What is Ethics in Philosophy? - Definition & Types

Instructor: Emily Cummins
When we think about ethics, we're thinking of questions of right versus wrong. But in the discipline of philosophy, there's a little bit more too it than that. In this lesson, we'll talk about the major branches of ethics that philosophers study.

Ethics and Philosophy

Is the death penalty wrong? Is abortion immoral? When we think of the word 'ethics', questions like these probably come to mind.

We might think about whether a choice is right or wrong, or where we stand on an issue in society. We might think about whether a choice we make harms another person.

In this lesson, we'll talk specifically about ethics in the discipline of philosophy. There are actually a number of different ways to think about ethics and philosophers mean different things when they use the word. Let's talk about some of the major branches of ethics in philosophy.

Ancient Greek Ethics

Philosophers have been thinking about ethics for a long time. The study of ethics in philosophy goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks with some of the very earliest philosophers we have on record.

A group of teachers in Ancient Greece are really credited with developing the study of ethics. These scholars were concerned with ways of making life better in the city and encouraging their students to think about ethics.

Socrates was one of the foundational figures in Western philosophical thought. His conception of ethics was based on the premise that all people are essentially good. He thought that we would all do what's good as long as we knew the right choice, which required being self-aware. Socrates saw what he called 'self-knowledge' as inherently good.

Socrates was a founding father of Western philosophy and ethics
Socrates; Ancient Greece; ethics

Other ancient philosophers, such as Aristotle, had a somewhat similar take. He felt that in order for people to make ethical or right decisions they needed to reach their potential. This self-awareness would lead to ethical decision-making.

'Virtue' was a key word here, which Aristotle defined as always doing the right thing to people and having this virtue would lead us to doing the right thing to others.

But what about more contemporary approaches? Let's talk about some of those now.


Meta-ethics is about what it means to make an ethical choice or judgment. When we come to a decision how do we know whether it's ethical or not?

Meta-ethics is less about deciding whether or not a choice is good or bad (which is called a normative assessment) than it is with the theory of ethics itself. Basically, we're just trying to figure out what it means to make ethical choices in the first place.

How would we define right or wrong? Why? These are the questions meta-ethics is concerned with. There are two major branches of meta-ethics:

  1. Moral realism - is a branch of meta-ethics that suggests there are moral objectives, things that are ethical or unethical for everyone, and they are independent of individuals.
  2. Moral anti-realism - there are not any objective moral values, but that moral and ethical values are attitudes held by individuals. Things are made right and wrong by our social context and not much is strictly right or wrong in an objective sense.

Descriptive Ethics

Descriptive ethics is all about studying people's decision-making and how people come to determine whether something is good or bad. In a lot of ways, descriptive ethics is more like a research method than the other branches of ethics. It's about finding ways to figure out how and why people make the decision that they do.

What do people consider to be right or wrong? Why do they feel this way? How do societies control, reward, or punish certain behaviors they define as right or wrong? These are the kinds of questions that descriptive ethics deals with. While meta-ethics is about the theory of ethics, descriptive ethics deals with people's thoughts and decisions.

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