Ethics, Morality, Bioethics, Clinical Ethics and Social Morality

So, what is ethics? Notice that in this question I have not put the word ‘ethics’ in inverted commas. So I am not asking the question, “What is the meaning or the origin of the word ‘ethics’?”[1] Our first target is not the word itself; we will look into the word and its origins a bit later. Our first target is the activity or activities that are picked out or identified in the concept of ethics. I am assuming that whatever ethics is it is acted out or done by people.


How do we start?


What exactly does the term ‘ethics’ encompass? Or, put in another way, how do we specify the subject matter of ethics by identifying instances or examples of it?


Before we begin in a piecemeal way by providing examples, it might be tempting to try and put a definition forward: a definition of the word, ‘ethics’.


Tempting, yes. We can agree that it would be better to give a definition of ‘triangle’ as ‘a three-sided plane figure where the internal angles equal 180 degrees’, rather than pilling up examples of different kinds of triangles: the equilateral, isosceles, scalene and such. But not all nouns are so easily captured in a definition. ‘Ethics’ is abstract because it is an organising idea and not a concrete constituent in our world. The best way to start to understand abstract nouns that name concepts – justice, generosity, compassion, ego, velocity, brilliance etc., – is to see them in action and analyse them (look at their relationships to other ideas).


So with these points in mind, let’s turn to ethics again.


As I said, I am going to start with the assumption that we are interested in human behaviour or actions.


What does the list of activities that fall under the title of ethics look like? I hope that you will see the activities assembled here are closely related in subject matter.

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