The whole point of this website is to wrestle ethics off philosophers like me, dust it off and make it presentable for people who have better things to do than spend every waking moment in existential panic. As such, using fancy technical terms such as ‘epistemology’, ‘de-ontological’, or (my personal favourite) ‘utilitarian’ kinda defeats the point.
But sometimes I too fall prey to that awful professional smugness that seems to come with the goatee and glasses for philosophers (with some notable exceptions) and get carried away with the -ism’s. To this end, here’s a glossary with brief summaries of technical concepts, accessible enough to make beret wearers everywhere cry.
Need more info? Check out my post on ‘The Ethics Of…Ethics’, or email me direct with any questions at email@example.com. For those concerned with such trifles as thoroughness and accuracy, check out the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Meta-ethics / Meta-physics – the study of what reality is. While extremely hard to answer (if it’s actually possible), this sort of philosophy is crucial because it forms the foundation for our ethics; we can’t talk about what is right and wrong until we establish what is real. See The Ethics Of… Ethics (Part 1)
Ontology – The question of how reality exists. Is it real or an illusion? Can it be changed by being observed, or is it a solid concrete fact? Sadly due to the facts of Epistemology (see below) this question can never be answer with certainty, but we can take some good stabs at it with the evidence available. See The Ethics Of… Ethics (Part 1)
Epistemology– The question of how human beings understand/interact with reality. Are our perceptions reliable or unreliable? Do we change reality by observing it? Unlike Ontology, we can answer this question since we have clear proof that our perception is limited by our senses and psychological biases at the very least. See The Ethics Of… Ethics (Part 1)
Utilitarianism – A decision-making method that compares the costs and benefits of the various options available and chooses the one with the best possible outcome. Has the advantage of being very flexible to the situation and generally giving the best possible answer. Has the problem of being extremely easy to pervert. See The Ethics Of… Ethics (Part 3)
Deontology – A decision-making method that focuses on a set of clear-cut rules that must always be followed and never broken. Has the advantage of being very easy to communicate and hold people accountable with. On the downside such rules tend to be inflexible, ignore relevant facts and get outdated fast, generating worse-quality results than Utilitarianism. See The Ethics Of… Ethics (Part 3)
Objective – Something that is true or real regardless of how it is perceived. In practical terms, something that is a fact, backed with reliable evidence. Like gravity, which exists regardless of whether you believe in it. Ethics should be based on objective factors because they are reliable, measurable and cannot exist in contradiction to each other.
Subjective – Something that exists, is true, and is altered by how it is perceived. In practical terms, things like a favourite colour, fashion trends, culture, traditions and other constructs that are real only because we think they are, are changed based on what we think about them, and which would cease to exist if we stopped believing in them. Ethics should not be based on subjective factors because they can change easily and quickly, are impossible to measure, and frequently contradict each other.
It’s “epistemology”. Just saying. From one academic trying to avoid “that awful professional smugness” to another.
Hi Kathy, thanks for the comment and for that correction. Truth is I started this page and then pretty much forgot about it – must get around to cleaning it up and filling it!
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