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Ethics & Morality: Philosophy of Behavior, Choice, and Character

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What are Ethics and Morality?:

Atheists and theists frequently debate morality on several levels: what is the origin of morality, what are proper moral behaviors, how should morality be taught, what is the nature of morality, etc. The terms ethics and morality are often used interchangeably and can mean the same in casual conversation, but morality refers to moral standards or conduct while ethics refers to the formal study of such standards and conduct. For theists, morality typically comes from gods and ethics is a function of theology; for atheists, morality is a natural feature of reality or human society and ethics is a part of philosophy.

Why Should Atheists Care About Ethics & Morality?:

Atheists unfamiliar with the basics of moral philosophy will be unprepared to discuss morality and ethics with theists. Atheists need to be able to respond, for example, to the claim that the existence of morality proves that a god exists, or that morality is impossible in the context of atheism. Ethics also has broader implications for atheists' critiques of religious theism because some atheists argue that religious and theistic beliefs are ultimately detrimental to the human moral sense; that, however, cannot be done without understanding the differences between naturalistic and supernatural ethical systems.

Atheist Morality vs. Theist Morality:

Disagreements between atheists and theists in the realm of morality occur across the three major divisions of moral philosophy: descriptive ethics, normative ethics, and metaethics. Each is important and must be approached in differently, but most debates return to a metaethical question: what is the basis or grounding for ethics in the first place? Atheists and theists may find broad agreement in the other categories, but there is far less agreement or common ground here. This mirrors the debate between atheists and theists over the proper grounding for beliefs generally and the conflict between faith and reason.

Descriptive Ethics:

Descriptive ethics involves describing how people behave and/or the moral standards they claim to follow. Descriptive ethics incorporates research from anthropology, psychology, sociology and history to understand beliefs about moral norms. Atheists who compare what religious theists say about moral behavior or the basis for morality against how they actually behave need to understand how to properly describe both their ethical beliefs and their actions. To defend their own moral philosophy, atheists need to know how to accurately explain the nature of their moral standards as well as the moral choices they make.

Normative Ethics:

Normative ethics involves creating or evaluating moral standards, so is an attempt to figure out what people should do or whether current moral behavior is reasonable. Traditionally, most moral philosophy has involved normative ethics — few philosophers haven't tried their hand at explaining what they think people should do and why. Religious, theistic normative ethics often rely on the commands of an alleged god; for atheists, normative ethics can have a variety of sources. Debates between the two thus frequently revolve around what the best basis for morality is as much as what the proper moral behavior should be.

Analytic Ethics (Metaethics):

Analytic ethics, also called metaethics, is disputed by some philosophers disagree as to whether it should be considered an independent pursuit, arguing that it should be included under Normative Ethics. In principle, metaethics is the study of assumptions people make when engaging in normative ethics. Such assumptions may include the existence of gods, the usefulness of ethical propositions, the nature of reality, whether moral statements convey information about the world, etc. Debates between atheists and theists over whether morality requires the existence of a god can be classified as metaethical debates.

Basic Questions Asked in Ethics:

What does it mean to be good?
How can I differentiate good from evil?
Are morals objective or subjective?

Important Texts on Ethics:

Nichomachean Ethics, by Aristotle
Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, by Immanuel Kant
Beyond Good and Evil, by Friedrich Nietzsche

Ethics and Moral Judgments:

Sometimes it can be difficult to differentiate between genuine moral statements and propositions which convey no moral content or claims. If you are going to debate the nature of morality, however, you need to be able to tell the difference. Here are some examples of statements which express moral judgments:

1. Dumping chemicals in the rivers is wrong and ought be banned.
2. It’s wrong that our company is trying to avoid the regulations and it should stop.
3. He’s a bad person — he never treats people well and doesn’t seem to respect anyone.

Moral judgments tend to be characterized by words like ought, should, good and bad. However, the mere appearance of such words does not mean that we automatically have a statement about morals. For example:

4. Most Americans believe that racism is wrong.
5. Picasso was a bad painter.
6. If you want to get home quickly, you should take the bus.

None of the above are moral judgments, although example #4 does describe the moral judgments made by others. Example #5 is an aesthetic judgement while #6 is simply a prudential statement explaining how to achieve some goal.

An important feature of morality is that it serves as a guide for people’s actions. Because of this, it is necessary to point out that moral judgments are made about those actions which involve choice. It is only when people have possible alternatives to their actions that we conclude those actions are either morally good or morally bad. This has important implications in debates between atheists and theists because if the existence of a god is incompatible with the existence of free will, then none of us have any real choice in what we do and, therefore, cannot be held morally accountable for our actions.

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