Ethics Glossary

Roman copy in marble of a Greek bronze bust of Aristotle by Lysipposc. 330 BC, with modern alabaster mantle. Public Domain ( Note: This ancient Greek philosopher loved to organize ideas: he’s one of those people who liked to have things sorted and labeled (too bad the world doesn’t always work that way!), so I salute him here, at the top of my glossary.

This glossary comes (unless otherwise specified) from Google, which comes from Oxford Languages, the biggest dictionary publisher in the world. (Here’s a trick: type “define: [word]” into your Google search bar, and the definition will pop up at the top of the search results.)

Introduction to Course

  • Asynchronous: (of two or more objects or events) not existing or happening at the same time. On campus, we use it to describe classes that do not meet at a specific day, time and place. This course, btw, will be conducted mostly asynchronously.
  • Forum: a place, meeting, or medium where ideas and views on a particular issue can be exchanged. This sounds much nicer than “discussion board.” The origin of this word can be found at the top of our class’s forum page.
  • Module: a separable component, frequently one that is interchangeable with others, for assembly into units of differing size, complexity, or function. This course is made up of 13 thematic modules.
  • Synchronous: existing or occurring at the same time. As there will be days that I ask you to join your colleagues and me in a Zoom discussion session, a small part of this class will be conducted synchronously.

What is Ethics?

  • Assumption: a thing that is accepted as true or as certain to happen, without proof. All ethical theories are based (on some level) on unverified assumptions about life, the universe and everything.
  • Authority: the power to influence others, especially because of one’s commanding manner or one’s recognized knowledge about something. Ethical claims become popular partly because people with authority argue for them.
  • Claim: an assertion of the truth of something. Claims can be verified (supported with evidence) or unverified (flatly asserted).
  • Descriptive Relativism: [the idea that] moralities and ethical codes are radically different across cultures–and we can observe this. (ItPE, 7) The weakest kind of relativism. “I can observe that morality is different for different people, but do not assume that all morality is necessarily relative.”
  • Ethics: the branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles.
  • Metaethics: the branch of ethics that deals with the nature of morality. It tries to answer the questions: What is morality? Is morality objective? Where does it come from? (ItPE, 6) This is perhaps the most difficult-to-understand concept in Chapter 1.
  • Metaethical Relativism: [the idea that] moral truths are actually only true relative to specific groups of people. (ItPE, 7) The middle-ground relativism. “I can observe that morality is different for different people; therefore, all morality is relative to those who practice it.”
  • Morality: principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior. You can almost use “morality” and “ethics” interchangeably, but “ethics” is broader and more abstract.
  • Normative Relativism: [the idea that] no person or culture ought to judge the ethical codes of other cultures as being inferior, nor should any culture intervene in another culture to prevent it from carrying out the specifics of its ethical code. (ItPE, 7) The strongest kind of relativism. “I can observe that morality is different for different people; who are we to judge each other for believing different things?”
  • Realism: the position that there are mind-independent facts about ethics that are true and binding even if we have beliefs to the contrary. (ItPE, 6-7)
  • Relativism: the doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context, and are not absolute.
  • Subjectivism: the doctrine that knowledge is merely subjective and that there is no external or objective truth.

Revelatory Ethics, Part I (Monotheism)

