What use is ethics?
If ethical theories are to be useful in practice, they need to affect the way human beings behave.
Some philosophers think that ethics does do this. They argue that if a person realises that it would be morally good to do something then it would be irrational for that person not to do it.
But human beings often behave irrationally - they follow their 'gut instinct' even when their head suggests a different course of action.
However, ethics does provide good tools for thinking about moral issues.
What is ethics?
At its simplest, ethics is a system of moral principles. They affect how people make decisions and lead their lives.
Ethics is concerned with what is good for individuals and society and is also described as moral philosophy.
The term is derived from the Greek word ethos which can mean custom, habit, character or disposition.
Ethics covers the following dilemmas:
- how to live a good life
- our rights and responsibilities
- the language of right and wrong
- moral decisions - what is good and bad?
Ethics can provide a moral map
Most moral issues get us pretty worked up - think of abortion and euthanasia for starters. Because these are such emotional issues we often let our hearts do the arguing while our brains just go with the flow.
But there's another way of tackling these issues, and that's where philosophers can come in - they offer us ethical rules and principles that enable us to take a cooler view of moral problems.
So ethics provides us with a moral map, a framework that we can use to find our way through difficult issues.
Ethics can pinpoint a disagreement
Using the framework of ethics, two people who are arguing a moral issue can often find that what they disagree about is just one particular part of the issue, and that they broadly agree on everything else.
That can take a lot of heat out of the argument, and sometimes even hint at a way for them to resolve their problem.
But sometimes ethics doesn't provide people with the sort of help that they really want.