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Branches of Ethics | BRANCHES OF ETHICS 

  • Ethics is divided into four main branches. They are:
    • Meta-Ethics (Ethics about Ethics)
    • Prescriptive Ethics (Normative Ethics) – which is again divided into Deontological Ethics, Teleological Ethics, and Virtue Ethics.
    • Descriptive Ethics (Comparative Ethics)
    • Applied Ethics – again divided into Bio-ethics, Cyber Ethics, Environmental Ethics, Personal Ethics, Professional Ethics, Public Ethics, International Ethics and so on.
  • You may note that the most practical branch of ethics is Applied Ethics. Most of the dimensions (features) of ethics are discussed in the perspective of Applied Ethics.

Difference between Different Dimensions of Ethics 

  • Meta Ethics
    • Deals with questions like ‘What is meant by being right?’ OR ‘What is meant by being wrong?’
    • Deals with the definition of right and wrong.
    • Meta means about the thing itself.
    • So Meta-Ethics is Ethics about Ethics
    • Eg: “What is meant by a wrong action?”
  • Descriptive Ethics (Comparative Ethics)
    • Deals with peoples beliefs about morality.
    • Deals with what society thinks as good or bad.
    • It is an empirical investigation of the moral beliefs of various groups.
    • Eg: “How many among you think that it is wrong to kill a person?”
  • Prescriptive Ethics (Normative Ethics)
    • Deals with questions like ‘ls that action right (ethical)? OR ‘Was that act wrong?’
    • Checks if the action/outcome of an action fits into the definition .
    • of right or wrong.
    • Deontological Ethics (focus on action/duty), Teleological Ethics(focus on the outcome/end), and Virtue Ethics are the sub-branches
    • Eg: “Is it wrong to kill a person?”
  • Applied Ethics
    • The most practical branch of Ethics
    • Deals with ethical questions specific to practical fields.
    • Includes bio ethics, legal ethics, business ethics, medical ethics etc.
    • Eg: “Is it ethical to allow euthanasia?”

What is Deontological ethics?

  • Deontological ethics or duty ethics focuses on the rightness and wrongness of the actions rather than the consequences of those actions. There are different deontological theories such as categorical imperative, moral absolutism, divine command theory etc.
  • First famous deontological theory is Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative or Kantianism. Kant said that the human beings occupy special place in creation and there is an ultimate commandment from which all duties and obligations derive. The moral rules, as per Kant, should follow two principles viz. universality and principle of reciprocity.  By universality, he meant that a moral action must be possible to apply it to all people. By principle of reciprocity, he meant said “do as you would be done by. Such premise of morality is found in all religious systems, including Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism etc.
  • Second famous deontological theory is Moral absolutism. It believes that there are absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged. Against these standards, certain actions are right while others are wrong regardless of the context of the act. For example, theft is wrong, regardless of context in which theft was carried out. It ignores that sometimes wrong act is done to reach out to right consequence.
  • Third deontological theory is Divine command theory. It says that an action is right if God has decreed it to be right. As per this theory, the rightness of any action depends upon that action being performed because it is a duty, not because of any good consequences arising from that action.

Consequentialism (Teleology)

  • Consequentialism or teleological ethics says that the morality of an action is contingent with the outcome of that action. So, the morally right action would produce good outcome while morally wrong action would produce bad outcome. Based on the outcome, there are several theories such as Utilitarianism {right action leads to most happiness of greatest number of people}, Hedonism {anything that maximizes pleasure is right}, Egoism {anything that maximizes the good for self is right}, Asceticism {abstinence from egoistic pleasures to achieve spiritual goals is right action}, Altruism {to live for others and not caring for self is right action}.
  • The core idea of consequentialism is that “the ends justify the means“. An action that might not be right in the light of moral absolutism may be a right action under teleology.

