Current General Studies Magazine: "General Studies - IV (Ethics Based Article)" September 2014

Current General Studies Magazine (September 2014)

General Studies - IV (Ethics Based Article)

In ordinary conversation we often hear such statements as: ‘He ought not to have done this’, ‘It is a good thing to help one’s neighbours’, ‘He is a thoroughly good man’, ‘His character is bad’, ‘He was is only doing his duty’, or ‘It is always right to speak the truth.’ When such statements are made they are frequently contradicted by someone hearing them, and this by itself suggests that they are not. It simple as at first sight they appear to be. If a friend disagrees with my statement that Smith is a thoroughly good man, he may do so for one of two reasons, (a) He may know facts about Smith’s haviour which are unknown to me; and if he tells me these fact and convinces me that they are true, I shall then be ready to admit that Smith is in some respects not a good man. (b) It may be the case, however, that my friend and I both know the same facts about Smith, and yet I continue to hold that Smith is thoroughly good, while my friend considers him to be bad. Now we are using the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ with different meanings, and, until we come to some agreement as to their meanings, we are not likely to agree in our opinion of Smith. This is just the kind of question with which ethics deals what is the true meaning of such words as ‘good’ and ‘right’ and ‘ought’ which are used so commonly in everyday conversation. When we come to an agreement as to the meaning of such words, other questions will arise. We may ask whether it is possible for us to know whether Smith is good or bad; we may ask on what grounds Smith should give up those activities which we have agreed to call bad, and should engage in those which we have agreed to call good. All these and many other similar questions are within the scope of ethics.

We may define ethics as the normative science of the conduct of human beings living in societies a science which judges this conduct to be right or wrong, to be good or bad, or in some similar way. This definition says, first of all, that ethics is a science and a science may be defined as a systematic and more or less complete body of knowledge about a particular set of related events or objects. In this account of science, the important word is systematic; scientific knowledge differs from the ordinary, haphazard knowledge of uneducated people in being arranged in a definite coherent system. A science also aims at providing as complete a knowledge of its subject-matter as it can, although, in the present state of know­ledge, no science is perfect in this respect. At the same time, the scientist may leave out details that he knows, in order to give a simpler and clearer presentation of the important connexions of the facts which he studies: It is generally agreed that a piece of know­ledge cannot be regarded as ‘scientific’ until it is accepted by those who are learned in the particular science concerned: in medicine, for example, the new cures which are so convincingly advertised cannot be regarded as scientific until they have been recognized as effective by capable doctors. Finally, the sphere of a science is limited to one set of facts or objects; no science deals with all the facts known about the universe; to deal with the universe as a whole is the work of metaphysics or philosophy, which is not a science. Each science has its own particular sphere; botany deals with plants, psychology with minds, and ethics with certain judgements that we make about human conduct.

The sciences which are studied in the laboratories of our universities are descriptive or positive sciences. Positive sciences describe objects or phenomena as we observe them with our eyes and other sense-organs, or in the case of mental processes like desiring and willing as we observe them by introspection or looking inside our minds. (‘Phenomenon’ is just the technical term for anything that can be observed in this way.) There is in a positive science no ques­tion of judging its objects in any way. If the botanist judges a certain plant to be good or bad, or even to be beautiful or ugly, he is no longer doing the work of a botanist, whose business it is to describe what he observes without judging either its reality or its value. The psychologist describes the mental processes like intention and willing which lead to human conduct, but, as psychologist, he has no concern with the goodness or badness of that conduct. There is a group of sciences, however, which do not deal directly with observed facts but which deal, as systematically and completely as is possible, with the standards or rules or norms or criteria by which we judge certain objects, and these Sciences are called normative sciences. Aesthetics, for example, deals systematically with the standards by which we judge objects of perception, commonly sights and sounds, to be beautiful or ugly. Logic deals with the standards by which we judge statements to be true or false, and ethics deals with the standards by which we judge human actions to be right or wrong. The normative sciences differ from the positive sciences in one more way; they do not merely describe the standards by which we judge; they are also concerned with the validity or truth of these standards. In ethics for example it is not enough to describe the rules by which men have tested their conduct, such as the Ten Commandments of the Hebrews; we also ask in ethics why these rules are valid or on what grounds we ought to observe them.


  1. What is the nature of ethics?

  2. According to the psychologist what leads to human conduct, elaborate?

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