Dimensions of ethics

Dimensions of ethics

Dimensions of ethics is a set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking. Normative ethics is distinct from meta-ethics because it examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions. There are various approach to this.

These are the important dimensions of ethics:

  • Meta ethics
  • Normative ethics
  • Virtue ethics
  • Descriptive ethics
  • Hedonism
  • Applied ethics

Meta ethics

Meta-ethics asks how we understand, know about, and what we mean when we talk about what is right and what is wrong. An ethical question fixed on some particular practical question—such as, “Should I eat this particular piece of chocolate cake?”—cannot be a meta-ethical question. A meta-ethical question is abstract and relates to a wide range of more specific practical questions. For example, “Is it ever possible to have secure knowledge of what is right and wrong?” would be a meta-ethical question.  Meta-ethics has always accompanied philosophical ethics. For example, Aristotle implies that less precise knowledge is possible in ethics than in other spheres of inquiry, and he regards ethical knowledge as depending upon habit and acculturation in a way that makes it distinctive from other kinds of knowledge. Meta-ethics is also important in G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica from 1903. In it he first wrote about what he called the naturalistic fallacy. Moore was seen to reject naturalism in ethics, in his Open Question Argument. This made thinkers look again at second order questions about ethics. Earlier, the Scottish philosopher David Hume had put forward a similar view on the difference between facts and values.

Normative ethics

It includes following approaches:      


Utilitarianism is an ethical theory that argues the proper course of action is one that maximizes a positive effect, such as “happiness”, “welfare”, or the ability to live according to personal preferences. Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill are influential proponents of this school of thought. In A Fragment on Government Bentham says ‘it is the greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong’ and describes this as a fundamental axiom. In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation he talks of ‘the principle of utility’ but later prefers “the greatest happiness principle”.

Utilitarianism is the paradigmatic example of a consequentialist moral theory. This form of utilitarianism holds that the morally correct action is the one that produces the best outcome for all people affected by the action. John Stuart Mill, in his exposition of utilitarianism, proposed a hierarchy of pleasures, meaning that the pursuit of certain kinds of pleasure is more highly valued than the pursuit of other pleasures. Other noteworthy proponents of utilitarianism are neuroscientist Sam Harris, author of The Moral Landscape, and moral philosopher Peter Singer, author of, amongst other works, Practical Ethics.

There are two types of utilitarianism, act utilitarianism and rule utilitarianism. In act utilitarianism, the principle of utility applies directly to each alternative act in a situation of choice. The right act is the one that brings about the best results (or the least amount of bad results). In rule utilitarianism, the principle of utility determines the validity of rules of conduct (moral principles). A rule like promise-keeping is established by looking at the consequences of a world in which people break promises at will and a world in which promises are binding. Right and wrong are the following or breaking of rules that are sanctioned by their utilitarian value.

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics describes the character of a moral agent as a driving force for ethical behavior, and is used to describe the ethics of Socrates, Aristotle, and other early Greek philosophers. Socrates (469–399  BC) was one of the first Greek philosophers to encourage both scholars and the common citizen to turn their attention from the outside world to the condition of humankind. In this view, knowledge bearing on human life was placed highest, while all other knowledge was secondary. Self-knowledge was considered necessary for success and inherently an essential good. A self-aware person will act completely within his capabilities to his pinnacle, while an ignorant person will flounder and encounter difficulty. To Socrates, a person must become aware of every fact (and its context) relevant to his existence, if he wishes to attain self-knowledge. He posited that people will naturally do what is good, if they know what is right. Evil or bad actions are the results of ignorance. If a criminal was truly aware of the intellectual and spiritual consequences of his actions, he would neither commit nor even consider committing those actions. Any person who knows what is truly right will automatically do it, according to Socrates. While he correlated knowledge with virtue, he similarly equated virtue with joy. The truly wise man will know what is right, do what is good, and therefore be happy.