  • Abrahamic Religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which all have their origins in the prophet Abraham (ItPE, 14)
  • Atheism: disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.
  • Autonomy: (in ethics) the capacity to make an informed, uncoerced decision (Wikipedia)
  • Consequentialism: the doctrine that the morality of an action is to be judged solely by its consequences. (Example: “Adultery is immoral because it causes innocent people to suffer.”)
  • Dilemma: A situation that requires a choice between two options that are or seem equally unfavorable or unsatisfactory. (The Free Dictionary)
  • Divine Command Theory: The view that morality is somehow dependent upon God, and that moral obligation consists in obedience to God’s commands. Divine Command Theory includes the claim that morality is ultimately based on the commands or character of God, and that the morally right action is the one that God commands or requires. The specific content of these divine commands varies according to the particular religion and the particular views of the individual divine command theorist, but all versions of the theory hold in common the claim that morality and moral obligations ultimately depend on God. (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  • Duty: a moral or legal obligation; a responsibility.
  • Faith: strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof.
  • Fundamentalism: A usually religious movement or point of view characterized by a return to fundamental principles, by rigid adherence to those principles, and often by intolerance of other views and opposition to secularism. (The Free Dictionary)
  • Monotheism: the doctrine or belief that there is only one god.
  • Natural Law Theory of Morality: This is too complicated to describe briefly. Please watch this video if the ItPE description in Chapter 2 doesn’t make sense.
  • Piety: strong belief in a religion that is shown in the way someone lives (Cambridge Dictionary)
  • Revelation: the divine or supernatural disclosure to humans of something relating to human existence or the world.
  • Secularism: an ethical system asserting that moral judgments should be made without reference to religious doctrine, as reward or punishment in an afterlife. (The Free Dictionary)
  • Socratic Method: A pedagogical technique in which a teacher does not give information directly but instead asks a series of questions, with the result that the student comes either to the desired knowledge by answering the questions or to a deeper awareness of the limits of knowledge.


  • Bible: the Christian scriptures, consisting of the Old and New Testaments.
  • Mitzvah: A good deed which is required of the Jew and which adds to his or her dignity and status in the sight of God (EISRT, 158) Two kinds: “One is between people and God and the other is between people themselves.” (EISRT, 191)
  • Ten Commandments
  • Torah: First five books of the Old Testament (Bible) and the foundation of the Jewish tradition. 613 commandments and rules are found in these books. “The purpose of such laws is to define for the Jew the right and ideal life in relationship with his or her fellow human being and with God.” (EISRT, 190)
  • Talmud: 18-volume discussion of the Torah, compiled by over 1000 Jewish rabbis over 800 years, up until the 5th century CE.


  • the Christ (Jesus): The Anointed One/Messiah. The incarnate Son of God (EISRT, 216)
  • Love: “The supreme Christian virtue.” (EISRT, 226)
  • Original Sin/The Fall: the tendency to sin innate in all human beings, held to be inherited from Adam in consequence of the Fall. The concept of original sin was developed in the writings of St. Augustine.
  • New Testament: the second part of the Christian Bible, written originally in Greek and recording the life and teachings of Jesus and his earliest followers. 
  • Sin: “The condition of being alienated or separated from God.” (EISRT, 255)

Revelatory Ethics, Part II (Monotheism & Polytheism)


  • Ahl ah Kitab (literally, “The people of the book”): Jews and Christians, “recipients of past revelations,” implying that these faiths worship the same deity, within the same tradition.
  • Allah: Muslim deity
  • Hadith: “Reports or narratives of the Prophet Muhammad, including his sayings and actions… [which]… constitutes an important source of values for Muslims.” (EISRT 286)
  • Moral Commandments (Wikipedia, with Qu’ran references.)
  • Muhammad: Death 632 CE. Human messenger & Prophet of Allah, “through whom God has manifested His will.” (EISRT, 283) Held as the paragon of Muslim morality.
  • Qu’ran: Holy text, in which God’s will is revealed to Muhammad by divine revelation.
  • Sharia: Muslim law. “The connotation behind this concept is that God intends human beings to follow a divinely ordained path, but that such a path had also been revealed to others in the past.” (EISRT, 317)
  • Taqwa: “Signifies the moral grounding that underlies human action, as well as the ethical conscience which makes human beings aware of their responsibility to God and to society.” (EISRT, 285)
  • Tariqa: “The path and discipline undertaken by a Muslim in the quest for knowledge of God.” (EISRT, 292)


