Ethics has developed as people have reflected on the intentions and consequences of their acts. From this reflection on the nature of human behavior, theories of conscience have developed, giving direction to much ethical thinking. Intuitionists (Ralph Cudworth, Samuel Clarke), moral-sense theorists (the 3d earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson), and sentimentalists (J. J. Rousseau, Pierre-Simon Ballanche) postulated an innate moral sense, which serves as the ground of ethical decision. Empiricists (John Locke, Claude Helvétius, John Stuart Mill) deny any such innate principle and consider conscience a power of discrimination acquired by experience. In the one case conscience is the originator of moral behavior, and in the other it is the result of moralizing. Between these extremes there have been many compromises.
Another major difference in the approach to ethical problems revolves around the question of absolute good as opposed to relative good. Throughout the history of philosophy thinkers have sought an absolute criterion of ethics. Frequently moral codes have been based on religious absolutes. Immanuel Kant, in his categorical imperative, attempted to establish an ethical criterion independent of theological considerations. Rationalists (Plato, Baruch Spinoza, Josiah Royce) founded their ethics on a metaphysics.
All varying methods of building an ethical system pose the question of the degree to which morality is authoritative (i.e., imposed by a power outside the individual). If the criterion of morality is the welfare of the state (G. W. Hegel), the state is supreme arbiter. If the authority is a religion, then that religion is the ethical teacher. Hedonism, which equates the good with pleasure in its various forms, finds its ethical criterion either in the good of the individual or the good of the group. An egoistic hedonism (Aristippus, Epicurus, Julien de La Mettrie, Thomas Hobbes) views the good of the individual as the ultimate consideration. A universalistic hedonism, such as utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham, James Mill), finds the ethical criterion in the greatest good for the greatest number.
Among ethical theories debated in the first half of the 20th cent. were instrumentalism (John Dewey), for which morality lies within the individual and is relative to the individual's experience; emotivism (Sir Alfred J. Ayer), wherein ethical considerations are merely expressions of the subjective desires of the individual; and intuitionism (G. E. Moore), which postulates an immediate awareness of the morally good. Agreeing with Moore that the morally good is directly apprehended through intuition, deontological intuitionists (H. A. Prichard, W. D. Ross) went on to distinguish between good and right and to argue that moral obligations are intrinsically compelling whether or not their fulfillment results in some greater good.
Important ethical theories since the mid-20th cent. have included the prescriptivism of R. M. Hare, who has compared moral precepts to commands, a crucial difference between them being that moral precepts can be universally applied. In his arguments for virtue ethics, Alasdair C. MacIntyre has cautioned against unbridled individualism and advocated correctives drawn from Aristotle's discussion of moral virtue as the mean between extremes. Thomas Nagel has held that, in moral decision making, reason supersedes desire, so that it becomes rational to choose altruism over a narrowly defined self-interest. See also bioethics.
See H. Sidgwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics (1902); A. C. MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics (1965); M. Warnock, Ethics since 1900 (1979); W. D. Hudson, A Century of Moral Philosophy (1980); B. Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985); P. Singer, ed., Applied Ethics (1986).
Aristotle asserted that man had three natures: vegetable (physical), animal (emotional) and rational (mental). Physical nature can be assuaged through exercise and care, emotional nature through indulgence of instinct and urges, and mental through human reason and developed potential. Rational development was considered the most important, as essential to philosophical self-awareness and as uniquely human. Moderation was encouraged, with the extremes seen as degraded and immoral. For example, courage is the moderate virtue between the extremes of cowardice and recklessness. Man should not simply live, but live well with conduct governed by moderate virtue. This is regarded as difficult, as virtue denotes doing the right thing, to the right person, at the right time, to the proper extent, in the correct fashion, for the right reason.
However, Aristotle's method of observing the present state of things and drawing social conclusions from them, led him to propose a rigid hierarchy of human beings, in which Greek aristocrats were at the top, and women and slaves were akin to 'domestic animals'.
In the 20th century, moral theories have become more complex and are no longer concerned solely with rightness and wrongness, but are interested in many different kinds of moral status. This trend may have began in 1930 with D. W. Ross in his book, The Right and the Good. Here Ross agues that moral theories cannot say in general whether an action is right or wrong but only whether it tends to be right or wrong according to a certain kind of moral duty such as beneficence, fidelity, or justice (he called this concept of partial rightness prima facie duty). Subsequently, philosophers have questioned whether even prima facie duties can be articulated at a theoretical level; some philosophers have urged a turn away from general theorizing altogether, while others have defended theory on the grounds that it need not be perfect in order to capture important moral insight.
In the middle of the last century there was a long hiatus in the development of normative ethics during which philosophers largely turned away from normative questions towards meta-ethics. Even those philosophers during this period who maintained an interest in prescriptive morality, such as R. M. Hare, attempted to arrive at normative conclusions via meta-ethical reflection. This focus on meta-ethics was in part caused by the intense linguistic turn in analytic philosophy and in part by the pervasiveness of logical positivism. In 1971, John Rawls bucked the trend against normative theory in publishing A Theory of Justice. This work was revolutionary, in part because it paid almost no attention to meta-ethics and instead pursued moral arguments directly. In the wake of A Theory of Justice and other major works of normative theory published in the 1970s, the field has witnessed an extraordinary Renaissance that continues to the present day.
