Any student of philosophy will have to tackle moral theory and ethics. These covers one the most fundamental areas of philosophy, that is, how are we supposed to live. Many philosophy students are initially confused about the difference between Moral Theory and Ethics.
The latter, ethics, simply refers to a code of rules governing behaviour. In general, what we consider the right and wrong thing to do is known as ‘ethics’ or sometimes ‘morals’. Someone who really doesn’t care about doing the right thing, or who persistantly does what others consider to be the wrong thing, is described as having no morals. Particular groups will have their own set of ethics governing the behaviour of members. For example, doctors and other members of the medical profession are bound by a rule of medical ethics. Journalists follow a code of ethics set by their profession. There are many different examples of such ethics.
Anyone whose behaviour is deemed unethical will be punished by their group. The worst sanction is often exclusion from the group. In general society, if you break some ethical codes you may be excluded from society by being put in prison, or even put to death. However not all ethical rules are punishable by law.
In most societies it is unethical to steal someone’s property. If you are caught, you may find yourself being put in jail. However, if you steal your best friend’s girlfriend you may be considered unethical but you won’t end up in prison. Ethical rules vary by society, in some countries adultory is frowned upon as unethical, in other it is punishable by death.
Moral theory is the exploration of what behaviour should and should not be considered unethical. Different theories have different arguments for considering this or that as the most ethical course of action in particular circumstances. Whereas different countries have different ethical rules, all these countries should in theory use ethical theories that apply to all. For instance, everyone in the world may agree that adultory is morally wrong but have different ideas on how it ought to be punished (how the ethical rule ought to be enforced).
When you study Ethics on a philosophy course you will not usually be interested in particular punishments for particular ethical violations but the reasoning behind different moral theories. For example, Utilitarianism argues that the right course of action (what is ethical) is that thing which brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. If you had to write an essay on this topic you would examine the arguments for and against this belief, rather than look at how this belief would be applied to particular cases.
Applied Ethics, does look a particular issues. These usually concern life and death, such as:
Abortion (if and when it is morally right to kill and unborn child)
Death Penalty (when it is acceptable to kill people who break the law)
Euthanasia (is it acceptable to end a person’s life to prevent futher suffering)
War (is it morally right to kill others during wartime)
About the Author
S. James Lea is an expert author in Philosophy and Ethics read his free philosophy resourse for students online at Philosophry.com