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ethics, in philosophy, the study and evaluation of human conduct in the light of moral principles. Moral principles may be viewed either as the standard of conduct that individuals have constructed for themselves or as the body of obligations and duties that a particular society requires of its members.

Approaches to Ethical Theory

Ethics has developed as people have reflected on the intentions and consequences of their acts. From this reflection on the nature of human behavior, theories of conscience have developed, giving direction to much ethical thinking. Intuitionists (Ralph Cudworth, Samuel Clarke), moral-sense theorists (the 3d earl of Shaftesbury, Francis Hutcheson), and sentimentalists (J. J. Rousseau, Pierre-Simon Ballanche) postulated an innate moral sense, which serves as the ground of ethical decision. Empiricists (John Locke, Claude Helvétius, John Stuart Mill) deny any such innate principle and consider conscience a power of discrimination acquired by experience. In the one case conscience is the originator of moral behavior, and in the other it is the result of moralizing. Between these extremes there have been many compromises.

The Nature of the Good

Another major difference in the approach to ethical problems revolves around the question of absolute good as opposed to relative good. Throughout the history of philosophy thinkers have sought an absolute criterion of ethics. Frequently moral codes have been based on religious absolutes. Immanuel Kant, in his categorical imperative, attempted to establish an ethical criterion independent of theological considerations. Rationalists (Plato, Baruch Spinoza, Josiah Royce) founded their ethics on a metaphysics.

All varying methods of building an ethical system pose the question of the degree to which morality is authoritative (i.e., imposed by a power outside the individual). If the criterion of morality is the welfare of the state (G. W. Hegel), the state is supreme arbiter. If the authority is a religion, then that religion is the ethical teacher. Hedonism, which equates the good with pleasure in its various forms, finds its ethical criterion either in the good of the individual or the good of the group. An egoistic hedonism (Aristippus, Epicurus, Julien de La Mettrie, Thomas Hobbes) views the good of the individual as the ultimate consideration. A universalistic hedonism, such as utilitarianism (Jeremy Bentham, James Mill), finds the ethical criterion in the greatest good for the greatest number.

Twentieth-Century Ethical Thought

Among ethical theories debated in the first half of the 20th cent. were instrumentalism (John Dewey), for which morality lies within the individual and is relative to the individual's experience; emotivism (Sir Alfred J. Ayer), wherein ethical considerations are merely expressions of the subjective desires of the individual; and intuitionism (G. E. Moore), which postulates an immediate awareness of the morally good. Agreeing with Moore that the morally good is directly apprehended through intuition, deontological intuitionists (H. A. Prichard, W. D. Ross) went on to distinguish between good and right and to argue that moral obligations are intrinsically compelling whether or not their fulfillment results in some greater good.

Important ethical theories since the mid-20th cent. have included the prescriptivism of R. M. Hare, who has compared moral precepts to commands, a crucial difference between them being that moral precepts can be universally applied. In his arguments for virtue ethics, Alasdair C. MacIntyre has cautioned against unbridled individualism and advocated correctives drawn from Aristotle's discussion of moral virtue as the mean between extremes. Thomas Nagel has held that, in moral decision making, reason supersedes desire, so that it becomes rational to choose altruism over a narrowly defined self-interest. See also bioethics.


See H. Sidgwick, Outlines of the History of Ethics (1902); A. C. MacIntyre, A Short History of Ethics (1965); M. Warnock, Ethics since 1900 (1979); W. D. Hudson, A Century of Moral Philosophy (1980); B. Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (1985); P. Singer, ed., Applied Ethics (1986).

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  1. the moral code of a person or society.
  2. the branch of PHILOSOPHY concerned with how we ought to act in order to be moral. Two predominant schools of thought can be identified:
    1. those which emphasize that matters of right and wrong should be decided only by an analysis of the consequences of action (e.g. UTILITARIANISM); and
    2. those which assert that at least some duties are independent of consequences (e.g. not telling lies). Generally in the social sciences (a) has had more significance than (b). Other topics in ethics are similar to those that occur in sociology, e.g. issues surrounding the FACT-VALUE DISTINCTION and VALUE FREEDOM AND VALUE NEUTRALITY.
  3. a moral code that guides the conduct of a professional group such as medical doctors or lawyers. For sociologists and social researchers in the UK two quasi-official ethical governing exist, one published by the British Sociological Association, the other by the Market Research Society
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



the philosophical science that studies morality as a form of social consciousness—as a major aspect of human activity and a specific sociohistorical phenomenon. Ethics illuminates the role of morality in the context of other types of social relations; it analyzes the nature and internal structure of morality, studies its origin and historical development, and provides theoretical justification for one or another moral system.

