Ethics in Philosophy: Beyond Right and Wrong

Have you ever wondered what makes something right or wrong? Or have you thought about what people should do in complex situations? Or do you also ask the question what is ethics in philosophy? These are questions explored in the liberal arts and humanities field of ethics.

Ethics is one of the main branches of philosophy. It looks at how humans should behave and what is moral. Philosophers use reason and theories to analyze issues of good versus bad, justice, values, and what we ought to do. This article will cover the key aspects of ethics in an easy-to-understand way. Let’s start by looking at what ethics in philosophy is all about!

What Exactly is Ethics in Philosophy?

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Philosophical ethics involves systematically thinking about morality and values. It examines concepts we often take for granted, like good/bad, right/wrong, justice, virtue, duty and more. Some of the main questions considered include:

  • How do we determine if something is right or wrong?
  • What does it mean to live a moral life?
  • How should people act and treat each other?
  • What goals or principles should guide our conduct?

To analyze these complex issues, philosophers use logic, questioning and rational arguments. They consider moral problems from many angles to build ethical theories. These theories propose standards of right and wrong, good and bad.

There are different branches of ethics looking at different aspects of morality:

  • Meta-ethics considers the meaning and foundations of ethical claims. It asks if moral judgements can be objectively true.
  • Normative ethics establishes moral standards and norms. It asks how humans should act.
  • Applied ethics focuses on examining specific controversial issues using ethical frameworks. These issues can range from abortion to war.
  • Descriptive ethics simply describes how people actually behave across different times and cultures. It does not tell us what we ought to do.

The next sections will explore the key theories and approaches to ethics developed by philosophers over centuries.

What Are the Main Dimensions of Ethics?

Ethics can be divided into four central dimensions or branches. Let’s look at each one:

Descriptive Ethics

This field simply observes and describes the moral beliefs and practices of people across cultures. It does not say if those morals are good or bad. Descriptive ethics aims to understand the values people live by whether we agree with them or not.

For example, a descriptive ethicist may examine how cultures like the Ancient Aztecs practiced human sacrifice as part of their moral code. They would non-judgementally study the meanings and functions of the practice without saying it was right or wrong.

Normative Ethics

This branch is concerned with establishing moral standards and norms. It goes beyond description to judge what people ought to do in certain situations. Normative ethics tries to develop theories, principles and frameworks to guide human behavior.

Some major normative theories include deontology, utilitarianism and virtue ethics. Normative ethics asks: given a moral dilemma, how should people act? What principles should we follow? It tries to determine our moral duties.


This dimension thinks more abstractly about the foundations and meaning of ethical claims themselves. Meta-ethics asks questions like:

  • Are there objective moral truths or are morals subjective opinions?
  • How do we know if something is morally right or wrong?
  • Where do values like good and bad or justice even come from?

It tries to understand the deeper logic and justification behind moral positions people take.

Applied Ethics

Finally, this branch focuses on examining controversial everyday issues using frameworks from philosophical ethics. Applied ethics asks how theoretical moral reasoning can help us address dilemmas that arise in fields like:

  • Business
  • Medicine
  • Law
  • Politics
  • Science and technology

It aims to provide action-guiding advice for professionals, policy-makers and individuals facing tough choices with ethical implications.

Now that we’ve covered the central branches, let’s look at some of the major theories.

What Are the Main Ethical Theories?

Moral theories in philosophy propose standards of right and wrong. They provide different frameworks for what makes actions ethical. There are four central theories:


This view associated with Immanuel Kant emphasizes moral rules, duties and obligations. It argues we should base ethics on universal laws and principles that dictate how people should act in all situations. Deontology focuses on the intentions and means more than just the ends or consequences.

For Kant, ethics comes down to treating humanity with dignity. His famous rule was to “act only in accordance with that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.”


This theory linked to Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill argues actions are ethical if they maximize happiness and benefit the most people. Utilitarianism believes we should aim for “the greatest good for the greatest number” and base morals on outcomes instead of intentions alone.

It asks – what action will produce the best overall results for all people impacted? Utilitarians use cost-benefit calculations to determine the moral option.

Virtue Ethics

This view emphasizes moral character over simply following rules or looking at outcomes. Virtue ethics is associated with Aristotle and his concept of practicing wisdom, courage, moderation and justice.

Rather than analyzing isolated acts, this theory says we should focus on cultivating virtues and being ethical throughout life. It sees morality as a learned skill developed through practicing good habits of character.

Rights Ethics

This approach associated with John Locke stresses universal human rights, justice, equality and freedom. Rights ethics says upholding moral entitlements to liberty and fair treatment is central to ethics.

Protecting civil liberties and equal access to opportunities are key principles. Rights ethicists believe factors like discrimination violate basic moral rights.