  • Ahimsa: (in the Hindu, Buddhist, and Jainist tradition) respect for all living things and avoidance of violence toward others.
  • Dharma: (in Indian religion) the eternal and inherent nature of reality, regarded in Hinduism as a cosmic law underlying right behavior and social order.
  • Dogma: a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true.
  • Hindu virtues
  • Karma: (in Hinduism and, slightly altered, in Buddhism) the sum of a person’s actions in this and previous states of existence, viewed as deciding their fate in future existences.
  • Moksha: (in Hinduism and Jainism) release from the cycle of rebirth impelled by the law of karma.
  • Nirvana: (in Buddhism): A state in which the mind, enlightened as to the illusory nature of the self, transcends all suffering and attains peace. (in Hinduism): A state in which the soul, having relinquished individual attachments and recognized its identity with Brahman, escapes samsara. (The Free Dictionary)
  • Polytheism: the belief in or worship of more than one god.
  • Reincarnation: in religion and philosophy, rebirth of the aspect of an individual that persists after bodily death—whether it be consciousness, mind, the soul, or some other entity—in one or more successive existences. Depending upon the tradition, these existences may be human, animal, spiritual, or, in some instances, vegetable. (Encyclopedia Britannica)
  • Samsara: the indefinitely repeated cycles of birth, misery, and death caused by karma
  • Sectarian: of, belonging or relating to, or characteristic of sects or sectaries. adhering to a particular sect, faction, or doctrine. ( Ex. Catholicism is a sect of Christianity.

Revelatory Ethics, Part III (Philosophy as Religion)


  • The Eightfold Path: the path to nirvana, comprising eight aspects in which an aspirant must become practiced: right views, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration (Oxford Dictionaries)
  • The Four Noble Truths: the doctrines of Buddha: all life is suffering, the cause of suffering is ignorant desire, this desire can be destroyed, the means to this is the Eightfold Path. (
  • Karma (see Hinduism): In Buddhism, karma is less a “threat of rebirth as a lesser being” than a “You reap what you sow” principle.
  • Mindfulness: the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis (Merriam-Webster)
  • Precepts: Vows


Couldn’t help it
  • Chi: A life-giving energy that flows through the body and is maintained by balance of yin and yang.
  • The Tao: Literally, “The way” or “the path” of the universe. (Think of it like the force in Star Wars, because George Lucas stole this idea straight from Taoist philosophy.) Like the force, the Tao runs through all things, including rocks and trees, and the point of Taoism is to pay attention and learn to live in harmony with it.
  • Te: The power of the Tao, fueled by a balance between yin and yang
  • Wu-Wei: Non-action, or non-doing. Yielding to one’s nature. The primary ethic of Taoism
  • Yin and Yang:  Opposite forces seen as interconnected and counterbalancing (


  • Chih: Moral uprightness, or being true to oneself. A little bit like wu-wei, with less emphasis on yielding, and more on striving.
  • Filial Piety: the Confucian virtue of honoring the elders in your family (
  • Harmony: Satisfying arrangement marked by even distribution of elements, as in a design: balance, proportion (the Free Dictionary)
  • Jen/Ren: Humaneness or benevolence
  • Li: “The exercise of propriety, good manners and conduct. Li is the outward expression of jen.” (Striking a Balance)
  • Pragmatism: a practical approach to problems and affairs tried to strike a balance between principles and pragmatism (Merriam-Webster)
  • Righteousness
  • The Superior Person: To Confucius, this is whom we should all strive to emulate.
  • Virtue: the quality or practice of moral excellence or righteousness (


  • Arête (Greek): the aggregate of qualities, as valor and virtue, making up good character (
  • Eudaimonia (Greek):  makes up part of the system of Virtue Ethics propounded by the ancient Greek philosophers, in which a lifetime of practicing the virtues (“arête”) in one’s everyday activities, subject to the exercise of practical wisdom (“phronesis”) to resolve any conflicts or dilemmas which might arise, will allow the individual to flourish and live the good life (“eudaimonia”). (
  • Humanism: an outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters. Humanist beliefs stress the potential value and goodness of human beings, emphasize common human needs, and seek solely rational ways of solving human problems.
  • The Golden Mean
  • Justice:  fair and moral treatment of people (
  • Phronesis (Greek): ‘practical wisdom’ that has been derived from learning and evidence of practical things (
  • Prudence:   caution with regard to practical matters; discretion (
  • Reason: the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic.
  • Temperance: moderation in action, thought, or feeling : restraint.  (Merriam-Webster)
  • Virtue ethics: emphasizes the virtues, or moral character, in contrast to the approach that emphasizes duties or rules (deontology) or that emphasizes the consequences of actions (consequentialism). (Stanford Encyclopedia of Ethics)
  • Wisdom:  knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action; sagacity, discernment, or insight. (



