What is Ethics? - What Are Ethical Principles And Rules?

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Our goal in this article is to examine what ethics is and the role it plays in promoting peace and harmony in society. Such examination is essential because the concern with ethics is not just to clarify moral concepts, as some suppose.

Ethics and Society

Ethics does this and much more; it is also concerned with showing us how we can imbibe ethical principles that will enable us to live a good life in society. The good life is meant to be a life of happiness or flourishing. For such ancient philosophers as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the life of happiness and flourishing can only be achieved through the possession of virtue or moral goodness.

By moral goodness or virtue, we have in mind those habits that help us attain the goods of life, such as health, strength, and knowledge. The classical philosophers identified four "cardinal virtues" by which the moral life is enhanced or regulated, namely, temperance, fortitude, prudence, and justice. They are so denoted because they are regarded as the basic norms required for a virtuous life.

To illustrate the foregoing, it should be noted that while temperance, fortitude, and prudence aid the individual's character development, justice aims at other people's well-being. But apart from justice, other values that aim at promoting the well-being of others include charity, honesty, and loyalty. A person is said to be virtuous; therefore, they are loyal, charitable, or honest.

The opposite of virtues is vice. Examples of vices are stealing, lying, and cheating. Similarly, examination malpractice is a vice that disrupts the moral order in a school or learning environment. Therefore, a student would be acting unethically if they engaged in such malpractice. Educational institutions generally frown at acts of misconduct by their students.

What is Ethics?

The question, "What is ethics?" is a very important one. The reason is that if we do not know what ethics is, we may not be able to understand the types of issues it grapples with. In saying this, however, we need to state from the start that ethics does not have a univocal or one-off definition.

Despite the many ways in which it can be defined, what ethicists have agreed upon is that ethics is an inquiry into the nature of morality. It is also an extremely important branch of philosophy because it directs our attention not only to human morality but also to values in general. Ethics studies the principles and standards of human conduct or behavior, otherwise known as morality.

Etymologically, the term "ethics" derives from the Greek word ethikos, from the root ethos, which means custom, habit, character, or moral disposition. Ethics is the aspect of philosophy that studies morality by examining what it means to say that an action is right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, etc.

Some important questions asked in ethics are: How should we live? What does it mean to say that an action is right or wrong? What do we mean by the words right and good? How can we measure goodness and badness? What constitutes our rights and responsibilities? Are some things always wrong, or do rightness and wrongness depend on the point of view or situation? Ethics seeks to examine these crucial questions as well as the different moral systems used to explain and make judgments about right, wrong, good/bad. Another name for ethics is moral philosophy, or the science of morals.

Ethics Focuses on Action

Part of the concern of ethics is to analyze concepts such as "good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong." "virtue" and "vice," "duty" and "obligation," "justice" and "injustice," "moral responsibility," etc. By analyzing these concepts, ethics tries to elucidate their underlying meanings with a view to showing how they can promote or hinder the moral life. It is for this reason that ethics is sometimes described as an inquiry into the nature of morality or moral actions, or as the search for the morally good life.

Ethics focuses on the question of action: What actions should a person undertake to perform? It deals with what may be considered the most important question of all: "How should I lead my life?" Ethics also deals with the issue of moral responsibility. When we blame or praise a person for his or her actions, we are assuming that they could have acted otherwise or differently.

In other words, the idea of blame or approbation would not have any meaning unless people were believed to be responsible or answerable for their deliberate actions. Why blame or commend a person if their actions were not free or voluntary? It is for this reason that some scholars define ethics as the search for a morally good life or conduct.

The Origin of Ethics

When, and how, did ethics begin? The question of the origin of ethics is an age-old one. Similarly, there are different ways in which philosophers and ethicists have tried to answer the question. We shall examine a few of the answers below.

1. Religion

Religious people generally associate morality with a divine origin. By this, they mean that God is the author of good or virtuous actions.

And just as good actions have their origin in God's command, the negative ones are said to be so because of God's prohibition. In the Bible (Old Testament), there is an account of God giving the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai. The Ten Commandments are believed to encapsulate the moral obligations of humans to each other and to God.

The theory that traces the origin of ethics or morality to God is known as the divine command theory. According to this theory, stealing is wrong because of God's prohibition. On the other hand, truthfulness and honesty are right because of God's commandment. A very important example of a moral norm that properly explains the divine command theory is the Golden Rule, which enjoins us to "do unto others what we would have them do unto us." The major problem with the divine command theory is that some members of society, such as atheists and agnostics, may not buy into it.

2. Conscience

There are people who trace the origin of morality to the human conscience. But the question is: What is conscience? A dictionary definition sees it as an inhibiting sense of what is prudent or right, that is, "the complex of ethical and moral principles that controls or inhibits the actions or thoughts of an individual."

