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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Ethics in a Nutshell

The Nature of Ethics

The word “ethics” is connected intrinsically with questions of correct conduct within society. Etymologically, “ethics” comes from the Greek “ethos” meaning “character” which indicates a concern for virtuous people, reliable character and proper conduct. “Morality” is derives from “mores” or custom — the rules of conduct of a group or society. An initial definition of ethics, then, is the analysis, evaluation, and promotion of correct conduct and/or good character, according to the best available standards.

Ethics asks what we should do in some circumstance, or what we should do as participants in some form of activity or profession. Ethics is not limited to the acts of a single person. Ethics is also interested in the correct practices of governments, corporations, professionals and many other groups. To these issues, ethics seeks a reasoned, principled, position. An appeal to existing practice or the command of a powerful leader is not sufficient. To answer such questions in a consistent, reasoned manner may take us far a-field. Some ethical questions will require reflection on our basic values and the purpose of human society.

Ethics is best conceived of as something we “do,” a form of on-going inquiry into practical problems. Ethics is the difficult practical task of applying norms and standards to ever new and changing circumstances.

Ethical questions arise most typically in cases where there is genuine puzzlement about what should be done in various types of situations. There is usually some practical importance or urgency to such questions. Is it ethical for journalists to reveal their sources to the courts, despite their promises of confidentiality? Is it ethical of journalists to invade the privacy of politicians to investigate allegations of unethical conduct?

People inquire ethically because they are puzzled about how existing principles apply in a concrete situations. Tensions inevitably arise over what constitutes correct conduct or fair practice wherever humans live and work together. Disagreements arise not only over specific practices, but also over the interpretation of principles.

Ethics is sometimes identified with an inflexible set of rules and self-righteous moralizing. It is said that rules are rules — an action is either right or wrong. It either breaks a rule or it doesn’t.

This view over-simplifies ethical thinking.

Ethical thinking requires the guidance of rules but it should not be shackled to them. Rules are  applied to situations according to the circumstances, just as legal principles must take into account the facts of the case. No principle can anticipate all possible situations and, in any case, principles will conflict. Moreover, we need to evaluate the very principles that we rely on, according to whether they continue to be useful guides amid changing social conditions. Complex ethical thinking, bringing principles and facts together for reflection, is inescapable.

Therefore, ethics is the dynamic, evolving activity of applying, balancing, and modifying principles in light of new facts, new technology, new social attitudes and changing economic and political conditions.

Range of Ethics

The boundaries of ethics are ever changing. Slavery was once acceptable. Now it is unethical. Today’s ethical discussions include the advocacy of same-sex marriage and the idea that animals have rights – topics that were not part of ethical debate not so long ago.
Ethical inquiry covers a wide range of possible subjects, such as:

•  Personal ethics: e.g. questions about one’s basic values and plan of life
•  Professional ethics: principles and practices of major professions
•  Social and political ethics: e.g., issues of social justice, political rights
•  Ethics of sexual and gender relations
•  Research ethics in academia and the private sector
•  Environmental ethics, including the ethical treatment of animals
•  Global ethics: ethics of international affairs, human rights
•  Communication ethics, including media, public relations and journalism

Theoretical and Applied Ethics

Ethical inquiry can occur on many levels of thought, according to one’s focus. There are two main types of ethical inquiry: Theoretical ethics and applied ethics.

Theoretical ethics is concerned with understanding the nature of ethics, ethical language and ethical reasoning. The focus of applied ethics is more practical – it wants to reach a practical judgment about what should be done in situation x, or what is the most coherent ethical view to take towards a serious issue, such as abortion or euthanasia.

However, the “theoretical-applied” distinction is not absolute. It is a matter of emphasis and interest. Any serious ethical thinking will include practical and theoretical considerations.

Theoretical ethics: The theoretical study of the main concepts and methods of ethics. Major questions include the nature of ethical language, the objectivity of ethical beliefs, and the nature of ethical reasoning. Ethical philosophy, for example, is the systematic study of ethical experience and the justification of moral notions, beginning with those that historically and by current estimation are the most important.


Applied ethics: The application and evaluation of the principles that guide practice in particular domains. Applied ethics concerns the issues and problems specific to the field in question. Major questions include how existing principles apply to new issues, the ranking of rival principles, the standards of “best practice” in a profession, and ethical decision-making in the field.


