Doing Good and Avoiding Evil
Part I. Principles and Reasoning
by Lisa Newton

2. The Vocabulary of Ethics

Any text on ethical theory has to open with the observation that of all matters in ethics, the meanings of the terms has caused the most acrimony and dispute. Since the earliest of the Socratic Dialogues, we have argued about the meaning of key terms like "morals," "ethics," "virtue," "piety," "justice" and the others, all the others. Given the limited purposes of this text, I will simply stipulate at this point how I intend to use the key terms of ethics, observing only that my usage is not bizarre. More than that will no philosopher claim. In what follows you may expect the following words to be used in general in these ways:

Morals or Morality

The Rules and prima facie duties that govern our behavior as persons to persons.

  • Don't hurt people (gentleness, compassion)
  • Don't tell lies (veracity, fidelity)
  • Don't take more than your fair share (fairness)


States of affairs that are desired by and for people and that we want to increase; ends, goals.

  • Health (as opposed to sickness)
  • Wealth (as opposed to poverty)
  • Happiness in general
  • Freedom, Justice, respect for Human Rights


Conditions of people that are desirable both for the people themselves and for the good functioning of the society.

  • Wisdom (vs. ignorance, irrationality)
  • Courage (vs. weakness, unreliability)
  • Self-control (vs. greed, violence, indulgence)
  • Justice (vs. egoism, favoritism, deviousness)


Properly speaking, the study of morals, duties, values, and virtues, to find: ,/p>

  • Their theoretical links and relationships
  • How they work together (or do not) in practice

Other understandings of the term ethics:,/p>

  1. More generally, the whole field of morals, moral rules, duties, values and virtues--the whole study of our attempts to order human conduct toward the right and the good.
  2. More specifically, a professional ethic is a particular code of rules and understandings worked out by the members of a profession to govern their own practice.

Ethical Principles

Very general concepts that sum up a range of morals, values and virtues from which moral imperatives can be derived.

Materials prepared by Lisa H. Newton, Ph.D. 1998

Copyright © 2002, Hale Chair. All rights reserved.
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