Basic Terms: Morality, Ethics, Right, Good

From lecture notes by: Dr. Garrett

Modified August 11, 2003

Note. These terms are defined differently by different authors. My concern is to specify definitions that roughly correspond to the mainstream in ethical theory and are useful for our purposes in this course.


* (primary meaning) norms of right and wrong that people should follow in their conduct.

(In some way they are binding on us as human beings, not as doctors or lawyers or garage mechanics. They relate to matters of serious consequence for humans. They are not created or altered by governments. They are impartial.

(Morality in this sense is something to be discovered: even if humans are the inventors of morality, today's individuals are not the originators of the basic moral principles. There is "something there" to be looked for.)

*stated moral opinions, the moral beliefs persons say they have. (They may be wrong, they may be right.)

*actual moral beliefs and values, the moral beliefs on which people in fact act.

(These can be different from stated beliefs.)

Ethics (1) the study of morality (the primary sense for purposes of this course)

the examination and discussion of proposed moral principles; the study of how these principles are interrelated (theories); the comparison of various principles and theories in terms of strength or weakness, etc.

Ethics (2) a study that includes (1) but also the study of what makes human beings happy or perfected and how to promote it, even if there is no strict moral duty to do what makes us happy or to become saints.

Personal Ethics: The study of our own personal good and what promotes it, as well as our obligations as individuals toward individuals and social units, etc., and how we should apply them to concrete cases.

Social Ethics: The study of the moral principles that should guide society's design of laws and other public institutions and the application of these principles. (Since each of us is part of society, social ethics is relevant to us sometimes directly sometimes indirectly. It is relevant to us as citizens and as members of groups that operate in the public sphere, such as political parties, corporations, socially active churches, public interest groups.)

The Good: The valuable thing or things that would make us happy or fulfilled or actualized (not a means to something else; that which, if you had it, would remove all dissatisfaction, or the best approximation possible to such a thing)

The Right (Moral Correctness): What we ought to do, our obligations (at least toward other humans, perhaps toward nonhumans too.

Personal Ethics Social Ethics
The Good How should I understand my own
good, what I should be seeking in
life? How should I organize my life
so as to promote my own well-being,
happiness, fulfillment?
How should we understand the common
good? How is it best promoted? What
laws or public policies will these guidelines
The Right What obligations do I have toward
other morally significant individuals?
What principles of justice or conception
of rights should govern my conduct toward
others? What rights do others have that I
ought,concretely, to respect?
What principles of justice should society
follow in deciding the rules of our
institutions or what government policies
to endorse? What laws or public policies
will these principles endorse?