LX:51 | The Scope of Ethics

But first, what is the scope of ethics as such? It does not deal with the whole domain of value. If I enquire into the beautiful or the sublime I am more likely to be doing aesthetics than ethics – though my interest might certainly be ethical as well, in one way or another. Ethics, one may suggest, is concerned with morality, rather than with art. True – but it does not stand to morality quite as aesthetics stands to art. It has wider scope, since questions about the relations between morality and art belong to it, as do questions about the relations between morality and prudence or between morality and reason. So if I ask what makes a piece of music beautiful, or what makes a good tennis technique, I’m not asking an ethical question, on even the widest sense of ‘ethical’; but if I ask what place in my life, or in other people’s lives, music or tennis, together with the skills and excellences proper to them, should have, then I am asking an ethical question. I can ask an ethical question about morality itself – what role in life should morality play? Ethical questions have a certain detachment and comprehensiveness which give them a governing role in the philosophy of value. Questions of professional ethics in business, medicine or journalism have a similar governing role, bearing on the nature of the profession, it’s place in social life and the consequent application of general ethical principles to it.

Ethical questions have this governing role because ethical inquiry is concerned quite generally with reasons for action. Not all reasons are reasons to act. There are reasons to believe and reasons to feel: indeed, we deal in reasons at every turn. To be alive and awake is to be alive to reasons for believing, doing, feeling. You, for example, have reason to believe that I did not change the oil in your car; you have reason to feel irritated; your [sic] have reason to take action – to deduct something from my bill. Our evaluations of a person regularly turn on how that person responds or fails to respond to reasons in one or other of the three domains of belief, feeling and action. Personality is the manner of one’s sensitivity to reasons in all three of them. An irritable person is more irritated than he or she has reason to be. A credulous person believes when there is insufficient reason to believe. A precipitate person acts when there is no reason to act.

Even at its widest, though, ethics does not deal with this whole normative domain of reasons. It does not deal with whether a conclusion is rightly or wrongly drawn from premises, with whether evidence is good or bad, or with what hypotheses we ought to adopt. Such questions are the province of logic. Ethics in its widest sense stands to questions about what there is reason to do, as logic in its widest sense stands to questions about what there is reason to believe. It is the normative theory of conduct, as logic is the normative theory of belief. Through its concern with action and reasons for action ethics also becomes concerned with character, as it bears an action and reasons for action. (The word ‘ethics’ derives from the Greek ethos, which means ‘character’, or, in plural, ‘manners’.) And, through that concern with character, it becomes concerned with questions about what there is reason to feel, and how reasons to feel connect with reasons to act. But the best way to make this clearer is to turn directly to some of the feelings with which ethics is concerned. Of these, three at least are fundamental – blame, admiration and desire. (199-200)


Skorupski, John.  “Ethics.”  The Blackwell Companion to Philosophy.  Ed. Bunnin, Nicholas and E.P. Tsui-James.  Blackwell Publishers, 2001.  199-200. 

54, 56

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