Why is ethics important in philosophy

Ethics, society, culture

"All human beings naturally strive for knowledge," says Aristotle. When looking at the two mice in the picture above, animal rights activists are likely to have less appreciation for the human thirst for knowledge compared to scientific researchers. But what do we actually know about the job of laboratory mice?

The topic blog “Ethics, Society and Culture” reacts to the growing social importance of philosophical reflection in an increasingly confusing world. Ethics, society and culture have always been part of the core business of philosophy. But can Aristotle really make today's practices understandable? In addition, current challenges such as animal and nature conservation, climate change, global poverty, migration, etc. can no longer be mastered purely scientifically. Rather, the increasing relevance of new research results as well as technology- and science-induced possibilities itself creates an increased need for fundamental reflection on their theoretical and practical dimensions.

In short: On the one hand, the topic blog aims to provide information on the development and penetration of ethical, social and cultural structures and transformations. On the other hand, it provides conceptual and argumentative tools for a well-founded assessment of the same. It opens up ethical and anthropological, ontological and epistemological as well as political aspects of modern societies, not least against the background of plural values ​​and norms, democratic decision-making and action processes.

So what exactly can you expect here besides laboratory mice? Let's start with the philosophical day-to-day business, the definition of terms.


The word 'ethics' comes from the ancient Greek ēthos, which originally means 'place of residence' or 'habitual residence'. In addition, two more abstract modes of use have become established: on the one hand, as 'custom' or 'habit', i.e. the usual behavior of a collective; on the other hand as 'way of thinking', 'character', or 'kind of senses', thus attitudes of individuals.

Often 'ethics' and 'morality' are used synonymously. The word 'morality' is derived from the Latin mos. On the collective level of meaning it means something like 'custom' or 'habit', but also 'establishment' or 'fashion'; on the individual level as much as 'way of thinking' or 'sensory type', but also 'essence' or 'will'. A distinction between the words 'ethics' and 'morality' makes sense, however, if one wants clear and informative definitions:

ethics is the science of morality, i.e. that science whose object is morality and which deals with what morals there are, what justifications can be given for them and what structure and function their concepts, statements and arguments have. Under Moral one understands, however, a system of norms that guides human behavior and claims unconditional validity.

So morality is a system of norms, while ethics reflects on it; 'Moral' refers to the norm level ('morally'), 'ethical' to the level of reflection ('moral science').

Do you consider the distinction to be a philosophical subtlety, a play on words in an ivory tower? What would a biological scientist say if you identified mice with the study of mice, simply equated subject matter and science? Maybe he would smile at you. But misunderstandings would be inevitable, because they don't talk about the same things, communicate in the broadest sense, but don't understand each other. Meanwhile, linguistic clarity enables common access to understanding.

However, ethicists can also choose different approaches to an object. A distinction is usually made between general and applied ethics. It can be the case that a moral is mainly relevant in a certain area of ​​life that needs to be reflected more closely. Depending on the area, one speaks of departmental ethics or applied ethics (e.g. economic, legal, scientific, bioethics). Area-specific ethics are considered to be very practice-related, as their questions and problems relate more concretely to a certain area of ​​life and essential knowledge from certain specialist areas is incorporated.

In contrast, general ethics includes the basics of applied ethics. Her focus is on reflecting on theoretical foundations (e.g. basic ethical terms). However, this distinction has been criticized many times. On the one hand, ethics is always practice-related; on the other hand, every ethics requires a clarification of theoretical foundations. Nevertheless, it is quite understandable that a biologist, for example, devotes himself more to theoretical basics (e.g. classification systems) than to concrete practice (e.g. species identification, e.g. certain species of mice).

The General ethics is often used in three levels of moral reflection divided into:

  • Descriptive ethics (descriptive): What morals are there?
  • Normative ethics (justifying): How can morals be justified?
  • Metaethics (in principle): What is the status of moral concepts, statements, arguments according to their nature and logic?

Widespread and up to the present day Moral theories or basic ethical positions are:

  • Virtue ethics: primarily assesses the motivation / attitude / psychological disposition on which an action is based
  • Deontological ethics / deontology / duty ethics: primarily assesses the action itself, relatively irrespective of the drive or the consequences
  • Teleological ethics / consequentialism (e.g. utilitarianism, preferential utilitarianism): primarily assesses the consequences of an action

Significant Authors include: Aristoteles, Plato, Thomas von Aquin, Philippa Foot, Alasdair MacIntyre, Rosalind Hursthouse, Martha Nussbaum, Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, Alan Gewirth, Christine Korsgaard, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Peter Singer, Dieter Birnbacher , Albert Schweitzer, Hans Jonas.

It was only in the last few decades that the Applied ethics increased significantly. Ethics no longer appears solely as an academic effort to reflect on moral theories, principles, concepts and theoretical justification possibilities. Why? Just speculate about our laboratory mice: What about the limits of availability beyond non-human life? What about modern virtues and duties? Can the consequences and, in particular, the damage caused by modern actions still be controlled and, not least, can we act responsibly?


Society is an ambiguous social-philosophical term, which in its scope of meaning can range from the mere spatial coexistence of two people, the totality of all interpersonal relationships to the coexistence of all biological beings per se.