In Eastern and classical thought, ethics was initially combined with philosophy and law; it had the primarily practical function of moral instruction directed toward physical and mental health. In the form of aphorisms, such moral instruction can be traced back to oral tradition, through which late clan society had already firmly laid down how individual conduct in practice was to benefit the social whole (that is, the community or tribe). Ethical propositions were derived directly from the nature of the universe and of every living thing, including man—this being connected with the cosmological character of Eastern and classical philosophy. Characteristically, the defense of one system of morality and the condemnation of another (for example, by Lao-Tzu in ancient China and Hesiod in ancient Greece) were based on the opposition between the “eternal law of nature” and “human enactments.” Even the shifting of focus to the spiritual world of the individual (as in the case of Buddha and Socrates) led not to the isolation of ethics as an independent theory but rather to a moral conception of a philosophical world doctrine as a whole.

Ethics was made into a separate discipline by Aristotle; it was Aristotle, in fact, who introduced the term by using it in the titles of his Nicomachean Ethics, Eudemian Ethics, and the work generally known as Magna Moralia. He placed ethics between the doctrine of the soul, or psychology, and the doctrine of the state, or politics; ethics, based on the former, serves the latter, inasmuch as its goal is to mold virtuous citizens of the state. Although the central issue in Aristotle’s ethics was the doctrine of virtues, which he viewed as moral faculties of the individual, his system already incorporated many of the “eternal questions” of ethics—for example, the nature and source of morality, freedom of the will, the foundations of the moral act, justice, and the meaning of life and of the highest good.

The traditional division of philosophy into three branches— logic, physics (including metaphysics), and ethics—is derived from the Stoics. This division, continuing through the Middle Ages, was adopted by Renaissance and 17th-century philosophy. It was also adopted by I. Kant, who used it merely as a basis to differentiate between the studies of method, of nature, and of freedom (or morality). Until modern times, however, ethics was frequently understood as the science of man’s nature and of the causes and goals of his actions in general; that is, it coincided with philosophical anthropology (as, for example, in the works of the French Enlightenment thinkers and D. Hume) or even merged with natural philosophy (as in the works of J.-B. Robinet and B. Spinoza, whose principal work, Ethics, is concerned with substance and its modes). This kind of expansion of the subject matter of ethics resulted from the interpretation of its goals; ethics was called on to instruct man in right living on the basis of his own nature (natural or divine). As a consequence, ethics combined the theory of man’s being, the study of the passions and affects of the psyche (or soul), and, at the same time, the doctrine of the ways to attain the good life (that is, the general welfare, happiness, or salvation). Thus the underlying but unacknowledged thesis of pre-Kantian ethics was the unity of that which is and that which ought to be.

Kant criticized the combination of naturalistic and moral aspects of ethics. According to Kant, ethics is only the science of what ought to be and not of that which is or that which is causally conditioned; it should seek its foundations not in what is—not in nature and not in man’s social being—but rather in the purely nonempirical postulates of reason. As a result of Kant’s attempt to single out the specific subject matter of ethics (namely, that which ought to be), such questions as morality’s origin and social conditionality were removed from the field of ethical consideration. Nevertheless, “practical philosophy” (which was what Kant considered ethics to be) proved incapable of resolving the problem of the practical implementation of ethically valid principles in historical reality.

The Kantian formulation of the proper subject matter of ethics has won many adherents in 20th-century bourgeois ethics. It should be noted that the positivists exclude normative ethics from the sphere of scientific philosophical research, whereas the proponents of irrationalist ethics reject the possibility of a general theory of normative ethics, considering the resolution of moral problems to be the prerogative of the individual moral consciousness acting within the framework of each inimitable life situation.

Marxist ethics identifies its subject by a fundamentally different method; it rejects the opposition of the “purely theoretical” to the “practical,” inasmuch as all knowledge is merely an aspect of man’s objectively practical activity in mastering the world. The Marxist concept of ethics is a many-sided one; it includes normative morality as well as historical, logical-cognitive, sociological, and psychological aspects as organic elements of a unified whole. The subject matter of Marxist ethics includes (1) the philosophical analysis of the nature, essence, structure, and functions of morality, (2) normative ethics, which explores the criteria, principles, norms, and categories of a given moral system (and which is also concerned with problems of professional ethics), and (3) the historical development of moral training.

