between the two

In their attempt to define ethics, Verlasquez et al. (1987) drew attention to four things that should not be considered as ethics.

  1. They suggest that ethics is not necessarily about acting in accordance with one’s feelings as sometimes a person’s feelings about a particular issue may lead them to act in a way that is unethical.
  2. Ethics cannot be equated with religion because although most religions advocate and provide incentives for people to act in an ethical manner, ethics applies to everyone whereas religion is limited to certain groups of people.
  3. Behaving in an ethical manner should not be confused with respecting laws as throughout history examples can be found of laws which with hindsight were clearly unethical (e.g. linked to slavery, apartheid and compulsory sterilization of certain groups of people). Even nowadays there are laws which authorize capital punishment, euthanasia, abortion and compulsory electroconvulsive shock treatment even though large sections of the population are against such practices.
  4. Finally, ethical behaviour cannot be based on “what society accepts” because people’s behaviour may deviate from what is ethical and societies may condone unethical behaviour (such as withholding vital medical treatment from certain groups of people or even trying to eliminate certain groups of people altogether). In this sense, society is understood as state actions or decisions that are more or less supported or tolerated by citizens. However, whole populations are seldom if ever all in agreement on ethical issues. If by “society”, the whole population is intended, then it would be necessary to carry out a survey to find out what they think about each ethical issue and as people tend to be divided on numerous issues, this would be impractical and inconclusive.



Last Updated: Monday 29 March 2010