A person's conscience refers to his or her moral sense of right and wrong; it is that element in people that governs their thoughts and actions, urging them to do what is right rather than what is wrong. Some people regard the conscience as an unseen law enforcer that reprimands them when they act wrongly but commends them when they do right.

In our normal English parlance, it is common to find people using the expression conscience-stricken. This is meant to mean the feeling of guilt or anxiety that people experience about having done something wrong or unethical. It could also mean the feeling of penitence or remorse that someone experiences for having done something obnoxious.

But as important as conscience is to the moral life of the individual, philosophers do not regard it as a reliable guide for ethical conduct or behavior. The reason is because some people's consciences are either not fully trained or developed.

Again, some people's consciences may be seared, hardened, or obdurate. For example, the conscience of the European slave traders did not tell them that it was wrong to sell Africans like chattels in the open market of Europe. Even their African collaborators were not moved by the suffering inflicted on their fellow Africans by the slave captors. Today, we condemn slavery because it involves the treatment of people as if they were instruments to be used and disposed of.

Indeed, conscience differs from individual to individual. What one person's conscience approves, another person's conscience may disapprove. Again, in situations of moral conflict, conscience does not provide us with principles by which to arbitrate or adjudicate our differences.

3. Society

There are scholars who locate the source of morality in societal ethos or beliefs. One such scholar is the British philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who held that ethics began when our primitive parents entered into a social contract to opt out of the state of nature to form our present civil society. For Peter Singer, ethics began with the period when human beings started to reflect on the best way to live in society.

This reflective stage, he says, emerged long after human societies had developed some kind of morality, usually in the form of customary standards of right and wrong conduct. Peter Singer asserted further that the introduction of the first moral codes in human societies helped the cause of ethics. Singer believes that "virtually every human society has some form of myth to explain the origin of morality.".

However, while every human civilization had some form of ethical norm or the other, in Western civilization, it appears that systematic reflection on the ethical life began with Socrates. When Socrates uttered his world-famous statement, "The unexamined life is not worth living," he meant that human beings have the capacity to make conscious, ethical choices.

The statement also implied that the pursuit of wisdom, through inquiry and logical argument, is the best way to live the good life. One striking aspect of Socrates' moral philosophy, according to Joseph Omoregbe, is his claim that 'knowledge is virtue'. In this declaration, Socrates equated knowledge with wrongdoing.

Socrates compared the good to the sun. Just as the sun gives light and life to the earth, knowledge enables the one who possesses it to live virtuously. Knowledge is the cause of goodness and good conduct in people, and it also enables the individual to choose the good over that which is vile and despicable. From the insight gained from Socrates' moral philosophy, it is conceivable that ethics could have come into existence when human beings started to reflect on the best way to live.

The Scope of Ethics

Ethics is usually divided into three main areas or branches: normative ethics, meta-ethics, and applied ethics.

1. Normative Ethics

Normative ethics is the aspect of ethics that seeks to set norms or standards for conduct. An important question of normative ethics is whether actions are to be judged right or wrong solely on the basis of their consequences or on such other considerations as the motive of the moral actor or the nature of the action itself, etc.

Normative ethics tries to define specific standards or principles to guide ethical behavior and to answer questions such as what is the good life and how are actions morally assessed and justified.

2. Meta-Ethics

Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that tries to clarify the meaning of ethical terms such as "good," "bad," "wrong," "duty," "obligation," "virtue," "vice," etc. Also known as analytic moral philosophy, meta-ethics is the quest to understand the nature of ethical statements, attitudes, and judgments.

Part of its concern is to explain the very nature of right and wrong, where and how morality originated, and what moral conduct means in relation to human nature and practice. The "questions posed in meta-ethics include how to define the nature of an act and whether or not morality exists independently of human beings.".

3. Applied Ethics

Applied ethics is the application of ethical principles to issues in practical life such as abortion, euthanasia, in vitro fertilization, human cloning, etc. The common charge against contemporary philosophy is that it is abstract, technical, and inaccessible to non-specialists. For this reason, many philosophers have taken it upon themselves to address practical questions about our day-to-day lives or existence.

The field of philosophy that tries to address issues of practical relevance is applied ethics. Apart from those mentioned above, other common issues that applied ethicists concern themselves with include the environment, feminist rights, animal welfare, etc.

Ethics and Morality

Ethics and morality are closely related. Perhaps this explains why some people use the words ethics and morality interchangeably or as synonyms. However, in the strict sense, the words differ in their meanings and denotations. Technically, morality is more precisely used to refer to the customs, principles, or codes by which a society or community lives. Ethics, on its part, is the systematic study or investigation of morality or moral principles.

