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Part of the problem facing America is widespread disagreement on what is ethical and what is unethical. The following offers a good working definition of ethics and some limited discussion of where the ideas came from. I did not write it, I found it on the internet somewhere. It the author will let me know, I will attribute credit.

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Ethics, principles or standards of human conduct, sometimes called morals, and the study of such principles, sometimes called moral philosophy. This article primarily concerns ethics in the second sense in Western civilization, although every culture has developed an ethic of its own.

In the historical development of ethics, three principal standards of conduct have been proposed as the highest good: happiness or pleasure; duty, virtue, or obligation; and perfection, the fullest harmonious development of human potential.

Three distinct authorities invoked for good conduct include the will of a deity, the pattern of nature, or the rule of reason. When the will of a deity is the authority, obedience to divine commandments is the accepted standard of conduct. If the pattern of nature is the authority, conformity to the qualities attributed to human nature is the standard. When reason rules, behavior is expected to result from rational thought.

Sometimes principles do not have an identifiable value, often due to the belief that such a value is impossible to determine. Such ethical philosophies usually equate satisfaction in life with prudence, pleasure, or power, and they basically consider human fulfillment as the ultimate good.

Greek Ethics
Beginning about the 6th century BC, Greek philosophers developed specific systems of thought on moral behavior. Pythagoras believed that the intellectual nature is superior to the sensual nature and that the best life is devoted to mental discipline. Later, the Sophists taught that human judgment is subjective, and one's perception is valid only for oneself. Socrates opposed the Sophists, teaching that virtue is knowledge: People will be virtuous if they know what virtue is, and evil is the result of ignorance.

Four distinct schools originated among Socrates' immediate disciples. The Cynics maintained that the essence of virtue is self-control and disdained pleasure as an evil. The Cyrenaics were hedonists, postulating pleasure as the chief good. The Megarians affirmed that although good may be called either wisdom, God, or reason, it can be revealed only through logical inquiry. According to Plato, good is an essential element of reality. Evil does not exist in itself but is an imperfect reflection of the real, which is good.

Aristotle, Plato's pupil, regarded happiness as the aim of life. Happiness results from reason functioning harmoniously with human faculties. He believed that virtues are essentially good habits, and that to attain happiness a person must develop habits of mental activity and practical action.

Stoicism developed about 300 BC. According to the Stoics, nature is orderly and rational, and only a life led in harmony with nature can be good. They advocated independence from material circumstances. They also promoted the practice of certain cardinal virtues such as courage and discretion.

In the 4th and 3rd centuries BC, Greek philosopher Epicurus developed a system of thought identifying the highest good with intellectual pleasure. He advocated a temperate and disciplined life devoted to contemplation. His followers, Epicureans, sought to achieve pleasure by eliminating all emotional disturbances.

Christian Ethics
The emergence of Christianity marked a revolution in ethics, for it introduced a religious conception of good into Western thought. In the Christian view a person is totally dependent upon God and achieves goodness only with the help of God's grace. Early Christianity emphasized asceticism, martyrdom, faith, mercy, forgiveness, and nonerotic love.

Several early church leaders were influenced by ancient Greek and Roman ethics. Saint Augustine, regarded as the founder of Christian theology, sought to integrate Platonic and Christian views of goodness. Saint Thomas Aquinas reconciled Aristotelianism with the authority of the church by acknowledging the truth of sense experience, but only as complementary to faith. He used Aristotelian logic to support the Augustinian concepts of original sin and redemption through divine grace.

The 16th-century Protestant Reformation caused a return to basic principles within the Christian tradition. According to German theologian Martin Luther, goodness of spirit is the essence of Christian piety. Moral conduct, or good works, is required, but salvation comes by faith alone. In general, individual responsibility was considered more important than obedience to authority or tradition. This change of emphasis indirectly led to the development of modern secular ethics.

Secular Ethical Philosophies
Seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes assigned greatest importance to organized society and political power. He argued that human life apart from society is solitary and harsh. Consequently, people seek security under a sovereign, who regulates conduct. This position assumes that human beings are evil and need a strong state to repress them.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, thinkers wrestled with human nature, pain, pleasure, and social relationships. A major contribution was made by German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who proposed that human actions should be judged only by their motivations.

British philosopher Jeremy Bentham formulated the doctrine of utilitarianism based on the premise that all human actions are motivated by a desire to obtain pleasure and avoid pain on a community level. In the utilitarian view the highest good is the happiness of the greatest number of people.

Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard introduced a subjective reality, based on the issue of choice, which greatly influenced the movement known as existentialism.

These developing ideas of individualism and relativism were greatly affected by British scientist Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution. An elaboration of Darwin's thesis of survival of the fittest was advanced by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. According to Nietzsche, every action should be directed toward the development of the superior individual who is able to realize the most noble possibilities of life. In Nietzsche's view, this ideal individual is best exemplified by ancient Greek philosophers and by military dictators such as Julius Caesar and Napoleon I.

Psychoanalysis and Behaviorism
Modern ethics has been profoundly affected by the psychoanalytic theories of Austrian physician Sigmund Freud and the behaviorist doctrines of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov.

Freud attributed the problem of good and evil in individuals to the struggle between the drive of the instinctual self to satisfy all its desires, and the necessity of the social self to control or repress most of these impulses to function in society.

Pavlov's behaviorism strengthened beliefs in the power to change human nature by arranging conditions favorable to the desired changes.

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