PHIL 2120: Introduction to Ethics
Dr. Robert Lane
Lecture Notes: Friday August 13, 2010


[1.] Introduction to Professional Ethics.



[1.1.] Philosophy and Ethics.


Professional ethics is a branch of the area of study called ethics, which is itself one of the traditional areas of philosophy. So before we consider what professional ethics is, let’s review the definitions of philosophy and ethics:


philosophy (df.): 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. [Not all philosophers would agree with this definition of philosophy!]

·         philosophy is an area of inquiry (df.): an attempt to discover truths about the world (a.k.a. research) [Not all philosophers agree that philosophy is a type of inquiry; nor do they all agree how “inquiry” and “truth” should be defined.]

·          “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.

·         Many philosophers (though not all) consider ethics to be one of the four main branches of philosophy, the other three being logic, metaphysics and epistemology.


ethics (df.): the area of philosophy that attempts to answer questions involving concepts such as right/wrong, good/bad, moral/immoral, etc.



[1.2.] Three Areas of Ethics.


Ethics itself is divided into three areas: normative ethics, meta-ethics, and applied ethics.


normative ethics (df.): the area of ethics that asks general questions about the morality of behavior; it attempts to provide general moral norms of behavior.


normative (df): a normative statement, or question, or theory, concerns how things should be, how they ought to be, rather than how they actually are. [the opposite of “normative” is: descriptive (df.): a descriptive statement, or question, or theory, concerns how things actually are, not how they ought to be.]


So normative ethics is the branch of ethics that tries to answer general questions about how we should behave, how we ought to act. In other words, it attempts to discover general rules or principles of moral behavior. In this area of ethics, you’ll find claims like the following:

·         If doing x will benefit someone without harming anyone else, then it is morally permissible for you to do x.

·         If doing x treats someone as a means to an end without respecting her as a person, then it is immoral for you to do x.



meta-ethics (df.): the area of ethics that tries to answer questions about the nature of morality itself. It does not ask or make judgments about what types of action are moral and immoral; rather, it asks questions like:

·         does morality depend on what we believe about it, or is it independent of our beliefs?

·         does morality depend on what God commands?

·         are moral judgments (statements attributing morality or immorality to a given act, e.g. “Murder is immoral”; “Charity is morally good”) capable of being true or false? or are they simply expressions of emotion? or something else?

·         how can we justify moral claims? how should we justify them?

You can think of meta-ethics as trying to take a position above normative ethics, looking down on it and trying to explain where it comes from. (“meta” means above or about)



applied ethics (df.): the area of ethics that asks relatively concrete questions about the morality of specific actions and policies. The majority of this course will focus on various issues within three areas of applied ethics: legal ethics, medical ethics, and business ethics.


legal ethics (df.): the area of applied ethics that considers ethical questions confronted by people working within the legal professions, especially lawyers, e.g.,

·         what are the moral constraints within which a criminal defense attorney is obligated to work in defending her client?

·         to whom does a lawyer have a stronger moral obligation, her client or the court?

·         is it ever morally permissible for a defense attorney to knowingly mislead the court, e.g., by allowing her client to perjure himself, or to discredit an opposing witness whom she knows to be telling the truth?


medical ethics (df.): the area of applied ethics that considers ethical questions relevant to medicine and health care, e.g.,

·         is it ever morally permissible for a physician to assist a patient in committing suicide by prescribing a lethal dose of drugs? or to engage in euthanasia, either by withdrawing life-sustaining treatment or by hastening a patient’s death with a lethal injection of drugs?

·         is it ever morally permissible for a physician to perform an abortion? what about abortion in the case of a fetus with a genetic abnormality such as Down syndrome?

·         what is the moral status of embryonic stem cell research and of human reproductive cloning?

·         what is the morally best way to distribute prescription drugs and medical treatment among those who cannot afford to pay for it themselves?


business ethics (df.): the area of applied ethics that considers ethical questions relevant to business and, more generally, to the workplace, e.g.,

·         do corporations have any moral responsibilities to the societies in which they operate, or is their sole responsibility to make money for their stockholders?

·         is there a fundamental moral right to employment?

·         do employees have a moral right to privacy from their employers? if so, how far does that right extend? do drug tests violate that right?

·         what constitutes sexual harassment, and why is sexual harassment immoral?



[1.3.] Moral Categories.


To fully understand the questions we will address, we need to consider the ethical terms used in those questions. In framing those questions, I have deliberately used a number of philosophical terms, including “morally permissible” and “immoral.” These refer to two exclusive and exhaustive categories used in classifying actions (exclusive, meaning that do action falls within both categories; and exhaustive, meaning that every action falls within one category or the other):


a. immoral (df.): not permitted by morality; morally bad; in performing the action, you are doing something morally wrong; examples of actions that are generally considered to be immoral are: rape, torturing someone simply because you enjoy causing him pain, and killing someone simply because you find him or her annoying (or for some other relatively trivial reason).


b. morally permissible (df.): permitted by morality; in performing the action, you are not doing anything immoral.


There are three sub-categories of morally permissible action: obligatory, morally neutral, and supererogatory:

c. obligatory (df.): required by morality; if you don’t do it, then you’ve done something immoral (for example, saving the life of a baby who is drowning in two feet of water, when doing so would pose no risk to your own life).

d. morally neutral (df.): neither morally good nor morally bad; no moral value whatsoever (for example, tossing a piece of chalk up in the air and then catching it... doing so has no consequences for anyone else and only trivial consequences for yourself; it violates no one’s rights and in fact has nothing to do with anyone else at all).

e. supererogatory (df.): going above and beyond what morality requires; you are not obligated to do it, so in failing to do it, you would not be immoral; but you’ve done something morally good if you do it (for example, saving the life of a stranger who is drowning 100 yards from shore, in choppy water, when you have no training as a lifeguard and doing so risks your own life).


We will be applying all of these concepts to various actions and policies throughout the semester, so you should spend some time now mastering them.



Stopping point for Friday August 13. For next time:

·         study today’s lecture notes;

·         carefully review the syllabus and let me know if you have any questions; and

·         your first reading, due on Wednesday August 18, will be from Milde, “Legal Ethics: Why Aristotle Might Be Helpful,” available at the UWG Library course reserves page for this class. BRING A COPY OF THIS TO CLASS WITH YOU ON MONDAY.



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