  • Act Utilitarianism: theory of ethics which states that a person’s act is morally right if and only if it produces the best possible results in that specific situation (Wikipedia)
  • Actual Consequence Utilitarianism: [Bases] the evaluation of the moral rightness and moral wrongness on the actual [emphasis mine] consequences of actions (ItPE, 45)
  • Consequentialism: [The idea that] the moral rightness or wrongness of an act depends on the consequences it produces. Actions and inactions whose positive consequences outweigh the negative consequences will be deemed morally right. And vice-versa. (ItPE, 45)
  • Ends: Consequences
  • Foreseeable Consequence Utilitarianism: [Bases] the evaluation of the moral rightness and moral wrongness of actions on the foreseeable [emphasis mine] consequences of actions
  • Means: an action or system by which a result is brought about; a method.
  • Rationalism: a belief or theory that opinions and actions should be based on reason and knowledge rather than on religious belief or emotional response.
  • Rule Utilitarianism: provides rules for evaluating the utility of actions and inactions (ItPE, 45) [Focuses] on general types of actions and determining whether they typically lead to good or bad results. (ItPE, 46)
  • Utilitarianism: the doctrine that an action is right insofar as it promotes happiness, and that the greatest happiness of the greatest number should be the guiding principle of conduct.

Egoism & Social Contract Theory

  • Contractarianism: suggests that people are primarily self-interested, and that a rational assessment of the best strategy for attaining the maximization of their self-interest will lead them to act morally and to consent to governmental authority.
  • Egoism: an ethical theory that treats self-interest as the foundation of morality.
  • Ethical Egoism: [The belief that] to act morally is to maximize one’s self-interest. [The idea that] even if we could be unselfish, we can ignore any demand that ethics makes on us because we should put ourselves first. (ItPE, 36) Promoting one’s own best interest is in accord with morality (ItPe, 38)
  • Psychological Egoism: [The idea that] true altruistic behavior is nothing more than wishful thinking because everything we do is by definition self-serving. (ItPE, 36)
  • Social Contract Theory: claims that ethics itself is rooted in self-interest, that is, that we should really take others into account but only, ultimately, because doing so is in accord with what we want and need for ourselves. (ItPE, 36)

Kantian Deontology

  • Categorical Imperative: (in Kantian ethics) an unconditional moral obligation which is binding in all circumstances and is not dependent on a person’s inclination or purpose.
  • Deontology: ethical theories that place special emphasis on the relationship between duty and the morality of human actions. (
  • Duty: a moral or legal obligation; a responsibility.
  • Hypothetical Imperative:  In the ethical system of Immanuel Kant, a moral command that is conditional on personal motive or desire.
  • Maxim: a brief statement of a general truth, principle, or rule for behavior. (Cambridge dictionary)
  • Universalize: bring into universal use; make available for all. (Oxford dictionary)

Alternatives to Rationalism: Feminist Ethics

  • Affective Labor: work carried out that is intended to produce or modify emotional experiences in people. This is in contrast to emotional labor, which is intended to produce or modify one’s own emotional experiences. [emphasis mine] (Wikipedia)
  • Agency: the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. (Wikipedia)
  • Autonomy: the right or condition of self-government.
  • Essentialize: characterize (a quality or trait) as fundamental or intrinsic to a particular type of person or thing.
  • (Meta)ethics of Care: [where] the interdependence of human beings is taken as an enabling and necessary feature of life, rather than as something to be shaken off to achieve the greatest independence of thought or feeling. (ItPE, 71)
  • Intersectionality: the intersecting identities people hold. (ItPE, 70) Examples: race, class, gender, sexual orientation, ability, etc.
  • Feminist Ethics: a gendered ethics that aims to eliminate or at least ameliorate the oppression of any group of people, but most particularly women. (ItPE, 65)
  • Normative: establishing, relating to, or deriving from a standard or norm, especially of behavior.
  • Privilege (v.): to grant special favored status to (Collins dictionary)
  • Private Sphere or World: the realm in which women do housework and take care of children, the ill or infirm, and the elderly (ItPE, 64)


