Ethics is often called the science of morality. It attempts to make consistent descriptions of complex situations and difficult decisions. It is considered to be important because, to those who practice the [[ethical tradition]] in which the descriptions are applied, it answers the big question, "How should we live?" The very questions presupposes that we can define 'how' (method), 'should' (ambition), 'we' (a group seeking consensus), 'live' (beings with bodies). Without this context, ethics is generally just talk implying moral judgement- this is usually called [[normative ethics]].

== Being practical ==

Practical and [[applied ethics]] is often thought of as a process of de-escalating moral conflicts to the point of [[non-violence|non-violent]] resolution, [[harms reduction|reducing harm]], and [[education|educating]] as required so that each participant in a conflict can effectively see the other's [[point of view]].

Without this, we fall back to the simplistic view, which is "I am right and you are wrong and you do what I say." (This is usually called [[moral absolutism]]). This kind of assertion, backed by force, is the basis of much authority and it leads to violence very often. So much so that it turns out not to be the simplest way to live among humans in the long run, even if it is accepted by small groups (say a whole [[family]]) in the short run.

== Ethics balancing rights ==

A simple, practical view, as advanced by [[Rushworth Kidder]], is that ethics balances "right versus right": if there's a dispute we care to hear, then each side must have some right on it. However, this presupposes some instinctive moral core of the individual that must recognize right and wrong, else we do not have two individuals asserting "right" and requiring ethical help: if either in fact secretly believes themselves "wrong" then they are engaging in tactics to reduce the chance of getting caught or alerting others to it, neither of which is studied by ethics. Ethics can thus be viewed as a lever but one that rests on a moral fulcrum of pre-existing assumptions, like the bodies of the beings in conflict, placed there by circumstances, environments, situations, mostly out of their control - only the choice of resolution is under their own control.
See also on this: [[situational ethics]] and [[situated ethics]].

Taking such a simple view requires everyone involved to see ethics as a process outside the body, and morality as something instinctive and within. This view thus completely reverses the classical Greek view that ethos, or "character" was internal, and [[mores]], or "custom", came from the society. But then, the ancient Greeks viewed religion and the responsibilties of a tutor in a different way that most moderns do. The classical Greek view leads, in the view of some more modern [[Christianity|Christian]] philosophers such as [[Margaret Visser]], to [[fatalism]] and [[revenge]], and to [[retributive justice]] in the [[law]]. Those who find these measures desirable thus have an alternative simple view.

== What's really simpler? ==

[[Jane Jacobs]] commented on two irreconcilable moral syndromes that could be said to arise from those views. [[George Lakoff]]'s theory of moral politics states that these arise from [[family role]] differences ultimately, with a [[moral code]] emphasizing the [[logos]] or "rule" of the father as being the source of the motivations of the political "right", and one emphasizing the more merciful moderns or mother-like view as being moral source for the "left".

If these views are at all valid, then, the two simplest theories tend to conflict, and their differences evolve into some full system of [[politics]] - which, as [[Bernard Crick]] put it, is "ethics carried out in public". His list of [[political virtues]] is an attempt to frame politics as a form of ethics, and ethics as a form of conflict resolution.

However, the idea that moral principles are universal continues to persist, and most people probably believe that there is ethics independent of any politics:

Despite wide differences in the ways that people live, there are a few widely-accepted moral principles that cross most cultural boundaries. There is a tendency in most societies to support belief and safety over doubt and risk, to support [[fairness]], [[consent]] and [[duty]] over [[dissent]], to support [[knowledge]] instead of [[ignorance]], to support trust, and [[honesty]] over [[lying]] and to be against what the culture considers [[evil]]. It is actually not possible to use any of those words without moral judgements - possibly inherited from the dictionary - this is studied in [[meta-ethics]].

== Right to thrive ==

One nearly-universal moral principle is some form of the golden rule: "Act towards other people as you would want others to act towards you." Another principle is that a person can only be blamed or praised if they could choose to act or refuse to act. Another is that there seems to be something good about helping living things in general, or compassion or empathy.

