A few introductory remarks concerning the field of ethics
Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
E-mail: ihs@ionet.net  & facshaferi@mercur.usao.edu

Adult members of virtually all human communities from the dawn of prehistory to the present, from household  to nation, are expected to observe certain definite standards of conduct, such as obligations shared by members of given social groups (men, women, nobility, commoners, priests, merchants, and so forth) and laws prohibiting  acts that are considered antisocial, such as acts of irreverence to divinity, unwarranted violence, dishonesty, theft, and sexual license.  The very fact that among the countless things humans do in their daily lives only some classes of behavior are subject to scrutiny and control, demonstrates that there is certain conduct that is deemed either essential for or antithetical to the very maintenance of a given community.  Conduct that falls into neither the constructive nor the destructive category does not even become an issue for ethical or moral deliberation and  is hence generally not subject to regulation.  Traditionally, the main purpose of educating the young has been to teach them the moral standards of their community in order to shape them into adults who will help maintain that community. 

This brings up the terms "ethic/ethics/ethical" and  "moral/morality."  They are synonyms of Greek and Latin linguistic origin and can be used to define one another.  In this essay, I will use the terms interchangeably but with a slight tendency to refer to theoretical deliberations as "ethics" and practical applications as "morality." 

There is great variance from civilization to civilization concerning  the kinds of behavior subject to moral control.  Let me try to explain via analogy.  Imagine each human group as inhabiting a unique home (sometimes within a larger house) that is constructed of the behavior of the members of the group in basic communal institutions, such as religion, commerce, relation of men and women, rearing the young, the arts, and so forth. Buildings have foundations,  supporting walls and beams, and non-supporting walls and beams. If the foundation crumbles or a supporting wall or beam is removed, the building  may be seriously damaged or even collapse. Some human groups (such as orthodox Jews, the Calvinists of Geneva, or hard-line Marxists) consider almost all aspects of their members' behavior (including their thoughts) essential for the structural soundness of their "building." Other human groups, such as followers of Lao-Tze or the Libertarian Party in the U.S., see almost no reason for control in any area of the lives of their members, beyond obvious rules against violating the rights of others to pursue life, liberty, property, and happiness.  Over time, sub-groups may build small homes within the large mansions or move their homes out beyond the parent compound, and new groups may erect their houses in the neighborhood.. Walls, fences, motes, gates, bridges, halls, stairways, and  roads will be built to separate or connect those homes in changing configurations, and as the area becomes congested, buildings may be razed and  others connected with one another.  As these changes occur some members of the affected groups will feel threatened and try to keep their homes from collapsing by shoring up the traditional foundations and walls and even erecting new bulwarks without realizing that those structures are no longer needed for the new configurations  which are in the process of engendering new sets of standards of conduct as their essential structural elements to facilitate the new layout. 
In the present age, these homes of the human imagination, houses of worship and commerce and family and law and education, these structures for communal living, built according to the varied thought patterns of different traditions, are increasingly connected with each other. Visitors can pass through, enjoy hospitality, and return to their own "homes" with new ideas, having brought some of their understandings as gifts for their hosts.  Fortunately, as shared basis of discourse, most human communities come already equipped with their own version of the "Golden Rule," an obligation to treat others the way one would wish to be treated by them. 

Traditionally, standards of community conduct have been sanctioned by religious authority and enforced by both religious and temporal powers. Practical and theoretical issues concerning standards of conduct are discussed in the branch of philosophy called ethics. 

    Ethics (a) examines human conduct (which may include thought), (b) analyzes the theoretical foundations of such conduct, (c) assesses such conduct in terms of certain rules or standards of behavior, and (d) may go further to recommend certain behavior as appropriate and condemn other behavior as inappropriate. Hence, the field of ethics can further be divided into two major branches, (a) normative ethics and (b) metaethics. Normative ethics seeks to establish norms by encouraging "correct" conduct and discouraging "incorrect" conduct. Metaethics studies and explicates the meaning of the evaluatory terms and judgments used in normative ethics. Normative ethics is in turn subdivided into theory of obligation ("What action is right or wrong?") and theory of value ("What goal is good or bad?").
If a theory of obligation assesses an action in terms of its potential consequences it is called teleological. Extreme adherents to a teleological theory of obligation argue that motivation is irrelevant and that an act is rendered right or wrong solely by its consequences. Whether a specific act is considered right or wrong depends on the theorist's position. The egoist will say that only consequences affecting the individual making the moral decision should be considered. The utilitarian will insist that only actions leading to the greatest good for the greatest number are morally acceptable decisions. Ancient representatives of the teleological approach are the Sophists of Greece and the followers of the Carvaka school in the Hindu tradition. Among the Sophists, Protagoras taught that "Man is the measure of all things" and Callicles insisted that "might makes right." Socrates and Plato developed their theory against the background provided by the Sophists. 

If a theory of obligation assesses an action in terms of intentions, motivation, degree of conformity to permanent standards, and so forth, it is called deontological, and an ethicist who holds a deontological theory is called a formalist. Again, it is important to keep in mind that there is a major difference in all except their theoretical framework between formalists, who, for example, insist that an action cannot be ethically right unless it is grounded in adherence to the Bible and those who insist that it cannot be ethically right unless it is motivated by a sense of duty. Like the egoist and utilitarian among the ethical teleologists, in practice, different formalists will approve of different courses of action. Extreme formalists insist that consequences are irrelevant to the process of assessing the moral standing of an action. Nothing except the agent's motivation or degree of loyalty to an absolute rule -- such as the prohibition against telling lies -- should be taken into account. 

    The first major formalist in the Western tradition is Plato who, through the lips of Socrates, posits a separate, eternal, and absolutely absolute realm of unchanging ideas or forms -- to be called universals in the Middle Ages -- to which general terms such as "truth," "justice," and "beauty" refer. The physical world is analogous to the shadows cast by the those forms in light of the highest and noblest of the Forms, the Form of the Good, the ultimate source of all being and knowledge. In Plato's system, the Form of the Good can be apprehended by the intellect, and consequently, can be taught, at least up to a point, by appealing to students' recollection of their souls' pre-natal journey through that transcendent realm of forms.
Clearly, neither the teleological nor the deontological approach to ethics is especially helpful without further definitions of terms and some clearly enunciated theory of values. This is where metaethics tends to contribute both illumination and, alas, further confusion. Metaethics asks questions, such as these: To what degree is the system under investigation teleological or deontological? Can we equate the terms "good" or "bad" used in a moral context with those same terms used in a general context as synonymous with "desired" or "unpleasant"? Does "good" or "right" mean the same thing as "according to the Word of God" or "according to Chairman Mao" or "according to nature" or "according to my conscience"? Should the definition of "good" or "right" be based on the findings of the natural and social sciences? Is there an innate "moral sense" which intuitively informs us of the "goodness" or "rightness" of an action? Is morality a matter of genetic predisposition? Are ethical judgments simply emotional utterances and commands devoid of any cognitive status, that is, incapable of being verified or falsified? Is it possible for competing and even incompatible ethical judgments to be equally valid ? Is ethical conflict an illusion? Once again, the answers depend on the one who does the responding. However, at least being aware of these questions gives us an opportunity to be consistent in our approach to various ethical systems by applying the same standards to all of them and avoid comparing the proverbial apples and oranges.