Religions Traditions

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What is ethics? The word itself is sometimes used to refer to the set of rules, principles, or ways of thinking that guide, or claim authority to guide, the actions of a particular group; and sometimes it stands for the systematic study of reasoning about how we ought to act. In the first of these senses, we may ask about the sexual ethics of the people of the Trobriand Islands, or speak about the way in which medical ethics in The Netherlands has come to accept voluntary euthanasia. In the second sense, 'ethics' is the name of a field of study, and often of a subject taught in university departments of philosophy...

Some writers use the term 'morality' for the first, descriptive, sense in which I am using 'ethics'. They would talk of the morality of the Trobriand islanders when they want to describe what the islanders take to be right Peter Singeror wrong. They would reserve 'ethics' (or sometimes 'moral philosophy') for the field of study or the subject taught in departments of philosophy. I have not adopted this usage. Both 'ethics' and 'morality' have their roots in a word for 'customs', the former being a derivative of the Greek term from which we get 'ethos', and the latter from the Latin root that gives us 'mores', a word still used sometimes to describe the customs of a people. 'Morality' brings with it a particular, and sometimes inappropriate, resonance today. It suggests a stern set of duties that require us to subordinate our natural desires -- and our sexual desires get particular emphasis here -- in order to obey the moral law. A failure to fulfil our duty brings with it a heavy sense of guilt. Very often, morality is assumed to have a religious basis. These connotations of 'morality' are features of a particular conception of ethics, one linked to the Jewish and Christian traditions, rather than an inherent feature of any ethical system.

Ethics has no necessary connection with any particular religion, nor with religion in general."