  • Aporia: a puzzle or state of puzzlement (Wikipedia)
  • Deconstruction: philosophical movement and theory of literary criticism that questions traditional assumptions about certainty, identity, and truth; asserts that words can only refer to other words; and attempts to demonstrate how statements about any text subvert their own meanings. (The Free Dictionary)
  • Postmodernism: Postmodernism is  is a broad movement that developed in the mid- to late 20th century across philosophy, the arts, architecture, and criticism, marking a departure from modernism. The term has been more generally applied to describe a historical era said to follow after modernity and the tendencies of this era. Postmodernism is generally defined by an attitude of skepticism, irony, or rejection toward what it describes as the grand narratives and ideologies associated with modernism, often criticizing Enlightenment rationality and focusing on the role of ideology in maintaining political or economic power. Postmodern thinkers frequently describe knowledge claims and value systems as contingent or socially-conditioned, framing them as products of political, historical, or cultural discourses and hierarchies. Common targets of postmodern criticism include universalist ideas of objective realitymoralitytruthhuman naturereasonsciencelanguage, and social progress. Accordingly, postmodern thought is broadly characterized by tendencies to self-consciousnessself-referentialityepistemological and moral relativismpluralism, and irreverence. (Wikipedia)
  • Master Narrative/meta-narrative/grand narrative: Just read this short Wikipedia article. It’s important to understand the concept of the master narrative if you’re going to understand postmodernism.
  • Self-reference: reference made to oneself, to one’s own character or experience, or to a group with which one identifies. (Merriam Webster)

Political Ethics, Part I: Socialism & Communism

  • Authoritarianism: the enforcement or advocacy of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom.
  • Bourgeouisie: (in Marxist contexts) the capitalist class who own most of society’s wealth and means of production.
  • Communism: a political theory derived from Karl Marx, advocating class war and leading to a society in which all property is publicly owned and each person works and is paid according to their abilities and needs.
  • Collective Ownership: the ownership of means of production by all members of a group for the benefit of all its members. The breadth or narrowness of the group can range from a whole society to a set of coworkers in a particular enterprise. (Wikipedia)
  • Egalitarianism: the doctrine that all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunities.
  • Elites: small groups of persons who exercise disproportionate power and influence. (Britannica)
  • Feudalism: the dominant social system in medieval Europe, in which the nobility held lands from the Crown in exchange for military service, and vassals were in turn tenants of the nobles, while the peasants (villeins or serfs) were obliged to live on their lord’s land and give him homage, labor, and a share of the produce, notionally in exchange for military protection.
  • Laissez-Faire Capitalism: policy of minimum governmental interference in the economic affairs of individuals and society. (Britannica) Aka, free-market capitalism.
  • Marxism (wikipedia)
  • Means of Production: In economics and sociology, the means of production (also called capital goods) are physical and non-financial inputs used in the production of goods and services with economic value. These include raw materials, facilities, machinery and tools used in the production of goods and services. (Wikipedia)
  • Militant: combative and aggressive in support of a political or social cause, and typically favoring extreme, violent, or confrontational methods.
  • Oligarchy: a small group of people having control of a country, organization, or institution.
  • Proletariat: workers or working-class people, regarded collectively (often used with reference to Marxism).
  • Socialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  • Totalitarian: relating to a system of government that is centralized and dictatorial and requires complete subservience to the state.

