Intro to Ethics: What is Ethics?

by Luke Muehlhauser on May 27, 2009 in Ethics,Intro to Ethics


We are discussing no small matter, but how we ought to live.


I’m writing an Intro to Logic series because I often refer to certain logical fallacies, principles of probability, axioms of modal logic, etc. – things my readers may not be familiar with. I want to be able to link to posts that explain all these things. Also, writing a step-by-step course in basic logic helps to clarify my own thinking.

I’m writing this Intro to Ethics series for the same reasons. I write about ethics a lot, and I often refer to ethical concepts with which my readers are not familiar. Also, many readers have had a hard time understanding the ethical theory I defend, desire utilitarianism. I think this is (partly) because I haven’t first explained the basic concepts of ethical philosophy. So in this course I’m going to explain all the basic concepts of ethical theory, and then when I refer to them in other posts I can link to the relevant posts in this series. And of course desire utilitarianism will make a lot more sense to people once we’re all on the same page about how moral theory works.

Also, writing a step-by-step course in basic ethical theory will help clarify my own thinking about ethics.

What this course will cover

The idea of  this course is to walk us through everything an undergraduate would learn if he wanted to pursue a graduate degree in ethical philosophy. But I’m going to present everything in bite-size chunks, and in plain language. I won’t ask you to read the entirety of G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica or Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, but I will explain their views for you.

This course will also place a special emphasis on meta-ethics, for two reasons. First, because our conclusions in normative ethics, including applied ethics, are unfounded if our meta-ethical theory is wrong. (Don’t worry; I’ll explain later.) Second, because there are few good introductions to meta-ethics for the layman.

By the way, I will use the terms “ethics” and “morality” interchangeably.

My approach

Ethical philosophy is not a collection of musings about right and wrong. Rather, it is a serious and rigorous investigation of the truth. Ethical philosophers (ethicists) want to learn the truth about moral values by applying the tools of logic and evidence.

As in most fields of philosophy, there is no consensus view of ethics. Very smart and reasonable people disagree on the most fundamental issues, and give long lists of reasons in support of their views. In this course, I’m going to present each view as fairly as I can. But obviously, I find some views more compelling than others, and throughout the course I will try to explain why. I will also explain the most compelling reasons for me to doubt my own views.

What is ethics?

Ethics is the study of right and wrong, good and evil; morality and immorality, what we ought and ought not to do.

Ethical questions confront us all day, every day. How should I live? Should I buy this coffee or give my money to the beggar on the corner? Should I promote the welfare state, the military, corporate bailouts, or public education? How should I conduct my sex life? When should I lie or not lie? Am I obligated to be rational or to only believe things for which I have evidence? Should I support capital punishment or gay marriage or gun control? Is abortion morally permissible? Is it ever okay to insult people? Should I care about the suffering of animals? Do higher apes have rights? Do fish? Should marijuana be legalized? Is democracy just? How can I make the world a better place?

Most people think they have answers to almost every moral question that comes their way, even though they have not studied ethics and know very little about the research that has been done on the ethics of capital punishment or democracy or corporate bailouts. Are they right? Do we each have a “conscience” that can deliver us moral truth? Or is morality more complex than that?

Or, is morality only relative? After all, people disagree about almost everything in ethics.

Or maybe morality is an illusion. Perhaps objective moral values do not exist, though evolution programmed us to believe in them.

These are the questions of ethics, and ethicists try to provide serious answers to them, answers supported by good reasons.

Next time, I’ll begin a brief history of ethical philosophy. This is not a history course, but the history of ethics will help to put everything else in context.

(See the post index for all posts in this series.)

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Reginald Selkirk May 28, 2009 at 5:37 am

Perhaps moral values do not exist, though evolution programmed us to believe in them.

Huh? I’ve never heard anyone question the existence of moral values. Now, whether some particular set of moral values constitutes moral truth has been argued a lot.


Chuck May 28, 2009 at 7:04 am

Great series. I look forward to the rest.


lukeprog May 28, 2009 at 7:10 am

I guess I meant to say “Perhaps objective moral values do not exist.”


Dan Nelson May 28, 2009 at 12:36 pm

There is a very relevant post over at Less Wrong (formerly a part of Overcoming Bias) on the Nature of Morality:

it incudes the great question, “just for clarification, would you say that you’re “right” and God is “wrong” for thinking genocide is “good”, or just that you and God have different goal systems and neither of you could convert the other by rational argument?”


Mark May 29, 2009 at 7:34 am

Regarding ethical philosophy, you’ll save yourself time and effort by realizing that the ancient Greek classicists have been proven objectively superior to the continental post-enlightenment skeptics and materialists. 
Don’t take my word for it – the proof is here for all to see:


Reginald Selkirk May 29, 2009 at 8:43 am

Mark: the continental post-enlightenment skeptics and materialists

Which continent?


Mark May 29, 2009 at 9:35 am

the video explains it all…


Jeff H May 29, 2009 at 2:17 pm

Lol Mark…I never knew Socrates had it in him :P


Mark May 30, 2009 at 8:34 am

“The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice.” -GK Chesterson


lukeprog May 30, 2009 at 9:42 am


That Monty Python video is AWESOME.


davis kisamo December 10, 2010 at 6:11 am

ethics control the behavior of the people but how about its major structure and its aspects


davis kisamo December 10, 2010 at 6:16 am

ethics control the behavior of the people since it prohibit the society what to do and what should not


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