How Can We Define Ethics?

How Can We Define Ethics?


If we define Ethics, It is a term that has its roots in ancient Greek, originating from the Greek word Ethos, meaning “way of living.” This concept first appeared in written records in the 14th century, indicating that the concept has been around for a very long time.

Nobel Prize in Literature winner French philosopher ALBERT CAMUS said once:

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world”.

Ethics is a set of rules that regulate the behavior of individuals and society at large. But if we broaden the definition of ethics, we can see that it is an essential pillar that shapes our behavior and guides our moral compass.

Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is the study of what we consider to be good or bad, right or wrong, within human behavior.

In this article, we will look at the complex concept of ethics from different perspectives. We will look at the history of ethics, define what is ethics, its importance, its various branches, and its relevance in modern society.

Potter Stewart defines ethics as:

“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do”.


Known American Judge Judy. Sheindlin said:

“You don’t teach morals and ethics and empathy and kindness in the schools. You teach that at home, and children learn by example”.

The agenda for this article on Define What is Ethics.

How Can We Define Ethics?

Ethics is the fundamental branch of philosophy that helps people distinguish between right and wrong. Ethical principles and values are set by society or organizations and serve as a moral compass, guiding people towards good deeds and choices.

Ethics addresses fundamental questions about the decisions we make in life such as:

      • What is the Ethical right path for me to take in my life?

This first question naturally leads to other questions, such as

      • What kind of person should I aspire to be?
      • What values are important in defining my character?
      • What norms or values should govern my behavior?

Known yogi and author Jaggi Vasudev said once:

“At times, it appears easy to sermonize on morality and ethics. But morality and ethics appear good only when applied to others, never to oneself”.

Define Origin and Evolution of Ethics:

What does Ethical mean in life?

Ethical principles have deep historical roots, with various philosophical traditions contributing to their development. Some of the notable ethical philosophers throughout history include Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, each of whom proposed unique theories on ethics.

      • Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics:

Aristotle, one of the world’s greatest philosophers, revolutionized the field of ethics through his theory of virtue ethics, which goes far beyond simply following the rules and regulations. Instead, it invites self-discovery and self-reflection.

By exploring the nature of virtue, Aristotle’s theory encourages us to cultivate our moral strengths, such as courage, honesty, and wisdom. Through this life-changing journey of self-growth, you will find yourself living a truly remarkable and fulfilling life.

      • Kantian Deontological Ethics:

The term deontology is derived from the Greek word for duty (den) and the Greek word for science (logo). Immanuel Kant’s famous research philosophy of deontology emphasizes the connection between duty and general moral principles.

Kant believed that a categorical imperative should govern acts. This means that an individual should act in a manner that they would expect others to do in similar situations.

      • Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill:

Utilitarianism is a philosophical theory developed by John Stuart Mill in the 19th century. It focuses on the concept of maximizing happiness and reducing suffering. Mill interprets morality through an ethical lens, asserting that a moral act is only considered ethical if it promotes profound happiness among the greatest number of individuals.

This theory challenges traditional concepts of morality and provides a new perspective that has the potential to alter our understanding of ethics.

Ethics V/s Morals:

Ethics and Morality are often used interchangeably, but there is a significant difference between the two.

To put it another way, Ethics = Morality + Reasoning.

Ethics is Moral Philosophy, while morality is Reasoning.

In other words, to have an ethical point of view, you must be able to give a reason for it.

Ethics V/s Values:

      • Ethics is concerned with well-defined norms of how people should behave. But it does not describe how people act. Rather, it deals with how people should conduct themselves.
      • Ethical people always seek to do the right thing in every situation. They do not limit their actions to their self-interest.
      • Ethical decision-making involves adhering to well-defined standards of behavior.
      • Ethics may be best understood by distinguishing it from other terms such as Values.
      • Values are fundamental beliefs that regulate or motivate an individual’s actions or attitudes. Ethics, on the other hand, is concerned with the behavior of a moral person.
      • A person who values status, power, wealth, etc. is more likely to act in the interests of themselves. On the other hand, an individual who values integrity, honesty, and trust is more likely to do what is in the best interest of others.

Ethics V/s Laws:

Being ethical isn’t the same as obeying the law.

Ethical people always want to obey the law, but sometimes your moral compass tells you it’s better not to obey the law. These are rare situations and should be done for good moral reasons.

For example, let’s say you come across a hungry, desperate family that has stolen food to survive. The law says that stealing food is a crime, and you should report the theft to the police.  But, From a moral point of view, you could say that helping this family by not reporting the theft is your moral beliefs about compassion and empathy.

However, in this case, your moral beliefs and the law may differ temporarily because of the unique circumstances and your ethical position.

