Ethics:  The Structure of “Ethical” or “Moral” Thought

An Overview in Terms of

Types of Ethical Thought, their differences, and their application in practical life 


ã by

Helmut Schwab



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Etymology and Definition:


a.  Etymology of “ethics”: Historic word meanings:

In early Greek:  “Ethos” = Customs

In early Roman Latin:      Mores = Customs

In German:                     Sitten (Gebräuche) = Customs


b.  Definition of “ethics”:

Customs:            Webster:                     Common use or practice, established manner.

               Duden (Sitten):          valid, ...customary ... habits

Ethical:   Webster:                     relating to morals, containing precepts of morality

Moral:                 Webster:                     relating to right and wrong  ... as determined by duty

Ethics:                Encyclopedia Britannica:

The discipline of philosophy concerned with what is morally good and bad, right and wrong;  also system or theory of moral values or principles.

               Duden:                                   Norms that form the base of responsible attitudes

Morality: Encyclopedia Britannica:

(no commentary)

               Webster:                     The doctrine of moral duties

The quality of an action as estimated by a standard of right and wrong

               Duden:                                   Ethical norms/values regulating the inter-human behavior



Structure of Ethical Thought


In the course of human evolution and diversification of mankind on Earth, various systems of ethical thought and values have appeared – and still are in competition and conflict – some co-existing in the same individual’s mind on different levels or in different situations of life.

More importantly, each type of ethics offers a positive, proactive aspect and also a negative, reactive variation – the latter insufficiently investigated by philosophers, psychologists, and teachers! Some (unfavorable) events can invert positive ethical thought and behavior into negative ethical thought and behavior (as from caring cooperation to seeking revenge or “satisfaction”) often in the most destructive manner.  Much harm has been done in this world by negative, reactive ethics, at worst when escalated to individual behavior of rage or international war.


Type 1:  Common Ethics resulting from Evolutionary Biology:


Ethics (morality), as defined above, appeared through ancient natural evolution and varied through ancient times, recorded history, or between cultures, and, in part, became genetically anchored. 

The positive, proactive side of this phenomenon permitted (besides better up-bringing of a next generation) the formation of co-operating packs or groups of animals (later humans), which, thereby, were able to solve larger problems than individuals could have handled, as in the killing of large prey, defense against predators or, in later times, against enemies, in conquest of territory, or for gaining food supply, whether in hunting, warfare, or by irrigation.

The evolving genetic base of all animals living in groups or “packs” facilitated:

·         caring for offspring and close relatives (sensed as a natural need and emotionally rewarded)

·         reciprocity in caring with selected (or all) clan members (“friends”), also observed among animals (as in mutual grooming, sharing of food, and assistance in fight) – elevated to sharing of thought by friends among humans (there also emotionally rewarded)

·         readiness for self-sacrifice for the clan’s benefit, especially by males in defense against predators or enemies (considered “heroic” among humans). 

By the process of “learning” in the course of life, other and ever more individuals can be included in the three steps above – as attempted by religious and charitable organizations (by preferably showing suffering children from the end of the world for fund-raising).

Mental focus facilitates a weighing process in decision making.  Extreme focus leads to sainthood, audacious heroism, obsession, or rage. 

Rationally, three philosophies compete;

o   the ethics of maximum benefit for most,

o   of protection and care for each individual

o   of social balance.


There is the problem in finding a limit in doing good for others while reducing own reserves or welfare.

Modern ethics include human rights and environmental concerns – as well as the protection of animals against cruelty.

In “Type 1: Common Ethics”, the negative, reactive effect of this phenomenon, called “negative ethics”, results from the observation of behavior considered as “cheating” (or other forms of “taking advantage of others”).  This can lead to conflict as in “revenge” or “punishment”, with often the most destructive consequences – occurring between individuals and between clans or nations in wars. Revenge action may result in counter-revenge by the targeted – and on and on, possibly through generations, as in blood revenge. Occasionally, “forgiving” can resolve revenge seeking. Not only philosophical investigation, but also neurological investigation of the phenomenon of revenge and forgiving may be of interest (see the action of the amygdale and other centers of the brain).  The problem of un-resolvable revenge or punishment was treated in poetry from Sophocles’ Antigone and Haimon to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.