Aristotle (384–323 BC) posited an ethical system that may be termed “self-realizationism”. In Aristotle’s view, when a person acts in accordance with his nature and realizes his full potential, he will do good and be content. At birth, a baby is not a person, but a potential person. To become a “real” person, the child’s inherent potential must be realized. Unhappiness and frustration are caused by the unrealized potential of a person, leading to failed goals and a poor life. Aristotle said, “Nature does nothing in vain.” Therefore, it is imperative for people to act in accordance with their nature and develop their latent talents in order to be content and complete. Happiness was held to be the ultimate goal. All other things, such as civic life or wealth, are merely means to the end. Self-realization, the awareness of one’s nature and the development of one’s talents, is the surest path to happiness.

Aristotle asserted that man had three natures: body (physical/metabolism), animal (emotional/appetite) and rational (mental/conceptual). 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.

Deontological approach

Deontology (or Deontological Ethics) is an approach to Ethics that focuses on the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions (Consequentialism) or to the character and habits of the actor (Virtue Ethics).  Thus, to a Deontologist, whether a situation is good or bad depends on whether the action that brought it about was right or wrong. What makes a choice “right” is its conformity with a moral norm: Right takes priority over Good. For example, if someone proposed to kill everyone currently living on land that could not support agriculture in order to bring about a world without starvation, a Deontologist would argue that this world without starvation was a bad state of affairs because of the way in which it was brought about. A Consequentialist would (or could) argue that the final state of affairs justified the drastic action. A Virtue Ethicist would concern himself with neither, but would look at whether the perpetrator acted in accordance with worthy virtues.  Deontology may sometimes be consistent with Moral Absolutism (the belief that some actions are wrong no matter what consequences follow from them), but not necessarily. For instance, Immanuel Kant famously argued that it is always wrong to lie, even if a murderer is asking for the location of a potential victim. But others, such as W.D. Ross (1877 – 1971), hold that the consequences of an action such as lying may sometimes make lying the right thing to do (Moral Relativism).  It is sometimes described as “duty-based” or “obligation-based” ethics, because Deontologists believe that ethical rules bind people to their duty. The term “deontology” derives from the Greek “deon” meaning “obligation” or “duty”, and “logos” meaning “speaking” or “study.

Pragmatic ethics

Associated with the pragmatists, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and especially John Dewey, pragmatic ethics holds that moral correctness evolves similarly to scientific knowledge: socially over the course of many lifetimes. Thus, we should prioritize social reform over attempts to account for consequences, individual virtue or duty (although these may be worthwhile attempts, if social reform is provided for).

Ethics of care

Care ethics contrasts with more well-known ethical models, such as consequentialist theories (e.g. utilitarianism) and deontological theories (e.g., Kantian ethics) in that it seeks to incorporate traditionally feminized virtues and values that—proponents of care ethics contend—are absent in such traditional models of ethics. These values include the importance of empathetic relationships and compassion.  Care-focused feminism is a branch of feminist thought, informed primarily by ethics of care as developed by Carol Gilligan and Nel Noddings. This body of theory is critical of how caring is socially assigned to women, and consequently devalued. They write, “Care-focused feminists regard women’s capacity for care as a human strength,” that should be taught to and expected of men as well as women. Noddings proposes that ethical caring has the potential to be a more concrete evaluative model of moral dilemma than an ethic of justice. Noddings’ care-focused feminism requires practical application of relational ethics, predicated on an ethic of care.


Hedonism posits that the principal ethic is maximizing pleasure and minimizing pain. There are several schools of Hedonist thought ranging from those advocating the indulgence of even momentary desires to those teaching a pursuit of spiritual bliss. In their consideration of consequences, they range from those advocating self-gratification regardless of the pain and expense to others, to those stating that the most ethical pursuit maximizes pleasure and happiness for the most people.

Applied ethics

Applied ethics is a discipline of philosophy that attempts to apply ethical theory to real-life situations. The discipline has many specialized fields, such as engineering ethics, bioethics, geoethics, public service ethics and business ethics.

Applied ethics is used in some aspects of determining public policy, as well as by individuals facing difficult decisions. The sort of questions addressed by applied ethics include: “Is getting an abortion immoral?” “Is euthanasia immoral?” “Is affirmative action right or wrong?” “What are human rights, and how do we determine them?” “Do animals have rights as well?” and “Do individuals have the right of self-determination?”

