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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.
Our concepts of ethics have been derived from religions, philosophies and cultures. They infuse debates on topics like abortion, human rights and professional conduct.
Philosophers nowadays tend to divide ethical theories into three areas: metaethics, normative ethics and applied 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.
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.
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.
Ethics doesn't always show the right answer to moral problems.
Indeed more and more people think that for many ethical issues there isn't a single right answer - just a set of principles that can be applied to particular cases to give those involved some clear choices.
Some philosophers go further and say that all ethics can do is eliminate confusion and clarify the issues. After that it's up to each individual to come to their own conclusions.
Many people want there to be a single right answer to ethical questions. They find moral ambiguity hard to live with because they genuinely want to do the 'right' thing, and even if they can't work out what that right thing is, they like the idea that 'somewhere' there is one right answer.
But often there isn't one right answer - there may be several right answers, or just some least worst answers - and the individual must choose between them.
For others moral ambiguity is difficult because it forces them to take responsibility for their own choices and actions, rather than falling back on convenient rules and customs.
At times in the past some people thought that ethical problems could be solved in one of two ways:
If a person did this properly they would be led to the right conclusion.
But now even philosophers are less sure that it's possible to devise a satisfactory and complete theory of ethics: modern thinkers often teach that ethics leads people not to conclusions but to 'decisions'.
In this view, the role of ethics is limited to clarifying 'what's at stake' in particular ethical problems
But the ethical properties of the world and the things in it exist and remain the same, regardless of what people think or feel - or whether people think or feel about them at all.
hilosophers have several answers to this question:
Supernaturalism makes ethics inseparable from religion. It teaches that the only source of moral rules is God.
So, something is good because God says it is, and the way to lead a good life is to do what God wants.
Intuitionists think that good and bad are real objective properties that can't be broken down into component parts. Something is good because it's good; its goodness doesn't need justifying or proving.
Intuitionists think that goodness or badness can be detected by adults - they say that human beings have an intuitive moral sense that enables them to detect real moral truths.
This is the ethical theory that most non-religious people think they use every day. It bases morality on the consequences of human actions and not on the actions themselves.
Consequentialism teaches that people should do whatever produces the greatest amount of good consequences. One famous way of putting this is 'the greatest good for the greatest number of people'.
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