As pointed out earlier, ethics studies the morality of human actions with a view to showing whether such actions are good or bad, right or wrong, virtuous or evil, etc. Again, while ethics involves theorizing about right conduct and the good life, morality has to do with "the actual practice of right conduct or the good life." Expressed in simple language, "ethics... concerns right and wrong behavior defined in terms of moral choice.".

As part of the guidance they receive from their parents and teachers, children are often taught to avoid certain ways of behavior or actions and to embrace certain others. The actions they are urged to avoid are usually considered blameworthy and reprehensible, while the ones they are instructed to embrace are held to be praiseworthy and estimable. Whether at home or in school, children are taught to embrace admirable actions and eschew off-putting ones.

Again, the actions that are praiseworthy are usually tagged as good, while the ones that are blameworthy are labeled as bad. Generally, no explanations are offered why some actions are adjudged as good or bad, right or wrong, etc., or why only the good ones should be courted and the bad ones avoided.

Having been thus acculturated, people grow up in later life with the moral inhibitions inherited from early life. Without having reflected on the ideas they hold, almost every person grows into adulthood, having been inundated with such moral terms as "good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong," etc. Now, these are precisely the topics with which ethics, as a systematic study, deals.

Why Ethics is Important

"Ethics counts in everything." This is how the sticker of the West African Bioethics Programme (now the Centre for Bioethics and Research) reads. But the question is: Why is ethics important? To answer this question, let us imagine for a moment a world without moral rules or standard patterns of behavior to regulate human conduct—a world where people acted just anyhow and without regard to other people's interests or well-being. What type of world would that be?

For Thomas Hobbes, the British philosopher of the 17th century, that would be a world of conflict and anarchy. Hobbes invented a fictional state of nature in which people lived prior to the formation of civil society. In their state nature, men lived without a common power or political authority to regulate social relations among them. The state of nature was not a good deal, so to speak, for anyone. Rather, the condition in it was that of a war of "every man against every man."

As mentioned already, Hobbes traces the origin of ethics to society. For him, ethics is important because it helps create stability and order in society. Ethics is also important because it helps people build trust and intimate relationships in society.

The Role of Ethics in Society

Right from the dawn of civilization, human beings have sought ways to regulate human conduct and preserve the peace of society. Ethics is vital in this regard. It is the backbone of society, and part of its goal is to mold human character and promote a good life in society.

Ethics provides the firmest basis on which all human activities depend. Its chief aim is the survival of society.

A Word on the Meaning of Society

Since the focus of this article is on the role of ethics in society, a few words on the meaning of society will be appropriate. Though "society" has been defined in various ways, for the purposes of this article, it is taken to mean a group of people or a collection of individuals whose members are bound together by certain enduring relationships or common ideals and who interact on a constant basis.

Some important institutions that exist in society are family and educational institutions. Others are political, economic, and religious institutions.

No individual can live successfully or survive outside of society.

To be sure, it is only in society that individuals can flourish or achieve their goals and aspirations. A corollary to this is that no society, or its members, can thrive if it ignores ethics. In reality, ethics primarily exists to promote the well-being of society. A society that condones unethical conduct will falter or crumble.

It is common knowledge, for instance, that Nigeria is a country beset with numerous social and economic woes. Part of the problems the country faces appears to be the enthronement of dishonest acts over virtuous practices. This is the point made by Joseph Omoregbe when he alleged that Nigeria is morally sick and that any attempt at tackling the country's socio-economic problems without first addressing the moral failures would be akin to treating the symptoms of a disease instead of its root cause.

Omoregbe asserts that "morality is the health of society." For him, "the only lasting cure for Nigeria's ailment is a moral regeneration." What these claims remind us of is the fact that everything depends on ethics. Whether it is politics or governance, healthcare or sports, marriage or family life, or even religion and worship, everything depends on ethics. Society can only survive and human beings thrive when people imbibe and practice ethical norms or principles.

Ethics in Action: Some Practical Illustrations

Now, let us illustrate the truth about what we have said so far with a few practical examples. Let us consider, for a start, the everyday matter of eating food. To eat food is something amoral, that is, something that lies outside the scope of morality. But what if someone were to eat the food meant for everyone in the group? Will this action constitute a moral problem?

The answer is "yes." The question is, 'Why?"

Before addressing the question, let us illustrate with another example: whether the government should provide free medical care for the elderly members of society who are unable to meet their personal medical expenses.

In the United States of America, for example, the issue of care for the elderly is handled through Medicare, a government-administered health insurance program that provides medical care for those unable to meet their personal medical costs. Those who qualify to benefit from this scheme would have worked and paid into a system of payroll tax. However, some elderly people may be unable to enjoy care because, in their active days, they did not make contributions to the scheme, perhaps because they were profligate with their resources. Should this category of people profit from the health scheme?

