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Why Ethics?

Lead with ethics.

At the Prindle Institute, we believe that ethics is everywhere, and for everyone. Even good people can be better. All can benefit from studying ethics at various levels. We are committed to empowering communities to think critically about the inescapable ethical issues of our time by equipping them to understand various moral perspectives, reason carefully about the good, and deliberate together about the things that matter.



What Is Ethics?

At its most basic, ethics is a field of study that attempts to understand rightness and wrongness, goodness and badness, and how these interact with our obligations to ourselves and to others. Whenever you wonder what action would be right, whenever you judge that someone acted wrongly, whenever you contemplate whether you should take a certain course of action, whenever you criticize a policy as unfair or unjust, for example, you are entering into the domain of ethics.

Importantly, then, ethics is what might be called a normative discipline, in contrast to a descriptive one. Some disciplines are descriptive: they aim to tell us how things are. Physics is a good example. It tells us where things (planets, stars, electrons, quarks) are located, how they are moving, where they were in the past, and where they will be in the future. Physics also tells us what will happen in hypothetical scenarios: what would happen if I were to drop this glass vase? Ethics is importantly different from this. Ethics does not seek to tell us how things are or how they were, or how they will be, but rather, it seeks to tell us how things should be or how they should have been. Simply put, physics might tell us that a certain collection of objects will result in a nuclear explosion, but it won’t tell us whether that is good or bad. Ethics attempts to answer that latter question but is silent on the former.


Ethics is usually divided into three main areas:



Meta-Ethics is concerned with figuring out the nature of right and wrong and good and bad. Where did right and wrong come from? Does rightness and wrongness depend on the existence of God? On social agreements? On laws? Is it all fiction, or is it all just in our heads? If you’re asking these questions, you’re in the field of meta-ethics. 

Normative Ethics is concerned with determining rules or principles that explain the rightness or wrongness of something. Perhaps an action is right or wrong based on its consequences, the intentions with which it was taken, or whether it respects people’s rights. If you are trying to figure this out, you are in the field of normative ethics. 

Applied Ethics is concerned with figuring out what the right (or wrong) action or policy is in a particular case. Franz Kafka, on his deathbed, asked his best friend Max Brod to burn his unpublished work. Brod did not do as Kafka asked. But what should Brod have done? What would have been right (or wrong) in this situation? To answer these questions is to be engaged in applied ethics. Though answering such questions might draw on the other fields of ethics, the goal of applied ethics is not to come up with a grand ethical theory or an overarching account of where rightness and wrongness come from; it is, instead, to answer specific ethical questions. Popular areas of applied ethics include bioethics, technology ethics, business ethics, the ethics of war, and environmental ethics. Most of the initiatives sponsored by the Prindle Institute fall under the field of applied ethics.


Why Study Ethics?

Even if you have a good sense of your own values, studying ethics is worthwhile. Studying ethics improves your ability to engage in dialogue with people who have different moral perspectives from you. It may challenge you to think more deeply about your own moral perspective. Because of this, studying ethics helps you to adopt the values that represent your genuine self and to live consistently with those values as you learn more about the world and your place in it. Even good people can be better, and studying ethics can help you with that.

There are also practical reasons to study ethics. Studies show that people who study ethics have a significant advantage in the workplace — one of many career-oriented reasons to consider making the study of ethics a part of your collegiate life.

Find out more about how ethics can enrich your life by exploring this site or reaching out to our team. We’d love to start a conversation with you.

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