Political Ethics, Part II: Capitalism

  • Alienation: When work transforms from meaningful, creative, cooperative production to meaningless competitive labor. (Capitalism & Ethics, 17)
  • Capitalism: economic system defined by the private ownership of property and the consensual exchange of goods and services. (Capitalism & Ethics, 4)
  • Free market: an economic system in which prices are determined by unrestricted competition between privately owned businesses.
  • Invisible Hand Theory: the mechanism by which, in a free market, the self-interested actions of many individual people have the unintended results of promoting the common good. (Capitalism & Ethics, 10)
  • Personal property: non-productive things which individuals own (clothes, shoes, etc.) (Capitalism & Ethics, 4)
  • Private property: the ownership of productive resources, that is, the means of production, distribution and exchange, by individuals who control the use of their resources for their own benefit. (Capitalism & Ethics, 4)
  • Regulation: a rule or order issued by an executive authority or regulatory agency of a government and having the force of law. (Merriam-Webster)

Ethics of War: The Just War Theory

  • Absolute: (of powers or rights) not subject to any limitation; unconditional. (Lexico/Oxford)
  • Authority (within the JWT context): a person or organization having power or control in a particular, typically political or administrative, sphere.
  • Combatant: a person or nation engaged in fighting during a war. [Contrast with “civilian” or “non-combatant”]
  • Discrimination (within the JWT context): to be just, combatants must distinguish [discriminate] between enemy combatants and non-combatants. (Global Ethics, 183)
  • Doctrine of double effect: Five conditions under which it can be argued that an action “that is (genuinely) militarily necessary is permitted even if there are significant civilian casualties.” (Global Ethics, 184)
  • Guerrilla warfare: the use of hit-and-run tactics by small, mobile groups of irregular forces operating in territory controlled by a hostile, regular force. (
  • Insurgency: an occasion when a group of people attempt to take control of their country by force. (Cambridge Dictionary)
  • Jus ad bellum (Latin): the justice of going to war. (Global Ethics, 175)
  • Jus in bello (Latin): the justice of the conduct of war. (Global Ethics, 175)
  • Jus post bellum (Latin): proposes a duty of care to the population to ensure rebuilding and restructuring after conflict, as well as to protect the populations’ basic rights. (Global Ethics, 182)
  • Just War Theory (JWT): a mechanism to determine the circumstances in which war is justified. Moreover, it aims to control, limit and forbid war, and importantly, it attempts to respect the humanity of the enemy and to uphold morality even in times of conflict. (Global Ethics, 175)
  • Non-state actor: an individual or organization that has significant political influence but is not allied to any particular country or state.
  • Pacifism: the belief that any violence, including war, is unjustifiable under any circumstances, and that all disputes should be settled by peaceful means.
  • Political realism: a view of international politics that stresses its competitive and conflictual side. It is usually contrasted with idealism or liberalism, which tends to emphasize cooperation. Realists consider the principal actors in the international arena to be states, which are concerned with their own security, act in pursuit of their own national interests, and struggle for power. The negative side of the realists’ emphasis on power and self-interest is often their skepticism regarding the relevance of ethical norms to relations among states. National politics is the realm of authority and law, whereas international politics, they sometimes claim, is a sphere without justice, characterized by active or potential conflict among states. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  • Preemptive: serving or intended to preempt or forestall something, especially to prevent attack by disabling the enemy.
  • Proportionality (within the JWT context): demands that the beneficial consequences of waging war outweigh the harm it causes. (Global Ethics, 182)
  • Terrorism: the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

Ethics of Humanitarianism

Ethics of Technology

  • Determinism:  in philosophy, theory that all events, including moral choices, are completely determined by previously existing causes. Determinism is usually understood to preclude free will because it entails that humans cannot act otherwise than they do. The theory holds that the universe is utterly rational because complete knowledge of any given situation assures that unerring knowledge of its future is also possible. (Britannica)
  • Empiricism: the view that all concepts originate in experience, that all concepts are about or applicable to things that can be experienced, or that all rationally acceptable beliefs or propositions are justifiable or knowable only through experience. (Britannica)
  • Positivism: a philosophical system that holds that every rationally justifiable assertion can be scientifically verified or is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and that therefore rejects metaphysics and theism.
  • Scientific Method: a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.
  • Technology: Tool-making


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