Ethics, also called moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that “denotes that part of philosophy which deals with custom, that is, human behavior.” The term is derived from the ancient Greek ἦθος (êthos), meaning “character”, “behavior”, or, less likely, from ἔθος (èthos) meaning “custom”, “habit”, “custom”. It is descriptive, if it focuses on describing the behavior of man and help him to grasp among the motives that determine his action those whose realization presents individually and socially the greatest advantages; normative, if it presents man with a task, an end, an ideal to be achieved with a positive effort or removing the obstacles that society, culture and tradition oppose. Another subdivision is that of subjective ethics when the subject wants and acts only in the duty, to the exclusion of any other will or action; objective or intersubjective, if instead the subject assumes the will or action in relation to other wills or other actions.

Ethics studies the foundations that allow to assign to human behaviors a deontological and normative status, that is, to distinguish them into good, right, lawful, compared to behaviors considered unjust, illicit, improper or bad according to an ideal behavioral model (e.g., a given morality). As a discipline, it addresses issues pertaining to human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime.

As a field of intellectual inquiry, moral philosophy is linked to other disciplines such as pedagogy, philosophy of law, moral psychology, neuroethics, descriptive ethics, and value theory. The latter, along with aesthetics, concerns questions of value and includes ethics and aesthetics united in the branch of philosophy called axiology or “value doctrine,” that is, any theory that considers what in the world is or has value, and in that respect is distinguished from what is instead mere factual reality.”

Historical notes

Pre-Christian thought

Before philosophical speculation, man’s conduct was regulated by custom or religion: the phenomenon is evident in the Jewish people to whom Yahweh had entrusted his law written on two tablets and whose observance was a title to his benevolence and his favors, while every infraction provoked his punishment. It was an objective, external law, involving every little action of the Jew, so that he easily reduced the observance to an external habitus, without the participation of the will: a danger that the prophets warned and tried to prevent or repair by preaching obedience to Yahweh in the interiority of the heart.

Other religions less organized on the ethical level led, as in the case of Greek religion, to identify the order of Jupiter with that of the pólis, so that the crisis of political structures caused the decline of faith in the existence of ethical norms and was the next occasion of the rise of ethics as a science, first in the subjectivism of sophistry and then in the much more rigorous investigation of Socrates: he rejected the Sophistic relativism and moved in search of universal principles, capable of regulating and judging the actions of man, arriving at the conclusion that the true advantage coincides with the true good and that the individual good is necessarily resolved in the universal good. The result is a strict moralism and a eudemonistic sense of life.

Plato accepted the Socratic concept and transformed it into “Idea”, to which conforms not only man, but the whole nature in a scale of values that reaches the highest Good. Aristotle understood ethics as the realization of the purpose of man, but created a dualism by dividing the virtues in ethical, in order to the life of the affections and passions, and dianoetic, in order to the operation of the intellect. Hedonism, in turn, interpreted the good as everything that pleases man (Aristippus of Cyrene) or as a liberation of man from higher purposes or will on him dominant ab extra, to be satisfied in the tranquility of the soul, satisfied with himself and indifferent to the outside world (Epicurus).

The cynics came to ethical autarchy and ataraxia or indifference to the outside world in the name of their own internal balance. The Stoics accepted from the Cynics their indifference, conceiving the world as the creator of itself according to a rational fate, in front of which nothing can change; Neoplatonism returned to the ethical world of Plato with strong mystical accents.

Christian thought

Among these doctrines arose the new doctrine of Christianity, which raised the ethical ideal in a tension of being towards the perfections of God, not as a patrimony of a privileged few, but as an inheritance for all men left by the living example of Christ, the man-God: in Christian ethics in fact God himself is the norm and the goal of the life of the believer. Norm and goal are not external to man, but written in his heart, so obedience to them is not any legalistic respect, but adhesion of the human will in freedom.

Renaissance thought

In Humanism and in the Renaissance, man tried to make himself autonomous with respect to moral law and in particular to Christian ethics with temporary returns to Aristotelian and Epicurean ethics, while in the Catholic field the serious crisis originated by Protestantism led to ethical speculations on grace and predestination and in general to a hardening of ethical norms. In eighteenth-century England, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, A. Smith and others were connoisseurs of descriptive ethics: they relaunched a hedonistic and individualistic ethics based on the complete autonomy of man from all heteronomy. In France, Pascal and the Jansenists reacted to the English school by defining the moral sense as an innate tendency to expand towards others.

Modern thought

Much more marked, however, was the reaction of Kant, who posited duty as a moral fact, whose imperative commands man with absoluteness to realize his humanity or rationality. German idealism, while identifying being and having to be, assigned to man a task that exceeds him as an individual, making him find his fulfillment in a larger totality. Morality as an infinite task characterizes the philosophy of Fichte, while the conception of the State as ethical totality, embodied ethical substance, identifies that of Hegel.

In the second half of the nineteenth century reappeared the empirical address in the utilitarianism of J. Bentham and J. S. Mill, while the historical materialism of K. Marx and F. Engels overturned the idealistic perspective by making ethics a product of economic factors. The most decisive opposition to an ethics of having to be came from Nietzsche, who, however, after overturning the hierarchy of traditional ethical values, dictated a new norm through his “superman”. The best example of an ethics of spontaneity is given by Rousseau, for whom spontaneity and goodness coincide and moral commitment consists in recovering this spontaneity that society and culture have made man lose. His moral commitment must therefore be aimed at removing all the causes that have produced this loss.

Contemporary thought

In Italy, Croce and Gentile have seen ethical action, the first as a value that is implemented in history, the second as the coincidence of knowing and doing; in France, the philosophy of action and Christian neo-spiritualism have re-proposed the transcendence of moral values, but at the same time they say they are present in man, who by implementing them affirms them. In the Anglo-Saxon sphere, G. E. Moore has argued that moral judgments are intuitive and objective; A. J. Ayer affirmed that ethical language cannot be reduced to logical schemes, but is only a pure emotional and subjective datum; Ch. Stevenson valued ethical discourse as “appreciative-persuasive” and pragmatic discourse; finally R. M. Hare proposed a prescriptive language, in which there are formal rules to ensure non-contradiction and empirical rules to control certain judgments on the basis of facts.

Further developments in ethics have focused on the idea of social dialogue. For J. Habermas, it takes its ideal form if it is not hampered by inequalities and power relations. The ethics of action concurs for E. Lévinas with the attention to the other and his needs. Overcoming the barriers of species, some philosophers such as T. Regan pose the problem of broadening the perspective, if not in terms of dialogue, at least in terms of human responsibility towards the animal world; this would shift the boundaries of ethical thought, identifying animal rights as its new frontier. As regards the study of moral and social issues related to scientific research in the bio-medical field, shows peculiar characteristics and goes beyond the boundaries of applied ethics bioethics, so as to be considered a discipline in its own right.

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