Type 2:  Ethical thoughts or values evolving from expanding societies:


The expanding of human societies beyond small families always led to some structure of those societies (also observed with animal packs, such as wolves).  For the most part, these structures include a leader, a support group for the leader, and a large base of subordinated individuals.


Stronger societies could accomplish larger tasks, prevail in competition with other societies, and more easily expand territory of dominance.

Such tasks, especially in warfare against competitors, required the

§  loyalty of all group members to the leader, shown by following commands

§  courage in and dedication to fighting, seen as “heroic”

§  trustworthiness 

These behaviors were summarily controlled by the value of “honor” – which is still a guiding value among the military.

The concepts of Christian love or charity do not appear in this Type 2 heroic or militaristic ethics.

In modern times, such societies are too often dictatorial (see at worst North Korea), with a secret police and harsh suppression eliminating any opposition – and, at times, a strong military pursuing its own interests and benefits under the cover of “law-and-order” (see Zimbabwe, Egypt). 

It is sad to see how the dismantling of dictators, the breaking up of the Typ2 ethics, can result in total disarray of a nation – without a Type 1 ethics coming to light (see Libya, Iraq).  ISIL tries to violently force a “Typ3” ethical structure (see below) on the ethical vacuum in Syria.  

The negative, reactive effect of this Type 2 ethical phenomenon results in behavior considered as “dishonorable” or “offensive”, leading to “guilt” (or other forms of “losing respect or rank in society”).  This leads to conflict between the offended one and the offender, with the former then seeking “satisfaction” in duels or, in the Islamic world, in still widely practiced honor-killings of family members.  “Revenge” behavior of the Type 1 Ethics may also set in.



Type 3:  Ethics presented by religions:


The widely important significance of ethical values in societies led to the search for mental guidance in defining ethical values by religious thought (“what does God want?”) – quickly grasped by all religious leaders and priests to assume and retain positions of leadership and power. 

The resulting Type 3 religious ethical guidelines were not always identical with either Type 1 (those resulting from natural evolution) or Type 2 (those guided by honor-and-guilt), then leading to surprising mixtures of key values of both types.  See, for example, “The Lord’s Prayer”, Mathew 6, 9-13, which appears somewhat as a Type 2 prayer – beginning with promising loyalty to God, the leader, and promising dedication to executing His will on Earth. At the center of the Muslim faith, too, there are five daily prayers of loyalty to Allah – as there were 3 or 5 daily prayers in Christianity. As a matter of fact, the Christian and also the Muslim faith appear, at first, to be pure Type 2 ethics, mainly built on absolute loyalty to the leading God, secondly on working or fighting ceaselessly for God’s rule on Earth, asking for forgiving of guilt as accumulated or expecting punishment.  Only the detailed teachings of Christ and of much (but not all) of Islam leads to Type 1 ethical behavior in caring service for others (see the “Beatitudes” and other thoughts in the “Sermon on the Mount”). 

It is important to note that the Lord’s Prayer puts emphasis on “forgiving” as a resolution of otherwise revenge or punishment seeking!  As a matter of fact, that is the only example of “dong good” of all of Christ’s teachings being cited in this important prayer!

There is no Type 2 Ethics virtue of “courage” or emphasis on “honor” in Christian moral teaching! 

The promise of loyalty to the leading God is swiftly transformed into a commitment of loyalty to the ruling priests and to following their rulings.

Furthermore, religious guidelines often include “moral” guidelines regarding sexuality, whether regarding celibacy, contraception, abortion, or homosexuality, presenting very difficult problems to the catholic church of our days.  Jewish Type 3 rules also include dietary and dress codes – not to mention circumcision.

The struggle between democracy and dictatorial political order is related to the struggle between Type 1 and Type 2 ethical thought – with dictators, “emperors”, and church leaders too readily seeking support in Type 3 required ethical behavior.

Guidelines regarding the protection of nature and the avoidance of cruelty against animals are still insufficiently developed by the major religions.    

Almost buried under a load of Type 2 commitments, it was especially the Christian religion (based on important earlier developments) that was able to bring to mankind a return to the blessings of guidelines leading to caring service to the needy, suffering, or lonely ones among us – thereby reaching the highest level of ethical guidance!  It behooves us to keep this jewel of mental accomplishment and guidance shining at all times!

A negative or reactive consequence of religious ethical guidance resulted at all historic times and everywhere on Earth in the mostly violent persecution of non-believers (or other “sects”), their often cruel death, and immense religious wars, often the worst of all wars – still today!



