Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Ethics, Philosophy and Inquiry

Normative ethics, Meta-ethics and applied ethics (medical, business, engineering, legal ethics etc) are all branches of the discipline called ethics, which is in turn a branch of the discipline call philosophy.

“Philosophy” derives from the Greek words for love (philo) and wisdom (sophia). For the ancient Greeks, “philosophy” was love of wisdom. But while this might give us the beginning of an idea of what philosophers do today, we need to get more specific to really understand what modern philosophy is.

[Caveat: not all modern philosophers would agree with the following explanation of philosophy. Interestingly, the nature of philosophy is itself a controversial issue among philosophers.]

Philosophy is an area of inquiry.

Inquiry is an attempt to discover truths about the world.

In this way, philosophy is like the sciences, historical research, investigative journalism and detective work. But philosophy is different than these other areas of inquiry in that most of the truths it attempts to discover are more fundamental (i.e., more general and pervasive) than those pursued by other areas of inquiry. Philosophical questions involve concepts like God, knowledge, truth, the mind and consciousness, free will, right and wrong. So philosophy is inquiry into some of the most important issues that face all human beings.

Philosophy is the area of inquiry that attempts to discover truths involving fundamental concepts, such as the concepts of God, knowledge, truth, reality, the mind and consciousness, free will, right and wrong.

[Important: not all philosophers would agree with this definition of philosophy!]

Some of the central questions of philosophy are:

  • Is there a God? If so, what is God like? Is the existence of evil compatible with the existence of an all-caring, all-knowing, all-powerful God? Is belief in the existence of a personal God compatible with belief in evolution? Is the omniscience (all-knowingness) of God compatible with people’s free will? Do people have free will to begin with?
  • What is a person and what is it about an individual that makes him or her same person over time? Is an embryo a person? If not, at what point in a human’s development does he or she become a person?
  • What is the mind and what is the relationship between the mind and the brain?
  • What is knowledge and do we know anything to begin with? Are there things about the world that humans are inherently incapable of knowing?
  • What is it for an action or behavior to be morally good or bad? What is the morally best way for people to live? Does morality depend on God? Does it depend on society? Is abortion morally permissible? Human cloning? Homosexuality? Are there objective moral facts or is morality simply a matter of opinion?

Those last examples are within the field of ethics:

Ethics is the area of philosophy that attempts to answer questions involving concepts such as right or wrong, good or bad, moral or immoral etc.

So ethics (like other areas of philosophy) is not a mere attempt to articulate what you believe or feel about a given issue. Because it is an area of philosophy, it is an area of inquiry, which means that it is a search for truth.

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