1.3 Philosophical Ethics

Philosophical ethics is nothing but the deliberate pursuit and clarification of this kind of reflection on our own values, actions and decisions. Even though, as I have been emphasizing, we all have the capacity to reflect on our lives and choices, we do not always spend the time or make the effort to do this carefully and deeply. This is because we are mostly preoccupied with the immediately practical details of our lives. We are too busy living to take the time to stop and think about the significance of what we are doing. However, at times in the lives of both individuals and societies the need to reflect more clearly on what we are doing becomes more urgent. For individuals the need to stop and think and to reconsider the basic assumptions on which we act often arises in relation to important life events or radical changes – the sudden loss of a loved one; the birth of a child; living through a natural disaster or a war; or even the transition to adulthood in which one assumes full moral and legal responsibility while also gaining the full rights and privileges of adults. These are topics and situations, as we will see later, that are often the focus of discussions in the branch of philosophical ethics called applied ethics. In the case of societies, philosophical thinking likewise flourishes in times of great stress or change – for example when radically different societies suddenly make contact with each other; when new groups and ways of living displace old groups and ways; when new discoveries challenge peoples’ basic views of the nature of things; when societies find their very existence threatened by seemingly insurmountable obstacles. In cases like these it becomes more obviously important to reflect carefully on what we assume is valuable to us both individually and as a society, on what counts as a good life.

A philosophical approach to ethics, or moral philosophy4, looks at a few different kinds of questions. So the broader field of ethics can be divided up into a few different sub-fields. These are:

Descriptive ethics

  • What do people really think about right and wrong?
  • How can we best describe and explain people’s moral claims and beliefs?

Descriptive ethics is not exclusively a philosophical approach to ethics – sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and other social scientists are also interested in studying people’s ethical, moral and social beliefs. From the perspective of descriptive ethics, our beliefs and principles are things to be studied, categorized, organized and explained. This is what social scientists do for a living.


  • How does ethical thinking work and how does it compare with other forms of thinking?
  • Are ethical claims nothing but opinions as opposed to the factual claims made scientists?

Meta-ethics is a higher-order or “meta-level” discussion about ethical thinking. Here again, philosophers as well as social scientists often ask meta-ethical questions in their attempts to understand what is distinctive about ethical thinking as opposed to other modes of cognition. Looking at ethics from this perspective does not involve taking a stand on particular ethical principles or issues.

Prescriptive ethics

  • What is really the right thing to do?
  • What moral principles are really justified and should be followed?

This approach to ethics is the uniquely philosophical attempt to find the true basis of ethical thinking. We will be spending a lot of time here examining various attempts to give an account of the basis and justification of ethical thought, belief and action. This way of approaching ethics is not scientific, to the extent that science concerns itself with “value-neutral” descriptions and explanations of whatever phenomena it is addressing. That philosophy can succeed in making normative claims while remaining based on objectivity and rationality is up to philosophers to establish.

Applied ethics

  • What is the right thing to do in real-world cases of ethical controversy?
  • What assumptions and principles lie at the basis of ethical controversies?

How does all of this play out in real life cases? Under this heading are also to be found discussions of ethical issues associated with some particular area of human life, profession, or subject matter – hence medical ethics, business ethics, legal ethics, environmental ethics, bioethics and so on are sub-fields within applied ethics.

We should keep in mind as we proceed that these various approaches are not always so clearly separate from one another. Our description of what people believe about ethical questions, for example, is clearly often informed by what we think they are justified in believing. Nevertheless we should keep in mind the fact that we can look at ethics from each of these different points of view and recognize that failing to do so may result in unnecessary confusion.

In conclusion we might say that philosophical ethics involves deliberately reflecting on our ideas about ethics in general and on specific applications of these ideas to actual cases and controversies. Another term for such deliberate reflection is “critical thinking.” This should not be looked at as a primarily negative activity as the word “critical” might suggest, but as the positive attempt to arrive at the truth of the matter by thinking carefully about what are often complex and ambiguous ideas and concepts. Even though, as I mentioned at the outset, all of us are equally capable of reflecting critically on our own beliefs, desires, actions and values, it does take some effort and quite a bit of practice to be able to do so effectively. This is because critical thinking is a skill like anything else that we might do with our minds (like solve algebra problems or identify different species of trees) and we shouldn’t expect to be experts at it from the start. In the next chapter we will look at and get some practice using one of the most important tools for critical thinking – the logical analysis of arguments.

  1. Throughout this book I’ll be using the terms “ethics” and “morality” as basically synonymous. Some people distinguish between the two terms in one way or another and that is fine as far as it goes. But since the reason English has both terms is that we borrowed each from a different language – “ethics” comes from Greek, while “morality” comes from Latin – and both original terms mean something pretty similar, I see no reason to insist on any fundamental different meaning between them.↩︎