Type 4:  Democratic and business ethics:


Modern rationality, our democratic society, and the needs of the business world require that value judgments with practical consequences be founded on laws formulated and accepted in a democratic manner (or by precedent).  Thereby, civil and criminal law take the place of ethical judgments. 

A special benefit of ethical behavior defined by law is the clarification of what is  “right” or “wrong” and the definition and limitation of punishment where needed.

On the negative side, these laws are not fixed. They can and do vary in time – if necessary with a new decision issued by the “Supreme Court”.

Furthermore, new laws appear all the time as voted upon and approved by the government of the respective country of their validity.


Corruption is the most significant negative aspect of law-and-order controlled societies.

Seeking “loopholes” to regulations is the main game of business (and expectation from the services of lawyers) to more or less blatantly circumvent or ignore legal regulations.



Type 5:  Ethics of daily speech – and “humor”:


On the positive side, early in the education of children, they have to learn to say “please”, “thank you”, and “excuse me”.  The acceptable answering is equally important.  All of this linguistic (and behavioral) code is described by the term “courtesy”.  When invited, one is expected to bring along a small gift, some flowers or a bottle of wine, whatever.

On the negative side, there are offensive or aggressive words, which may require revenge and lead to conflict in “coarse” or “brutal” behavior.


Quite surprisingly, there is one more “lesser” form of contributing to a better world – not by any of the above described “ethical” thoughts or actions – but simply by humor.

Humor often leads to the dissolution of many daily problems.

A laughing person connects with you emotionally – with no further difference in rank.

It is interesting to observe that no great personality in history or society is ever described as happily laughing – neither Jesus, nor any great philosopher or emperor.

Would that diminish their rank?

Humor gives light to daily life!


Is there a negative side to humor?

“Schadenfreude” is a minor form of negative humor.

Sarcasm is not always considered to be “very nice”.

Ridiculing another person is a severe form of aggression and can be destructive.



Type 6:  Philosophy of Ethics:


At various times in history, an attempt was made to replace traditional thought and “values” by rationality.  Urukagina of Lagash may have been the first, who, in about 2,350 BC, brought rational ethical priorities to the administration of a Mesopotamian town. 

Around 1,500 BC, the ancient Indian Vedas struggled with this predicament of ethics versus rationality.

More famously, the ancient Greeks brought the light of rational thought to the world – which, then, was almost extinguished during the Middle Ages.

Later, the Enlightenment and, more so, the philosophers Hume, Camus, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche attempted to bring rationality to human values.

Following the French Revolution, the theme of social justice gained priority in philosophical thought.


The philosophy of ethics became subdivided into normative ethics, applied ethics, and meta ethics.

On the positive side, an attempt was made to improve human thought and action in the realm of ethics by way of rationality.

On the impeding side, serious contradictions remained unresolved. The questions remained as to what should prevail:

§  The ethical treatment of each individual at all times or the benefit for the majority (leading to the horrors of city bombings in WW II with the excuse to thereby abbreviate the war)

§  The benefit of the final outcome or the ethical correctness of each step in the process (the modern jihadists excuse to do wrong to individual bystanders)

§  and other contradictions




Some Conclusions:


In our modern world, we constantly live in a mixture of the various types of ethical thought and behavior. 

As members of the military and also as trustworthy employees of large or small business enterprises, we must follow Type 2 ethical behavior in our business situations – by being trustworthy in following all instructions from “above” – while looking over our shoulder so that we do not violate Type 4 laws – lest they bring law suits and penalties to us personally and to our company. 

In our private lives, among friends, in our families, and as supporters of charitable groups, we follow Type 1 or Type 3 ethical guidelines.

The other types of ethical thought or behavior also have their place in our lives and society, specifically Type 5, “courtesy”.

Thus, in a moment’s time, as when we drive home from work, we may have to change from one type to another type of ethical guidelines or find ourselves in difficult contradictions.


The human mind handles this problem just as it does the variation of possible “personality expressions” that are available to all of us (see the essay “Brain, Mind:  Human Personality’s Stability, Variability and Multiplicity” on the website in the section “Brain, Mind”)


This is a descriptive presentation.  Is there a generally valid “prescriptive” one, telling us how to handle these problems of our daily lives?