1. Definition And Key Questions

2. Prevailing Views

3. Philosophers And Texts

1. Definition And Key Questions

Ethics is the branch of philosophy concerned with actions that can be considered right or wrong, good or bad, appropriate or inappropriate. Ethicisits explore questions about duty, obligations, responsibility, and individual rights. What should I do? Do I have any obligations as a human being -- to others, to myself, to God, to society? What is the summum bonum (highest good)? Is it virtue, knowledge, altruism, charity, self-actualization, lifelong pursuit of truth, communion with God? Is there such a thing as "moral knowledge," or are all statements employing terms like ought and should merely expressive of desires and tastes? Most people would agree that a man who walks into a public space, pulls out a revolver, and indiscriminately fires at others is doing something "wrong," something "immoral," irrespective of any rationale he can advance. How exactly do we know that such an action is "wrong"? Do we say the action is "wrong" because we've been inculcated at an early age to believe it is wrong -- because our thoughts are the product of so much religious and social conditioning? Or is the conviction about the "wrong" action owing to some other factor, such as an innate moral sense, for instance? But then what's the difference between having an innate moral sense and having a conscience? And if human beings have an innate moral sense -- some intuitive power to distinguish what's right from what's wrong -- why have some among us perpetrated or condoned so many heinous acts throughout history, such as genocide, slavery, and imperialism?

If God doesn't exist, are terms like "right" and "wrong" meaningful in any objectively warranted sense?

2. Prevailing Views

    Religious Influences:
        Judaism -- A moral life is one that complies with the Law (ten commandments) and is responsive to the will of God.
        Buddhism -- The summum bonum is the attainment of nirvana, the transcendence of earthly desires and suffering and the cycle of being and becoming.
        Christianity -- The moral life embodies Christ's teachings, with emphasis on charity, meekness, poverty, the golden rule, and faith in God.

    Plato: Moral truth exists; the ground of all moral knowledge is a transcendental world of changeless Forms of which the Good is the highest archetype. The best, most virtuous life is lived by philosophers, whose deepest passion is to purify the soul and to know
the Truth.

    Aristotle: The good is that "for whose sake everything else is done. In medicine this is health, in strategy victory, in architecture a house..." Happiness is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. Temperance is the hallmark of the good life, and the wisest people avoid extremes.

    Epicureanism: The criterion of all good is pleasure. A moral action is that which produces the greatest pleasure; an immoral action one producing pain. Forerunner of later hedonistic/utilitarian philosophies.

    Stoicism: Happiness consists in accepting the grim fact that we control and influence very little in the world; serene resignation is the highest good, along with the avoidance of grief and anxiety. "We must make the best of those things that are in our power, and take the rest as nature gives it," advises Epictetus.

    Thomism: The philosophy of Aquinas, which sees recta ratio (right reason) as the ground of all moral knowledge. An action is good or bad to the extent that it comports with the dictates of reason. One problem with this view: notions of recta ratio are more likely to be culture-determined than not.

    Spinozistic Ethics: Moral philosophy of Benedict Spinoza. Distinction between "good" and "bad" should be dropped altogether. Humans have but a partial and preferential view of things, so that what we call "bad" at any time may not really be bad at all (e.g., in the eyes of an omniscient observer), but only bad with respect to our own likes/dislikes. Only God can really know what is "good" or not. Used relatively, "good" refers usually to what preserves our being, to what aids us, and "bad" to what hinders us. Intellectual love of God is the highest "good".

    Kantian Deontology: The righteousness of an act depends on motive and the fulfillment of law, not on its consequences. Only "Good Will" is truly good. Moral behavior is governed by the categorical imperative (doing something because it is right, not because some advantage can be derived from it), not by the hypothetical imperative (e.g., a salesman is honest with a customer, but only because he thinks honesty is the best means to win the customer's business). People should always treat others as an end, not as a means. Emphasis here is on obligation, duty, not the fruits of one's action.

    Utilitarianism: The moral philosophy of Bentham and of James and John Stuart Mill. A hedonistic system which sees the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people as the chief good. "Moral" behavior leads to pleasure; "immoral" behavior leads to pain.

    Nihilism: Philosophy most notably of Friedrich Nietzsche. There is no moral knowledge, no moral truth, no objective values or ideals. Nietzsche introduced, however, the notion of master morality and slave morality, the latter being inculcated by religion (especially Christianity). Like Spinoza, he wished to jettison the distinction between "good" and "bad" altogether but, unlike Spinoza, wasn't quite successful. He put forth his own version of the "good man," what he called the Overman (Ubermensch), someone with the perfect blend of apollonian and dionysian attributes. Nietzsche sometimes flirted with the notion of "good" being brute strength, military prowess, the imposition of will on weaker natures.

    Existentialism: The bent of mind of Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, Jaspers and a host of literary artists, from Dostoevsky and Kafka to Camus and Hesse. The view that moral truth doesn't exist a priori. There are no values independent of human experience, no pre-existing, transcendent first principles to guide human conduct. Through free will and free choice, someone defines his/her moral nature and can add goodness to the world. This sense of nothingness is described by existentialists in different ways: e.g., as "despair," as "forlornness," as "nausea," as "inauthenticity". A good life is one that is authentic, autonomous, creative, humanistic, rather than routine, conformist, impersonal, and isolated. Modern society has tended toward the latter, in the eyes of latter-day existentialists like Sartre.

3. Philosophers And Texts

    The Analects of Confucius, trans. by Arthur Waley

    Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

    Plato: Phaedo; Crito; Apology; Republic

    Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics; Eudemian Ethics; Magna Moralia

    Epicurus: The bulk of his work is lost, but fragments remain of On Nature.

    Epictetus: Enchiridion

    Marcus Auelius: Meditations

    St. Augustine: The City of God

    Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologica

    Dante Alighieri: The Divine Comedy (Arguably the greatest poem ever; the poet journeys through hell, purgatory, and heaven and offers an effulgent vision of the
good life.)

    Benedict Spinoza: Ethics

    Immanuel Kant: Critique of Pure Reason; Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals

    David Hume: An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding

    Ralph Waldo Emerson: The essays "Nature," "Self-Reliance," and "Compensations"

    J.S. Mill: Utilitarianism

    Friedrich Nietzsche: Geneology of Morals; Beyond Good And Evil; The Will To Power.

    G.E. Moore: Principia Ethica

    George Santayana: The Life of Reason (5 vols.)

    Fyodor Dostoevsky: Story of "The Grand Inquisitor," as found in The
Brothers Karamazov.

    Jean-Paul Sartre: Being And Nothingness; Nausea (a novel); No Exit (a play).