What are Ethics?

The definition of ethics is reasonably straight forward, but it’s easier to understand when explained alongside two other popular areas of philosophy. In Stoic philosophy for example there are three core fields:

  1. Logic

  2. Physics

  3. Ethics

Logic is the discovery and development of reasoning tools such as “if/else/or/then” and “likely/unlikely/then”. In the modern world these tools are taught to children from a young age and we generally take them for granted. However they are key to the way in which we approach, challenge and play with the information around us.

Physics is the understanding of how things work, how the universe works at a fundamental level and how people behave and respond to the stimulus around them.

Finally, ethics is a field of philosophy that concerns itself with human behaviour, how we relate to one another, treat one another, and what is good or bad within these bounds. The word ethics comes from the Greek ēthikós (ἠθικός), meaning “relating to one’s character”. This has its roots in the word ethos, meaning character or moral nature.

The field of ethics looks to ask questions about human morality and judge behaviour against a predefined boundary of right and wrong, or good and evil, virtue and vice, justice and crime.

So in order to understand whether or not a person’s behaviour is right or wrong, or how we ourselves can live a good life, we’ll have to dive into the philosophy of ethics in order to find our answers.

What are Ethics important?

Ethics are important for a number of reasons:

Firstly our view of ethics will act as a compass to guide our behaviour. How we view what is right and what is wrong will determine our response to what happens in the world around us and it will determine whether or not those acts are good or bad. Our grasp of what is good and what is bad will determine how we moderate our own behaviour.

If we are ignorant to what is right and wrong there is a greater chance that those actions will be bad or evil. If we are self aware and have an understanding of how our actions impact the people and the world around, we have a greater ability to align our behaviour with what is right and just.

Socrates suggested that a wise person knows what is right and wrong and naturally behaves accordingly. He also suggested that evil is simply the result of ignorance, or our inability to clearly see what is right and what is wrong.

Therefore, in order to be a good person we are required to know ourselves, how we impact the world around us, and the wisdom to determine right from wrong. The study of ethics helps us with this.

Fields of Ethics:


Meta ethics is the branch of ethics that looks at the subject from the highest possible viewpoint. Here we ask questions such as “Can we really ever know what is objectively right and wrong?”, “What do we need to know in order to judge right and wrong?”, or “Is right and wrong always a subjective opinion based on the views and values of the individual?”.

Meta ethics tackles the questions of subjective morality. It tackles the questions of whether right and wrong are judged based on facts and data, or from emotion and feeling.

Normative ethics

Normative ethics is probably the most practical branch of ethics for the everyday person. This field is the study of behaviour, it looks at how be act, respond, react, treat ourselves, the people around us and the world around us.

When we think about how we should act, how a good person should behave and how we should treat other people, we are dealing with normative ethics.

Virtue ethics, part of normative ethics, was a popular branch of Hellenistic philosophy and one practiced by the Stoics. Virtue ethics explains that the moral character of a person is the primary driving force behind ethical behaviour, and was the philosophy practiced by early philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle.

Self awareness and self mastery was considered a priority over other areas of knowledge because knowledge of the self not only allowed us to be more aware of our impact on the world around us, it also allowed us to reflect on our behaviour and move closer to behaving with virtue. Through virtue we get closer to being a good person.

The self aware person will know how they are reacting to their environment and can make the deliberate choice to behave more favourable. In contrast the unconscious or ignorant person will be unaware of how they respond to their environment, or how their behaviour impacts the people around them. In this way they are unable to mediate their behaviour and are pulled this way and that depending on what’s going on around them.

Socrates suggested that people will naturally do what is good if they have a firm grasp on what is right and what is wrong, and that evil is simply the result of ignorance and the individual’s inability to tell right from wrong.

Applied ethics

Applied ethics is simply the branch of ethics that has been applied to real world situations such as law, bio engineering, and business.

This includes things like:

  • Experimentation on humans and animals because it’s unethical.

  • Business practices that take advantage of consumers.

  • Abortion rights

  • Military ethics and the banning of certain weaponry

  • Machine learning and ethical learning algorithms

Examples of Ethics?

Stoic Ethics

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus suggested that the highest good was peace of mind and serenity. Inner tranquillity was the greatest quality one could possess and it requires a mastery over our desires and emotions.

To fully master our inner world our character needs to be resilient to externals such as hardship, set back, and the behaviour of other people. Epictetus suggested that if we allow the behaviour of other people to rouse anger in is then we do not have mastery over our inner world and our wellbeing will be at the mercy of others.

Virtue for the Stoics came in the form:

  • Temperance – the ability for people to exercise self restraint despite the desire to do certain things or behave in certain ways.

  • Wisdom – the ability of an individual to see the world, themselves and other people objectively and cast aside prejudice, bias and discrimination.

  • Justice – the ability to act in the right way as part of our community and towards our fellow man.

  • Courage – the ability of an individual to do what is right despite pressures not to.


Hedonism is the view that maximising pleasure and minimising pain is the greatest ethical good. The scope of hedonism ranges from those who indulge in any source of please to those who abstain from extremes of pleasure as a way to maximising our experiences of pleasure.

The Epicureans rejected extreme sources of pleasure and viewed some forms of pleasure as detrimental to the wellbeing of man. Epicurus saw an unbridled pleasure seeking as a pathway to destructive habits and behaviours, such as addiction and damage to one’s body. Therefore an unrestricted search of pleasure in many cases leads to pain.


Consequentialism is the belief that the goodness and badness of a behaviour is determined by the impact that behaviour or act has on the wider world. So a morally right act is one that produces a good result.

Commonly this view is described by “The ends justify the means.”

With this view, the result of the action are considered of greatest importance, not the action itself. So someone could have bad intent but their actions could result in a good outcome for a great number of people, thereby making their action an ethically good action.

How can we use Ethics?

So, how can we use ethics in our own day to day life.

One simple way is to ask yourself what being a good person means to you and then going about learning how to be that person. This will likely include:

  1. Defining the characteristics of a good person and a bad person to build an ethical compass to follow and a framework for our own philosophy of ethics.

  2. Self examination and self awareness – if we’re not aware of how we behave and how we respond to stimulus it will be difficult to moderate our behaviour to move closer to being good.

  3. Mindfulness – we can’t moderate our behaviour if we’re not aware of what we’re doing when we’re doing it. So the ability to be present will allow us to catch ourselves in the act, interrupt our default behaviour, and make a conscious decision on how to act.

The more we do this the better we become at it. Soon the habit of stopping before we act, deciding whether or not it is the right thing to do, and moving forward accordingly, will become second nature and we will be moving towards what we thing is a good and virtuous way of living.

Ethics Quotes:

“It is well said, then, that it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man; without doing these no one would have even a prospect of becoming good.”

“Virtue lies in our power, and similarly so does vice; because where it is in our power to act, it is also in our power not to act…”

“A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”
Albert Einstein

“I count him braver who overcomes his desires than him who conquers his enemies, for the hardest victory is over self.”

“Bad people…are in conflict with themselves; they desire one thing and will another, like the incontinent who choose harmful pleasures instead of what they themselves believe to be good.”

“We have in fact, two kinds of morality, side by side: one which we preach, but do not practice, and another which we practice, but seldom preach.”
Bertrand Russell

“This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.”
Dalai Lama

“The self-indulgent man craves for all pleasant things… and is led by his appetite to choose these at the cost of everything else.”

“It is impossible, or not easy, to alter by argument what has long been absorbed by habit”

“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.”

“Moral experience—the actual possession and exercise of good character—is necessary truly to understand moral principles and profitably to apply them.”

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