Well said by the most influential figures in modern philosophy Immanuel Kant,

“Two things awe me most, the starry sky above me and the moral law within me.”.


American politician and jurist Earl Warren said:

“In civilized life, law floats in a sea of ethics”


What are the different types of ethics?

There are several types of ethics, each with its method of argumentation and purpose. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s guide to the Types of Ethics, the following are the most frequently referenced types of ethics:

Normative ethics:

Questions such as “Is that action, right?” or “Was that act wrong?” are asked. This type of ethics checks whether an action fits into the definition of good or bad.


Meta-ethics deals with questions such as “What does it mean to be right?” or “What is it to be wrong?” This type of ethics deals with people’s beliefs about morality.

Comparative Ethics:

This type of ethics describes what society thinks about good or evil. It is an inquiry into the moral beliefs of different groups.

Applied Ethics:

This is the most practical type of ethics. It deals with ethical questions specifically related to practical fields (E.g.: Bio-ethics, Legal Ethics, Business Ethics, Medical Ethics).

Ethics in Personal and Public Relationships:

Ethics in Personal Relationships

Personal relationships are usually informal and emotional with family and friends. People tend to act on their gut feelings rather than thoughtfully, which can sometimes lead to bad behavior.

Let’s take the example of a close friend who asks for a large loan, promises to pay it back, and then never pays it back. In such a situation, emotions such as trust and loyalty can cloud one’s judgment, leading one to overlook ethical principles such as financial accountability in the future.

Ethics in Public Relationships

Public relations are formal relationships between two or more parties. These parties may be colleagues, government employees, or any other stranger. Public relations may also involve legal or social commitments.

When it comes to public relations, four main ethical principles should be taken into account:

      1. Social ethics is about being tolerant of other people, promoting peace and harmony, etc.
      2. Political ethics is about protecting the country’s interests.
      3. Organizational ethics is about being impartial, honest, hardworking, efficient, and so on.
      4. Lastly, international ethics is about making sure international treaties are respected.

Bottom Line:

Ethics is all around us. It’s the set of rules that guide us and help us make decisions that reflect our values. It shapes how we interact with others and the world around us, and how we treat each other and ourselves.

Without ethics, it’s hard to have a meaningful and fulfilling life. Without ethics, there’s no idea of what’s right and wrong, and people will make decisions based on their wishes. This can lead to a world where people are cruel to each other and abuse each other without any repercussions.

Ethics is the basis for all civil societies, making sure everyone has a chance for justice and fairness, and helping to create a more balanced and healthy society.

Well said by Booker Prize 1972 winner, British art critic, novelist, painter, and poet John Peter Berger,

“Without ethics, man has no future. This is to say, mankind without them cannot be itself”.


Well said by the German philosopher and one of the central Enlightenment thinkers Immanuel Kant,

“Live your life as though your every act were to become a universal law.”

Frequently Asked Questions:

How to define ethics?

Ethics is the fundamental branch of philosophy that helps people distinguish between right and wrong. It has principles and values that serve as a moral compass, guiding individuals and society toward making ethical choices.

How did the concept of ethics originate?

The term “ethics” has its roots in ancient Greek, originating from the Greek word Ethos, meaning “way of living.” It first appeared in written records in the 14th century, indicating its long history.

Who are some notable philosophers associated with ethics?

Some famous philosophers in the field of ethics include Aristotle, Immanuel Kant, and John Stuart Mill, each of whom contributed unique theories and perspectives on ethics.

What are the main branches of ethics discussed in the article?

The article discusses various branches of ethics, including Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics, Kantian Deontological Ethics, and Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill.

How do ethics differ from morals?

Ethics involves both moral principles and reasoning, whereas morals refer to the reasoning behind ethical beliefs. Ethics can be seen as the broader framework, while morals delve into the specific reasoning behind ethical decisions.

What distinguishes ethics from values?

Ethics deals with how people should conduct themselves based on well-defined norms, while values are fundamental beliefs that motivate an individual’s actions or attitudes. Ethics is concerned with behavior, while values represent personal beliefs.

How does ethics relate to laws?

While ethical people generally aim to obey the law, there may be situations where ethical principles and the law differ. Ethics can sometimes require individuals to make moral decisions that deviate from legal requirements for compelling moral reasons.

How does ethics apply to personal relationships?

In personal relationships, emotions can sometimes cloud ethical judgment. Ethical principles such as trust, loyalty, and financial accountability can be tested in situations like lending money to a close friend.

How does ethics apply to public relationships?

In public relationships, various ethical principles come into play, including social ethics, political ethics, organizational ethics, and international ethics. These principles help guide formal relationships in different contexts.

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