Virtue ethics

  • Virtue ethics supported by numerous famous philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.
  • It focuses on the innate character of a person rather than on specific actions.
  • Virtue ethics stress the role of one’s character and the virtues that one’s character embodies for determining or evaluating ethical behaviour.
  • The cardinal virtues are a set of four virtues derived primarily from Plato’s proposal,. They consist of:
    • Prudence: It is also explained as wisdom, the ability to judge between actions with regard to appropriate actions at a given time.
    • Justice: It is considered as fairness, the most extensive and most important virtue.
    • Temperance: It is called restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, and moderation.
    • Courage: It is known as fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance, and the ability to confront fear, uncertainty, and intimidation.
  • Aristotle categorized the virtues as moral and intellectual. He recognized a few intellectual virtues, the most important of which was wisdom. Aristotle debated that each of the moral virtues was a mean between two corresponding vices, one of excess and one of deficiency.
  • Criticism of Virtue theory: Regarding virtues once apparently applicable to women, many would have once considered a virtuous woman to be quiet, servile, and productive. This notion of female virtue no longer holds true in many modern societies. Advocates of virtue theory argued that a central feature of a virtue is its universal applicability. It can be said that any character trait defined as a virtue must reasonably be universally regarded as a virtue for all sentient beings. This view represents that it is contradictory to claim, for example servility as a female virtue, while at the same time not proposing it as a male one.

Specific Fields Of Application Of Applied Ethics

  • Business ethics: Business ethics also referred as corporate ethics is a type of applied ethics that scrutinizes ethical principles and moral or ethical problems that arise in a business environment. It applies to all aspects of business conduct and is pertinent to the conduct of individuals and entire organizations. Business ethics also has both normative and descriptive dimensions. As a corporate practice and a career specialization, the field is mainly normative. Academics attempting to understand business behaviour employ descriptive methods. The range and quantity of business ethical issues reveals the interaction of profit-maximizing behaviour with non-economic concerns.
  • Bioethics: Bioethics is the study of contentious ethics brought about by advancement in biology and medicine. Bioethicists are more involved with the ethical questions that arise in the relationships among life sciences, biotechnology, medicine, politics, law, and philosophy. It also includes Primary care ethics which is the study of the everyday decisions that primary care clinicians make. Bioethics also deal with emerging biotechnologies that affect basic biology and future humans. These developments include cloning, gene therapy, human genetic engineering, astroethics and life in space, and manipulation of basic biology through altered DNA etc. Many religious communities have their own histories of inquiry into bioethical issues and have developed rules and guidelines on how to deal with these issues from within the viewpoint of their respective faiths.
  • Machine ethics: Machine Ethics is the element of the ethics of artificial intelligence concerned with the moral behaviour of artificially intelligent beings. Machine Ethics contrasts with roboethics, which is concerned with the moral behaviour of humans as they design, construct, use and treat such beings. Machine ethics should not be perplexed with computer ethics, which focuses on professional behaviour towards computers and information. The effort to actually program a machine or artificial agent to behave as though instilled with a sense of ethics requires new specificity in normative theories.
  • Organizational ethics: Organizational ethics is the ethics of an organization, and the way an organization responds to an internal or external stimulus. Organizational ethics is interdependent with the organizational culture. Although, it is similar to both organizational behaviour and business ethics, organizational ethics is neither organizational behaviour nor solely business ethics. Organizational ethics articulate the values of an organization to its employees and/or other entities irrespective of governmental and/or regulatory laws.
  • Political ethics: Political ethics is concerned with making moral judgements about political action and political agents. It includes two areas. The first is the ethics of process (or the ethics of office), which deals with public officials and the methods they use. The second area, the ethics of policy (or ethics and public policy) concerns judgements about policies and laws. Some opponents argue that ethics has no place in politics. If politicians are to be effective in the real world, they cannot be bound by moral rules. They have to follow the national interest. Others argued that there is no need to pay so much attention to politicians and policies but should instead look more closely at the larger structures of society where the most serious ethical problems lie. Supporters of political ethics reply that while structural injustice should not be ignored, too much emphasis on structures neglects the human agents who are responsible for changing them.
  • Military ethics: Military ethics deals with questions regarding the application of force and the ethos of the soldier and are often understood as applied professional ethics.
    Military ethics involves manifold areas, including the following among others:

    • The laws of war.
    • Justification for the initiation of military force.
    • Decisions about who may be targeted in warfare.
    • Decisions on choice of weaponry, and what collateral effects such weaponry may have.
    • Standards for handling military prisoners.
    • Methods of dealing with violations of the laws of war.
  • Public sector ethics: Public sector ethics is a set of values that guide public executives in their service to their constituents, including their decision-making on behalf of their constituents.




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