Social philosophy addresses the normative and conceptual foundations of coexistence. It is about clarifying more fundamental ask like for example:

  • What is society?
  • What functions does society take on?
  • How can social cohesion be described or justified (e.g. social contract)?
  • What role do freedom, power, ideology and criticism play in a society?

Ethics also often plays a role in social philosophy. Since ancient times, a person's ethos has included two essential aspects, between which socio-philosophical questions move. On the one hand, this means that people are accustomed to aligning their actions with the general customs of the polis through upbringing. On the other hand, someone acts morally who does not limit himself to acting in accordance with traditional standards, but makes it a habit for himself to do the necessary good from his own insight.

In this way, social ethics can also be viewed as an independent area ethics in which moral questions about society are reflected. In contrast to individual ethics, questions about norms in the social area are in the foreground. It addresses the individual as part of a society and their actions in terms of the social context. One of their basic assumptions is that humans are social beings and that they depend on forms of cooperative living together in order to satisfy their needs.

But what about our lab mice? Do the interests of other living beings play no role at all for and in our society? Are jobs for laboratory mice at best a sham cooperation? In any case, standards of science and committed animal and nature conservationists do not necessarily coincide and raise doubts about social cohesion.

Known Authors are e.g .: Paul-Michel Foucault, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Axel Honneth, Max Horkeimer, Judith Butler, Jean-Paul Sartre, Theodor W. Adorno, Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas.


The term culture derives from the Latin cultura or. colere here, what can be translated as 'cultivate' or 'maintain'. In the broadest sense, it encompasses everything that humans create themselves, in contrast to nature that they have not created or changed. It extends from the shaping transformation of a given material, for example in technology or art, to ideal and spiritual forms and achievements such as religion, law, science or morality.

Philosophizing about culture, reflecting on its conditions and manifestations is at the center of cultural philosophy. It comprises three different ones to shape:

  • Material culture philosophy: primarily aims to determine the content of the function of cultures, e.g. to solve different problems
  • Formal cultural philosophy: primarily aims at abstract features to distinguish between cultural and natural phenomena to determine a concept of culture, e.g. through cultural studies
  • Philosophical cultural criticism: primarily aims at an awareness of culture in general, e.g. by criticizing the distinction between 'natural' and 'not natural' for the self-understanding of a society

There is also an area-specific ethics for cultural issues, the cultural ethics. This is hardly surprising: the term 'culture' encompasses a normative system of lifestyles and behaviors that are appropriate in a culture and guide its development. So it is itself a normative term. In addition to the problem of demarcating culture and nature, cultural conflicts in particular are dealt with, but also material and ideal presentations and services (art, technology, media, etc.). One specific topic is, for example, the perception of cultural diversity without insisting on the absolute or the 'naturalness' of one's own location on the one hand and celebrating diversity uncritically and without trying to establish binding ways of understanding on the other.

Relevant Authors include: Jacques Derrida, Theodor Adorno, Ernst Cassirer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Paul-Michel Foucault, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Georg Simmel, Arnold Gehlen, Walter Benjamin, Ralf Konersmann.

Back to our laboratory mice: They also raise questions of cultural philosophy, e.g .: Where is the boundary between nature and culture in scientific experimentation? Undoubtedly, mice naturally do not carry wire gadgets on their heads; a laboratory is certainly not part of their natural environment. And how can science actually find out the truth about nature when the place and object of investigation are manipulated in such a way that hardly anything of nature can be recognized in the laboratory that actually needs to be deciphered?

Conclusion: Although different problems and questions in the area of ​​ethics, society and culture are discussed, in addition to the theoretical, above all the common practical-normative dimensions are evident. Which values ​​and norms need e.g. science, animal and nature protection? Does experimentation take root in human nature or in its culture? Animal experiments are just one, albeit a good example of how ethics, society and culture can go hand in hand. However, existing problems and controversies cannot be dealt with within the scientific community alone. And not even Aristotle should have had in mind that the scope and nature of modern action itself have changed. Only one thing is certain: by nature, laboratory mice do not need a research job; not only because of the dubious remuneration.


Which of the questions raised here have you already asked yourself and what did the result? Write us!



Reading Notes:

  • "Ethics", by James Fieser, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Fieser, J. & Dowden, B. (Eds.), ISSN 2161-0002, URL = .
  • Aristotle, metaphysics; Ethics.
  • Burkhard, F.-P. (Ed.) (2000): Culture philosophy. Freiburg: Alber.
  • Düwell, M., Hübenthal, C. & Werner, M.H. (2011): Handbook of Ethics. 3. Edition. Stuttgart: Metzler.
  • Hübner, D. (2014): Introduction to Philosophical Ethics. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.
  • Rehfus, W.D. (Ed.) (2003): Concise dictionary of philosophy. 1st edition. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht [also online: URL = ].
  • “What is philosophy for you?”, Short lecture by Prof. em. Dr. Leist (Professor for General Ethics at UZH) and Prof. Dr. Schaber (Professorship for Applied Ethics at UZH) at the Philosophical Seminar of UZH.