What are the Dimensions of Ethics?

Ethics seeks to resolve challenges of human morality by defining certain themes such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. Moral philosophy is connected to the sciences of moral psychology, descriptive ethics, and value theory as a subject of intellectual investigation. Moral philosophy also called ‘Ethics’, includes systemizing, defending and promoting conceptions of good and bad conduct in our society.

The notions of good and bad are a matter of perspective and are prone to alter regularly. It is the study conducted by ethics that attempts to develop a common viewpoint that determines what is deemed right and wrong. Questions of human morality concerning good and evil, virtues and vices, fairness and injustice and other related issues are addressed by four primary facets of ethics, which are called the Dimensions of Ethics.

In this article, these four dimensions of Ethics are covered in detail. This topic falls under GS Paper-4, Ethics and Integrity of the UPSC Syllabus

Four Facets of Ethics

The many dimensions of studying ethics enable arriving at ethical conclusions in difficult situations. These many approaches to ethics investigate how ethical conduct is determined in a given context. Humans are presented with circumstances in which their actions may result in opposing and maybe equally disagreeable alternatives. There are four major dimensions of ethics: 

  • Normative or Prescriptive Ethics 
  • Descriptive Ethics 
  • Meta-ethics
  • Applied Ethics

Let us take each in detail one by one:


Meta-ethics is concerned with the problems that determine whether a given subject or item is morally right or morally wrong. It inquires about our comprehension– how we perceive whether a decision, action, or purpose is good or negative. 

  • It focuses on the meaning of ethical concepts in general, rather than the applied question of ‘what should be done in a specific situation?’ It is not concerned with whether an action is right or wrong; rather, it is concerned with the fairness and evilness of morality itself. Naturalism, non-naturalism, and prescriptivism are the three main theories in meta-ethics.
  • Philosophers have been attempting to provide a precise account of meta-ethics since antiquity. For example, Aristotle proposed that our judgement of good and evil is founded on our grasp of other subjects and the relative ethical wisdom that we passively obtain from it. 
  • Aristotle also stated that acculturation has a significant impact on our thoughts and conceptions about a subject. When two or more cultures coexist in a geographical location, the diverse characteristics of each culture are absorbed into their everyday lives, broadening their knowledge span and influencing their understanding of good and evil.
  • Modern philosophers are divided on meta-ethics. There are two schools of thought:
    • Non- Cognitivism– This abstract ideology believes that when we label anything as right or wrong based on our moral knowledge, our judgement is neither true nor untrue. Non-cognitivists are non-realists because they do not believe that a specific ontology is required for meta-ethics
    • Cognitivism– This school of thought emphasises the role of facts and numbers in determining moral good and wrong. Cognitivist are realists because they explain what kinds of properties or states are relevant to this subject, what values they possess and why they guide and motivate one’s decisions and actions.

Normative or Prescriptive Ethics

It is the study of ethical beliefs that govern how individuals should act and behave in society. Furthermore, it investigates norms for the righteousness and wrongfulness of the conduct. If someone violates set norms, there are grounds for punishment as well as an explanation for doing so. The following are some of the dimensions of normative ethics:

  1. Deontology Ethics: It contends that the ideal ethical action protects and respects the moral rights of those impacted. The fundamental assumption is that persons have dignity as a result of their human nature or free choice. Based on such dignity, people have the right to be recognised as goals in themselves, rather than just as means to other objectives. As a result, means are more essential than aims. The following are some deontological theories:
    • Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative: Universality and Principle of reciprocity– By universality, Kant means that a moral rule must be applied to all individuals (for example, Liberty, Basic Human Rights of Life and Property), and by reciprocity, he meant “do as you would be done by” (for example, aid someone in need if you wish to be helped in the event of hardship).
    • Moral absolutism– According to this viewpoint, there exist absolute standards against which moral questions may be examined to establish the rightness and wrongness of actions regardless of circumstances. For example, if telling a lie is immoral, then the idea of an Ethical lie is irrelevant in terms of moral constraints.
  • Contractarianism- According to this viewpoint, moral rules are those that are acceptable to all members of society, but they must be objective when analysing their moral value. For instance, consider John Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance and Thomas Hobbes’ Social Contract.
  • Natural rights theory- This viewpoint believes in the existence of absolute inherent rights that are bestowed upon humans just by their humanity. John Locke and Thomas Aquinas (natural right theory) are two examples (Life, liberty and property rights being unalienable).
  • Divine Command theory- It claims that behaviour is justified if God has ordained that it is right. According to this idea, the rightness of any action is determined by the fact that it is undertaken as it is a responsibility, not out of any potential benefits resulting from that activity.

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  1. Virtue Ethics: Ethical behaviours should be compatible with certain ideal virtues that allow for the complete development of our humanity. These virtues are dispositions and habits that enable us to behave in accordance with our highest potential and on behalf of attribute values such as truth, honesty, bravery, compassion, and so on. Plato, who defined justice and other virtues as soul harmony, established the groundwork for it. 