These four major theories provide philosophical frameworks for thinking through difficult moral questions. Each has strengths and weaknesses in guiding human behavior. Most ethicists argue we need to blend insights from multiple perspectives when approaching ethics.

The Greatest Thinkers in Ethics

Some of the most influential ethics philosophers include:

Aristotle (384 BC–322 BC)

A pioneer of virtue ethics in Ancient Greece, Aristotle discussed practicing moderation and justice. In Nicomachean Ethics, he argued virtues are learned through habit and experience. Aristotle emphasized acting rationally and pursuing eudaimonia (happiness/flourishing). His writings formed the foundation of ethics exploration for centuries.

Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)

The German philosopher developed deontological ethics in the 18th century. Kant said morality should be based on duty and obeying universal laws, not emotions or consequences. His categorical imperative was to “act only in accordance with that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Kant believed in an ultimate moral standard and treating humanity as an end in itself.

Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832)

The English philosopher founded utilitarianism in the 19th century. Bentham argued actions are moral if they maximize utility and provide the greatest good for the greatest number. He developed a calculus to compute utility and advocated laws aligned with utility principles. Bentham influenced later utilitarians John Stuart Mill and Henry Sidgwick.

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)

Expanding on Bentham’s utilitarianism, Mill championed individual rights and intellectual freedoms. In works like On Liberty and Utilitarianism, Mill highlighted the importance of autonomy, self-development and protection from overreaching state authority. His ethical theory focused on improving quality of life for all.

John Rawls (1921–2002)

In the 20th century, this American political philosopher advanced justice theory with his concept of “justice as fairness”. Rawls’ influential A Theory of Justice proposed the thought experiment of the original position and veil of ignorance. His goal was to establish just principles for institutions. Rawls said ethics should ensure equality and protection of liberties.

Studying these seminal thinkers provides essential context for understanding the evolution of modern ethics. Their frameworks and theories laid the groundwork for ongoing debates about morality and justice.

Should You Study Ethics in College?

Pursuing ethics in higher education develops useful skills for personal growth and many careers. Let’s weigh the pros and cons of both traditional and online ethics programs.

Traditional Campus Degrees

Studying on campus offers opportunities for rich discussion with professors and peers. Classroom debates let you articulate and defend moral positions. You’ll also gain:

  • Critical thinking – Analyze dilemmas logically from multiple ethical lenses.
  • Moral reasoning – Apply philosophical frameworks to resolve real issues.
  • Research skills – Gather and evaluate information to construct arguments.

Traditional programs also provide flexibility to take varied humanities electives. However, commuting and costs can be downsides for some students.

Online Degrees

Online ethics degrees offer convenience and flexibility missing from campus programs. You can study anytime and anywhere at your own pace for less money.

However, self-discipline is vital when learning remotely. You also lose in-person debates that develop public speaking and collaboration skills. Carefully weigh the independence of online platforms against the community of traditional ethics programs.

No matter where you study, an ethics degree builds transferable skills for law, business, healthcare, and many other fields dealing with moral gray areas. Both graduate and undergraduate programs can expand your ethical awareness and decision-making capabilities.

While you are here, you might also want to check out my video about the philosophy degree:

Frequently Asked Questions About Ethics in Philosophy

The Journey is Just as Important as the Destination

Ethics plays a vital role in philosophy and everyday life. Examining the foundations of morality through ethical theories provides guidance when values come into conflict. While absolute right and wrong are elusive, training our moral reasoning muscles can help act more ethically. Ethics offers essential tools to grapple with dilemmas in a thoughtful, nuanced way.

What can you do with an ethics degree?

An ethics degree equips you for careers dealing with moral analysis, corporate social responsibility, legal/compliance fields, public policy, academics, and more. The critical thinking and ethical reasoning skills developed are applicable across roles.

What jobs can you get with an ethics degree?

Common jobs with an ethics degree include ethics officer, compliance manager, lawyer, consultant, professor, government worker, researcher, journalist, and jobs in nonprofit/activism. Healthcare, technology, business and education sectors employ ethicists.

Is an ethics degree useful?

Yes, an ethics degree is very useful for building analytical skills and learning ethical frameworks applicable in law, business, policy, medicine and daily life. Studying ethics helps prepare graduates for navigating moral dilemmas.

What is the highest-paying ethics degree?

At the bachelor’s level, business ethics degrees tend to be higher paying than general ethics or philosophy degrees. For the highest salaries, a PhD in business or medical ethics can lead to six-figure ethics jobs as professors, consultants, or directors.

Can you get an ethics degree online?

Yes, many accredited colleges offer online bachelor’s and master’s degrees in ethics, business ethics, bioethics, healthcare ethics, and more. Online ethics degrees provide flexibility for working professionals.

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