This is the same question Brand Blanshard poses in a different way: "Should old people who, through improvidence or ill fortune, lack the means to take care of their health be supplied with these means by society?". These are moral questions. But what makes a question moral rather than merely technical or intellectual? For Blanshard, a moral question is one "whose decision depends on a choice between values. A non-moral question becomes moral when instant values are  introduced." A value, in the ethical sense, refers to what is good, desirable, or useful to someone or a group.

Other examples abound that support the assertion that ethics count in everything that we do. Consider, for instance, a student at the university who receives a monthly stipend from his parents for daily upkeep but who attends neither classes nor studies for his exam. The action of this student would be adjudged to be immoral by all.

The same thing would apply in the case of a teacher or lecturer who does not tutor his students appropriately and gets remunerated nonetheless, or who, instead of teaching, engages in idle activities that contribute nothing to his students' intellectual development. Whether it is a nurse or a doctor, a cobbler or an engineer, an employer or an employee, it is by acting according to ethical norms or principles that we can achieve our social goals.

Ethics provides the firmest basis on which all human activities depend. Its chief aim is the survival of society.

The Four (4) Major Ethical Principles

The word "principle" can be defined in a number of ways. A principle may refer to a rule, a law, or a general assumption. With regard to ethics, a principle is a general statement that tries "to set forth conditions under which an action is right or wrong or something is good or bad." Principles are also generalizations that "can be used in moral reasoning or a specific rule of good conduct.".

An ethical principle requires that conduct be moral. There are a number of ethical principles, but we shall consider four major ones, which are crucial to ethical analysis or moral decision-making. These are: respect for persons, nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice.

1. Respect For Persons

This is the same as the principle of human dignity. The principle requires that each and every person be regarded as worthy of sympathetic consideration; that persons are not, and ought never, to be treated in any undertaking as mere expendables; and that "any person, as such, has intrinsic worth or value irrespective of his achievements, which, in the dealings of other persons with him, may be neither ignored nor discounted."

The principle of respect for others requires us to:

  • Tell the truth;
  • Respect others' privacy;
  • Protect confidential information, and
  • Allow individuals to make reasoned, informed choices and, in the case of medical personnel, to obtain patients' consent for medical interventions.

2. Nonmaleficence

This is the principle that states that we are under obligation not to harm or increase the risk of harm to others. It further states that where harm cannot be avoided, we are obligated to minimize the harm we do. "First, do no harm" is a maxim that helps capture what nonmaleficence means.

In healthcare ethics, for example, the principle requires healthcare professionals to avoid causing harm to patients. The essential points of the principle read somewhat like this:

  • Do not kill.
  • Do not cause pain or suffering to others. • Do not incapacitate others.
  • Do not cause offense to others.
  • Do not deprive others of the goods of life.

3. Beneficence

The principle of beneficence refers to the obligation to act in ways that promote good over evil. The principle requires that we treat people in an ethical manner, not only by respecting their decisions and protecting them from harm but also by making efforts to secure their well-being.

We are acting beneficently when we do the following:

  • Protect and defend the rights of others.
  • Prevent harm to others.
  • Remove conditions that will cause others harm.
  • Help disabled persons.
  • Rescue persons in danger.

4. Justice

This is the same thing as fairness: the expectation that benefits, risks, and costs will be distributed fairly or equitably. It is the requirement that, in sharing the scarce resources in society, we should do it in a fair and just manner; that is, no individual or group of individuals should be favored above others.

In this regard, justice would be seen to have been done if we gave:

  • To each, an equal share;
  • To each according to effort;
  • To each according to need;
  • To each according to contribution; and
  • To each according to merit.

The collective name for the four ethical principles discussed above is principlism, or the Four Principles Approach. It is an approach in which ethical decisions are made by weighing the importance of the four separate principles against each other.

The Four Ethical Rules

Like principlism, there are several ethical rules that promote ethical behavior in society.

We shall discuss only four such rules, as indicated below:

  1. Veracity: This is the same as truth-telling, honesty, integrity, or reliability. Veracity is when we do not lie to people or deliberately provide them with erroneous information. However, the principle can be violated by omission, or by "the deliberate withholding of all or portions of the truth... [or] by the deliberate cloaking of information in jargon or language that fails to convey information in a way that can be understood by the recipient or that intentionally misleads the recipient."
  2. Privacy: This refers to a person's right to remain private and not disclose information. It also means freedom from the attention of others.
  3. Confidentiality: This means to share information on a 'need to know basis'.
  4. Fidelity: This is the same as loyalty, faithfulness, and dependability. It refers to the duty to care for all, no matter who they are or what they may have done.

Like ethical principles, ethical rules help build up the moral life of individuals and, if embraced, will promote harmony and order in society. They can also be taught in formal educational settings, as is the case in some developed societies around the world.


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