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.  People, in general, are more comfortable with dichotomies (two opposites). However, in ethics, the issues are most often multifaceted and the best-proposed actions address many different areas concurrently. In ethical decisions, the answer is almost never a “yes or no”, “right or wrong” statement. Many buttons are pushed so that the overall condition is improved and not to the benefit of any particular faction.

Some of the important fields of applied ethics are as follows:

Business ethics

Business ethics (also corporate ethics) is a form of applied ethics or professional ethics that examines ethical principles and moral or ethical problems that arise in a business environment, including fields like medical ethics. It applies to all aspects of business conduct and is relevant to the conduct of individuals and entire organizations.


Bioethics is the study of controversial ethics brought about by advances in biology and medicine. Bioethicists are concerned with the ethical questions that arise in the relationships among life sciences, biotechnology, medicine, politics, law, and philosophy. It also includes the study of the more commonplace questions of values (“the ethics of the ordinary”) that arise in primary care and other branches of medicine.

Military ethics

Military ethics are concerned with questions regarding the application of force and the ethos of the soldier and are often understood as applied professional ethics. Just war theory is generally seen to set the background terms of military ethics. However individual countries and traditions have different fields of attention.

Public sector ethics

Public sector ethics is a set of principles that guide public officials in their service to their constituents, including their decision-making on behalf of their constituents. Fundamental to the concept of public sector ethics is the notion that decisions and actions are based on what best serves the public’s interests, as opposed to the official’s personal interests (including financial interests) or self-serving political interests.

Relational ethics

Relational ethics are related to an ethics of care. They are used in qualitative research, especially ethnography and autoethnography. Researchers who employ relational ethics value and respect the connection between themselves and the people they study, and “…between researchers and the communities in which they live and work.”  Relational ethics also help researchers understand difficult issues such as conducting research on intimate others that have died and developing friendships with their participants. Relational ethics in close personal relationships form a central concept of contextual therapy.

Animal ethics

Animal ethics is a term used in academia to describe human-animal relationships and how animals ought to be treated. The subject matter includes animal rights, animal welfare, animal law, speciesism, animal cognition, wildlife conservation, the moral status of nonhuman animals, the concept of nonhuman personhood, human exceptionalism, the history of animal use, and theories of justice.

Descriptive ethics

Descriptive ethics is on the less philosophical end of the spectrum since it seeks to gather particular information about how people live and draw general conclusions based on observed patterns. Abstract and theoretical questions that are more clearly philosophical—such as, “Is ethical knowledge possible?”—are not central to descriptive ethics. Descriptive ethics offers a value-free approach to ethics, which defines it as a social science rather than a humanity. Its examination of ethics doesn’t start with a preconceived theory but rather investigates observations of actual choices made by moral agents in practice. Some philosophers rely on descriptive ethics and choices made and unchallenged by a society or culture to derive categories, which typically vary by context. This can lead to situational ethics and situated ethics. These philosophers often view aesthetics, etiquette, and arbitration as more fundamental, percolating “bottom up” to imply the existence of, rather than explicitly prescribe, theories of value or of conduct.

The study of descriptive ethics may include examinations of the following:

  • Ethical codes applied by various groups. Some consider aesthetics itself the basis of ethics—and a personal moral core developed through art and storytelling as very influential in one’s later ethical choices.
  • Informal theories of etiquette that tend to be less rigorous and more situational. Some consider etiquette a simple negative ethics, i.e., where can one evade an uncomfortable truth without doing wrong? One notable advocate of this view is Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”). According to this view, ethics is more a summary of common sense social decisions.
  • Practices in arbitration and law, e.g., the claim that ethics itself is a matter of balancing “right versus right”, i.e., putting priorities on two things that are both right, but that must be traded off carefully in each situation.
  • Observed choices made by ordinary people, without expert aid or advice, who vote, buy, and decide what is worth valuing. This is a major concern of sociology, political science, and economics
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