As long as the human race has existed, in all of its societies, there have been codes of moral conduct. For example, a person might be expected to keep a promise or to tell the truth. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how any society could exist where contract- or promise-keeping was not practised. Likewise, there are always some restrictions on sexual relations, as well as on violence to settle disputes. Behaviour deemed suitable on some occasions is not on others, and severe violations of a given society's codes always result in organized consequences.
There are four sets of these conventions governing interpersonal behaviour. They are religion (including magic and witchcraft), ethics, etiquette (including folkways), and the law. The last two are conventions to enforce behaviour patterns, so they are largely derived from the first two, which are collections of beliefs about behaviour. Also, the influence of religious ideas upon ethics is very strong. In addition, the word "moral," though often used as an unqualified synonym for "ethical," tends to have religious overtones. In this context, the Bible has had a particularly powerful influence on Western civilization and its ethics. It offers an externally referenced explanation of the origin of ethical ideas external to humans by referring to God who is absolutely good. It also offers an internal one, citing the role of conscience.
The very existence of society implies that there is an organized control on the interrelationships among members of the society. Agreements about what constitutes acceptable behaviour, (i.e., rules of conduct, morals, and ethics) are the essential glue that holds society together. When these rules are codified and documented, they are called laws, and their enforcement may be delegated to particular authorities such as police, lawyers, and judges. When they are enforced by peer pressure alone, they may be referred to as etiquette. Among free peoples, a consensus is necessary on what ought to be the content of law for there to be any practical possibility of enforcing them. Under a tyranny, any law deemed desirable by the state--no matter how oppressive--can be maintained by sufficient application of force. Examples of such in this century include those headed by Stalin, Hitler, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, "Papa Doc" Duvalier, and a host of other brutal dictators in all parts of the world.
As long as there have been scholars, people have wondered where such ideas of what is good or proper behaviour came from. What follows is a classification of answers given to such questions. For purposes of simplification, the categories are larger than those which moral philosophers would usually create. Distinctions are made on the kinds of responses that would be given to questions raised in the last section. The material here is only one way of summarizing a vast body of literature.
To begin with, schools of moral philosophy could be divided into three major groups on the question of where ethical ideas originate.
For this group of moral philosophers, ethical statements are obvious, in the sense that logic alone is sufficient to arrive at a knowledge of what the statements contain and how they are to be applied. This perspective, the position underlying some of the traditional Greek philosophies, has had a strong influence on Western civilization, particularly in its notion of justice as a high ideal that transcends both law and actual human behaviour.
The fundamental assumption of these philosophers is that all who are sufficiently trained in the art of reason--anyone who proceeds in a rational and logical manner--will arrive at the same moral principles. In this view, ethics, too, is not a product of culture, history, or opinion. Rather, to the properly trained mind, moral rightness is thought to be found intrinsic to the universe.
Others assert that moral questions are decided upon as an act of the will. To this group, a moral principle such as the requirement for truth-telling represents a collective decision of society that such behaviour is desirable--a decision that may only partly be the result of some logical thought process. That is, moral laws are not proven like mathematical theorems, but are arrived at because society collectively deems them (for whatever reason) to be in the best interests of most of its members. This theory does not so much describe why specific principles are agreed upon; it merely asserts that this is the process by which they come about.
This group asserts that moral principles exist independent of the will of any individual, or even that of humanity as a whole. Here, moral principles are universal, either because they are part of the very attributes of God, or because they are in some other manner built into the very fabric of human existence, or even of the universe. In this view, humans do not so much deduce or decide upon appropriate moral behaviour. Rather, they discover or have revealed to them preexisting principles. They then choose whether or not to apply these.
The Psalms summarize nicely this view that goodness is part of the character of God, flowing by revelation through to human beings.
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.
The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
They are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb.
By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. -- Psalm 19:7-11
Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.
Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart.
They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways.
You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. -- Psalm 119:1-4
Within these three large groups one can further distinguish several positions that depend on what the members of the various schools of philosophy say about how many--if any--universal moral principles there are. One can also make distinctions on whether moral statements are regarded as:
o binding--prescriptive of what ought to be done.
o non-binding--descriptive of what people actually do.
o emotional--expressing the opinion of what someone likes people to do.
The positions taken on these questions also depend heavily on where the philosopher thinks moral ideas originate, so some of these will be considered as subheadings under the three main groups. The experienced student of philosophy will have no doubt seen a variety of other, slightly different classifications of this same material.