Professional ethics is a major division of applied ethics. It is the application and evaluation of norms in various professions. Since the mid-1900s, many institutes, centers and journals have been established to study and enhance nursing ethics, business ethics, biomedical ethics, journalism ethics, and the ethics of government and corporate governance.

Types of Theories

In theoretical and applied ethics, philosophers and other writers have advanced numerous theories to answer one or more major ethical questions. The number of theories, and their many variations, are too numerous to list here. However, there are several ways in which we categorize and group together the many theories. For example, we focus on a major aspect of ethical action – such as goods, rights or virtue; or we can categorize theories according to how they justify ethical judgments.

Focusing on a major aspect:

One way to approach ethics is to focus on one of four recurring aspects of ethical actions: rights, goods, virtues and our communal relations with others. Ethical inquiry into correct conduct involves (1) questions about whether an action honors or violates anyone’s rights or duties, (2) questions about the “goods” that should be pursued, often thought of as the harmful or beneficial consequences of action, (3) the impact of action on the “virtue” of the actors — their character and integrity.

These three aspects provide a way to categorize ethical theories. Theories are categorized depending on whether they think the good, the right, communal relations or virtue is the most important feature of ethics.

1. Teleological or “goods-based” ethics: For these theories, ethics is primarily about bringing about goods, the most goods, or the good life.  Ethical theories in this tradition include “consequential” theories that attempt to maximize valuable outcomes and minimize harms. One form of consequentialism is utilitarianism, where valuable outcomes are defined in terms of utility. The classic definition of utility is the greatest happiness of the greatest number.

2. “Duty” or “de-ontological” ethics: For these theories, ethics is primarily about the rights and duties of agents. Rights and duties allow people to interact in responsible ways. Ethics is less about individuals seeking to maximize their goods and more about right relations among people. Therefore, concepts of justice and fairness figure prominently in duty theories. This group of theories is distinguished by their view that basic rights and duties should restrain individual (or group) pursuit of the good. Basic rights and duties to others cannot be overridden by the wishes of the majority, or utilitarian calculations about what would make most people happy. Ethical systems in this tradition include the philosophy of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls.

3. Virtue ethics: For these theories, ethics is concerned with developing virtuous persons and civic-minded citizens. Ethics is not primarily about formulating an unchanging set of principles or duties. Nor is it about enjoying various benefits. It is about developing ethical character and the practical wisdom to choose the right thing to do in complex situations. Here, ethical education and development plays a central role. Ethical thought in this tradition derives from the virtue ethics of Plato and Aristotle, with its stress on achieving the good life, through a character of virtuous dispositions.

Please note: This three-fold division may be too simple. Perhaps a theory of ethics should make room for all three aspects – goods, duties, and virtues. Some ethical systems cut across the three categories. For example, Rawls’s theory of justice stresses the importance of achieving basic goods and having freedom to pursue one’s plan of life. Yet he also develops principles of justice that restrain the pursuit of the good. The ideal society finds a proper balance between pursuing goods and respecting the rights of others. Also, Aristotle develops an ethics of virtue. Yet he also relies on a rich conception of what is good for humans. In fact, a virtuous life is supposed to lead to the supreme good of happiness.

Focusing on how judgments are justified:

Ethical theories can be categorized according to where they place the source of ethical authority. Ultimately, how are ethical judgments to be justified?
Authoritative, external, voices: Ethical rules are valid if they are the rules of a deity, an inspired leader, are part of a divine world order, are based on tradition, revelation or a holy book. This tradition includes not only religions but also philosophical systems, such as the appeal to divine law by Thomas Aquinas and the appeal to a universal “natural law” by the Stoics and John Locke.

Naturalism: Ethical judgments are based something natural about humans or their natural world. Theories of this group have based ethics on natural feelings, conscience or reason within all humans — not on supernatural authority. For example, ethics may be based on universal sentiments or feelings, such as benevolence and sympathy, pleasure, or happiness. Universal principles may be recognized by the faculty of reason as valid for all rational beings. Naturalism includes the philosophical traditions of empiricism and rationalism, from Aristotle and John Locke to David Hume, Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant.

Social agreement, or contract: One species of naturalistic theory is contract theory. On this view, ethical and political rules (and arrangements) are valid insofar as they are the result of a fair agreement among all interested parties. Historically, this agreement has been interpreted as an implicit, or explicit, social contract, or a hypothetical contract.

(Note:  This page was originally authored by Stephen J. A. Ward, founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, and has subsequently been modified and  expanded by the center staff.  We thank Stephen for his many contributions, including this one.)