It is useful to distinguish "good from bad" in our actions just as we might distinguish "good from evil" morally in our thoughts. It's also useful to recognize that we use the word "right" to assert what we are due and to judge what is correct. To anything that's alive, it's "right" for it to live, that too is built into the body. If a creature is physically fit and capable of thriving in its environment, it takes a lot to overcome a preference to live:

== Social judgements ==

Ethics begins when we try to use "right", "wrong", "good", "bad" and "evil" as labels in a sharable, predictable, way. Else it is just a moral judgement and not a basis for cooperation with other people in any due process or law.

Most surviving societies recognize certain acts that are usually bad for the society, such as lying, stealing, murder of people, adultery, and impiety (to God or Nature which in early societies was often the same). Mature societies recognize ecological and personal obligations that may contradict the social:

Therefore, etiquette (or "diplomacy" or "de-escalation") often requires that a painful truth be avoided, or even that a disruptive presence be silenced... many otherwise "civilized" societies jail, exile, or even execute individuals. See [[social contract]].

This highlights the differences between individual and social responsibility - very often people rely on society or labor specialization to do things (like kill chickens or "terrorists") that they simply would not do for themselves. Whether such [[delegation of violence]] is desirable, and systems to do so, is studied in [[civics]].

== Complexity adds doubt ==

As ethical theories become more specific, they can become more controvertial. Unlike many other kinds of theories, they can be wrong simply because they cannot be applied fairly in practice! Very often, they are an excuse for continuing behavior felt to be immoral - whether behavior can ever be "known" to be immoral is another basic question.

Even the above version of the golden rule can be doubted, i.e. what if the "person" is not human, or has deliberately killed a human? Is it right to treat such a person like a human if they would be harmed by reciprocal treatment? What makes us decide that a person is worthy of respect in the first place? A body? Ape-like gestures? A corporate charter?

Philosophers have been criticizing ethical theories for thousands of years, and many of their criticisms are complex, subtle and technical. Discussing such criticisms is beyond the scope of this article. Usually, ethics does not stand alone but alongside, and most often in relation to [[epistemology]] (the study of the nature of knowledge and how is it obtained) and [[metaphysics]] (the study of the fundamental nature of reality and the universe) to constitute "a [[philosophy]]".

Theologians often phrase the questions somewhat differently, in terms of [[cosmology]] (God in the universe), [[ontology]] (what exists), and morals. As morals are difficult or impossible to transfer out of context, the theologian generally studies ethics case by case - or "fable by fable".

== Smaller is simpler ==

All of this introduces complexity that no practical dispute solver needs.

So consider again the "simplistic view" (I'm right you're wrong) of [[moral absolutism]] and two "simple views" (ethos as character, [[mores]] as rules VERSUS morals as aesthetics, ethics as dispute resolution). If you accept that the simple views (but not the simplistic view) can co-exist and both be right that is [[moral relativism]]. If you take the more "practical view" that we can't avoid [[politics]] (moderated but potentially violent conflict) between simple, simplistic, and more complex views, then you are neither an absolutist nor a relativist, and believe in some kind of [[moral cognition]].

You can often agree on what this is with a small group, and get something done, and live in harmony. The ideal size of a corporation has been stated as 70 people, and an ideal village no more than 120-150. At this scale, the 'simple view' can be applied directly, and one need do no more than assess what moral concepts mean to the group. In other words, assess morality very informally and apply only informal sanctions or punishments with little or no need for force.

As groups and societies get larger, technology advances, and violence more likely, that shared moral cognition gets harder to manage. Some rigorous [[epistemology]] agreements like a [[moral code]] or [[standard of evidence]] must be applied. These, and [[politics|political]] standards like an [[electoral process]], increase the potential for agreement and decrease the potential for violence, at the cost of added complexity and requirement to place trust in some referees (like judges or constitutional monarchs or a church or GodKing). At some point this becomes indistinguishable from the simplistic trust in authority, and, probably, the cycle of agreeing must begin all over again, in smaller units of trust.

See also: [[list of ethics topics]], [[business ethics]], [[ethical code]]