The semantics of ethics divides naturally into descriptivism and non-descriptivism. The former position advocates the idea that prescriptive language (including ethical commands and duties) is a subdivision of descriptive language and has meaning in virtue of the same kind of properties as descriptive propositions, whereas the latter contends that ethical propositions are irreducible in the sense that their meaning cannot be explicated sufficiently in terms of truth-conditions.
Correspondingly, the epistemology of ethics divides into cognitivism and non-cognitivism; a distinction that is often perceived as equivalent to that between descriptivists and non-descriptivists. Non-cognitivism may be understood as the claim that ethical claims reach beyond the scope of human cognition or as the (weaker) claim that ethics is concerned with action rather than with knowledge. Cognitivism can then be seen as the claim that ethics is essentially concerned with judgments of the same kind as knowledge judgments; namely about matters of fact.
The ontology of ethics is concerned with the idea of value-bearing properties, i.e. the kind of things or stuffs that would correspond to or be referred to by ethical propositions. Non-descriptivists and non-cognitivists will generally tend to argue that ethics do not require a specific ontology, since ethical propositions do not refer to objects in the same way that descriptive propositions do. Such a position may sometimes be called anti-realist. Realists on the other hand are left with having to explain what kind of entities, properties or states are relevant for ethics, and why they have the normative status characteristic of ethics.
Another concept which blurs ethics is moral luck. A drunk driver may safely reach home without injuring anyone, or he might accidentally kill a child who runs out into the street while he is driving home. The action of driving while drunk is usually seen as equally wrong in each case, but its dependence on chance affects the degree to which the driver is held responsible.
A more specific question could be: "If someone else can make better out of his/her life than I can, is it then moral to sacrifice myself for them if needed?" Without these questions there is no clear fulcrum on which to balance law, politics, and the practice of arbitration — in fact, no common assumptions of all participants—so the ability to formulate the questions are prior to rights balancing. But not all questions studied in applied ethics concern public policy. For example, making ethical judgments regarding questions such as, "Is lying always wrong?" and, "If not, when is it permissible?" is prior to any etiquette.
Modernism, exemplified in the literary works of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, wrote out God, then antihumanists such as Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault and structuralists such as Roland Barthes presided over the death of the author and man himself. As critical theory developed in the later 20th century, post-structuralism queried the very existence of reality. Jacques Derrida placed reality in the linguistic realm stating ‘There is nothing outside the text’, while Jean Baudrillard theorised that signs and symbols or simulacra had usurped reality, particularly in the consumer world.
Post-structuralism and postmodernism are both heavily theoretical and follow a fragmented, anti-authoritarian course which is absorbed in narcissistic and near nihilistic activities. Normative issues are generally ignored. This has led to some opponents of these later movements echoing the critic Jurgen Habermas who fears ‘that the postmodern mood represents a turning away from both political responsibilities and a concern for suffering’(cited in Lyon, 1999, p.103).
David Couzens Hoy says that Emmanuel Levinas’ writings on the face of the Other and Derrida’s mediations on the relevance of death to ethics are signs of the ‘ethical turn’ in Continental philosophy that occurs in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Hoy clarifies post-critique ethics as the ‘obligations that present themselves as necessarily to be fulfilled but are neither forced on one or are enforceable’ (2004, p.103).
This aligns with Australian philosopher Peter Singer’s thoughts on what ethics is not. He firstly claims it is not a moral code particular to a sectional group. For example it has nothing to do with a set of prohibitions concerned with sex laid down by a religious order. Neither is ethics a ‘system that is noble in theory but no good in practice’ (2000, p.7). For him, a theory is good only if it is practical. He agrees that ethics is in some sense universal but in a utilitarian way it affords the ‘best consequences’ and furthers the interests of those affected (2000, p.15).
Hoy in his post-critique model uses the term ethical resistance. Examples of this would be an individual’s resistance to consumerism in a retreat to a simpler but perhaps harder lifestyle, or an individual’s resistance to a terminal illness. Hoy describes these examples in his book Critical Resistance as an individual’s engagement in social or political resistance. He provides Levinas’s account as ‘not the attempt to use power against itself, or to mobilise sectors of the population to exert their political power; the ethical resistance is instead the resistance of the powerless’(2004, p.8).
Hoy concludes that
In present day terms the powerless may include the unborn, the terminally sick, the aged, the insane, and animals. It is in these areas that ethical action will be evident. Until legislation or state apparatus enforces a moral order that addresses the causes of resistance these issues will remain in the ethical realm. For example, should animal experimentation become illegal in a society, it will no longer be an ethical issue. Likewise one hundred and fifty hundred years ago, not having a black slave in America may have been an ethical choice. This later issue has been absorbed into the fabric of a more utilitarian social order and is no longer an ethical issue but does of course constitute a moral concern. Ethics are exercised by those who possess no power and those who support them, through personal resistance.