According to Plato, a brave man can be brave even if he is never given the opportunity to demonstrate it. Aristotle defines virtue as the middle ground between two vices, thus generosity between miserliness and prodigality. Furthermore, he claims for virtue is a habit, implying that someone who lacks the right virtue but has internal dispositions can acquire it gradually via practice. The key proponents of virtue ethics were Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas.

    1. Egalitarianism Approach- (Approach to Fairness, Justice, and Equality)- Egalitarianism asserts that all advantages and obligations should be divided using the following: “Every person should be assigned a precisely equal share of society’s benefits and burdens.” Today, we utilise this concept to support affirmative action, such as India’s reservation system for disadvantaged sectors of society.
  • Teleological Ethics- As per this viewpoint, the morality of an act is determined by the consequence of that action. It indicates that morally right activity will result in a good outcome, whereas morally wrong conduct will result in a terrible end. In this viewpoint, the results are more essential than the methods (process) and hence “ends justify the means“. They can be:
  • Altruism– It is good to live for others rather than for oneself.
  • Asceticism– It entails abstaining from egoistic pleasures to pursue a spiritual aim.
  • Egoism– The best action/decision is one that maximises one’s own good.
  • Consequentialist Libertarianism- Liberty should be maximised.
  • Hedonism- It states that the best action/decision is one that maximises pleasure.
  • Intellectualism– The ideal action/decision advances knowledge the most.
  • Welfarism– The ideal action/decision enhances economic well-being the most.
  • Utilitarianism- The best action/decision is one that results in the greatest amount of happiness for the largest number of people.
  • Situation Ethics- The best action/decision is the one that results in the greatest amount of love.

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Descriptive Ethics

This dimension of ethics is on the less intellectual end of the ethical spectrum. It gathers knowledge on how people live, observes patterns of events that arise in their surroundings, and draws broad judgments based on these observations.

  • It is an empirical study of people’s moral ideas based on law and conventions. It investigates the history and evolution of Ethics and provides documentation of particular taboos, norms, or conventions. Descriptive Ethics may be seen in Kohlberg’s idea of moral awareness.
  • By providing a value-free viewpoint on ethics, descriptive ethics distinguishes itself as a part of social science rather than human morality. Descriptive ethics does not begin with preconceived theories and assumptions but rather prefers to extensively study the subject’s existing facts and examples, making observations of actual decisions made by moral actors in a practical world.
  • The study of descriptive ethics encompasses a wide range of examinations, including ethical codes that establish rules and regulations for society, informal theories on etiquette, legal and arbitration practices, and finally, observing choices made by ordinary people without the support or advice of a specialist.

Applied Ethics

This is the theme of ethics that is used in everyday life in a variety of domains of work and living. It is concerned with the philosophical investigation of specific moral dilemmas in private and public life including moral judgements. It uses the conceptual tools of meta-ethics and normative ethics to investigate specific difficult subjects such as abortion, infanticide, animal rights, environmental concerns, homosexuality, capital punishment, nuclear weapons and so on.  

  • Engineering ethics, bioethics, geoethics, military ethics, public services ethics, and corporate ethics are some frequent topics of specialised applied ethics. Several particular concerns have been raised within this area that demands a philosophical perspective rather than technical interpretation to satisfy the morality of human nature. 
  • Normative Principles in Applied Ethics – These are the most widely utilised principles in the field of applied ethics. Here are a few examples:
    • Social benefit– recognise the extent to which activity has a positive impact on society.
    • Personal benefit– recognise the amount to which activity has a positive impact on the individual in the issue.
    • Principle of paternalism– assisting others in achieving their best interests when they are unable to do it themselves.
    • Principle of harm– do not cause harm to others.
    • Principle of benevolence– help families in need.
    • Principle of lawfulness– one should not break the law.
    • Principle of honesty– do not deceive people
    • Principle of justice–  recognise a person’s right to due process, fair compensation for damage done and equitable sharing of benefits.
    • Principle of autonomy– recognises a person’s freedom over his activities or physical body.
    • Rights- Recognise a person’s rights to life, information, privacy, freedom of speech and safety.

The first two principles – personal advantage and societal benefit – are consequentialist in the sense that they are concerned with the results of an action, whereas the principles of kindness, paternalism and damage are duty-based. Moral rights underpin the ideals of autonomy, fairness, and diverse rights.

The type of reaction that an ordinary human being may give to the stimulus of a scenario or a job assigned is strongly related to the set of ideas that resides in their thoughts. And ideologies are nothing more than the dissemination of our ethical principles. Regardless of how far we have progressed, our grasp of ethics and its dimensions remains hazy. Because of the abstract nature of this subject, it is difficult to analyse or assign a specific definition. A curious mind, on the other hand, is constantly eager to answer questions that are posed to it.

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