The principal problem in ethics has always been the question of the nature and origin of morality; in the history of ethical doctrines, however, this was usually posed as a question of the basic notions on which moral awareness of duty is founded—a question of the criteria of moral judgments. Depending on what a given doctrine regards as the basis of morality, every ethical doctrine in history may be assigned to one of two categories. The first includes the theories whose moral injunctions are derived from the immediate reality of human existence, or “man’s nature”—the natural needs or strivings of people, their inborn feelings, or the facts of their lives, considered as the self-evident and extrahistori-cal basis of morality. Such theories usually tend toward biologic-anthropological determinism; they contain elements of materialism (as exemplified by the ancient Greek materialists, Aristotle, Spinoza, Hobbes, the 18th-century French materialists, utilitarianism, L. Feuerbach, and the Russian revolutionary democrats), but frequently their predominant tendency is toward subjective idealism (as in the 17th- and 18th-century English school of “moral-sense” theorists, including J. Butler, and in the modern bourgeois ethics of J. Dewey, R. B. Perry, E. Westermarck, E. Durkheim, V. Pareto, and W. Sumner).

The second category consists of theories in which the basis of morality is a certain unconditional and extrahistorical principle that exists outside of man. This principle may be interpreted either naturalistically (as in the case of the Stoics’ “law of nature,” the law of “cosmic teleology,” or the theory of the evolution of organic life) or idealistically; examples of the latter interpretation are Plato’s “highest good,” G. Hegel’s absolute idea, the divine law in Thomism and neo-Thomism, Kant’s a priori moral law, and such simple and self-evident ideas or relations, not dependent on the nature of the universe, as those of the Cambridge Platonists. A special category in the history of ethics must be reserved for the authoritarian conceptions of morality, according to which moral injunctions are solely based on some type of authority—either personal or divine.

In contemporary bourgeois ethics the problem of the basis of morality is often presented as altogether insoluble. In intuition-ism the basic moral concepts are regarded as unrelated to the nature of everything real and hence as self-evident, unprovable, and irrefutable. The advocates of neopositivism, juxtaposing “facts” and “values,” conclude that moral judgments cannot be scientifically substantiated. The existentialists claim that the essence of man resists general definition and therefore cannot serve as a basis for the formulation of any specific moral principles. It is true, however, that in the “ethical naturalism” of the 1950’s and 1960’s (as represented by A. Edel and R. Brandt in the USA, for example), which opposes irrationalism and formalism in ethics, the bases of morality are derived from the demands of social life as well as from the data of anthropology, ethnography, and sociological research.

In the history of ethical thought, the problem of the nature of morality is sometimes presented in a different form—the question being whether moral activity is essentially purposeful, serving to fulfill all kinds of practical goals and to achieve specific results, or whether it is entirely purposeless, representing merely the implementation of a law and fulfilling the demands of some abstract concept of duty that takes precedence over any kind of need or goal.

The same kind of choice was presented in the question of the relationship, in morality, between the concepts of amoral good and moral duty—whether, that is, the demands of duty are based on the attainable good (a point of view subscribed to by the overwhelming majority of ethical philosophers) or whether, on the contrary, the very concept of the good should be defined and substantiated on the basis of duty (a view held by Kant and by the English philosophers C. Broad and A. Ewing). The first alternative usually led to a “consequential” ethics, whereby the choice and evaluation of moral acts must depend on their practical results (for example, in hedonism, eudaemonism, and utilitarianism). The moral problem was thus simplified; the motives of an action and conformity to a general principle were regarded as unimportant.

The opponents of consequential ethics pointed out that what is of primary importance in morality is the motive as well as the very act of implementing a law (Kant), and not the consequences. What matters is the intention, striving, and application of effort rather than the result, which does not always depend on man (W. D. Ross and E. F. Carritt of Great Britain). It is not the content of an action that is important but rather the subject’s relation to it—for example, the fact that the choice is freely made (J.-P. Sartre) or that man is critical of his own moral actions and impulses, no matter what they may be (K. Barth and E. Brunner).

Finally, the question of the nature of morality has often been formulated in the history of ethics in terms of the very nature of moral activity and its relationship to all other types of everyday human activity. From antiquity until our own times, two opposing ethical traditions can be traced—hedonist-eudaemonistic ethics and rigorist ethics. In the former the problem of the basis of morality merges with the question of how moral requirements are to be fulfilled. Inasmuch as morality here is derived from man’s “true nature” and his daily needs, it is assumed that people ultimately serve their own interests by carrying out the demands of morality. This tradition reached its apogee with the concept of “rational egoism.”

In the history of antagonistic class society, however, the demands of morality were often found to be in sharp conflict with the strivings of the individual. In the moral consciousness this was reflected in the form of the age-old conflict between inclination and duty, or between practical calculations and higher motives; in ethics, the conflict served as the basis of the second tradition, which included the ethical concepts of Stoicism, Kantianism, Christianity, and the Eastern religions. Those who adhere to this tradition consider it impossible to use man’s nature as a starting point; they regard morality as being in primordial opposition to people’s practical interests and natural inclinations. It was this opposition that gave rise to the ascetic concept of moral activity as stern selflessness and suppression by man of his own natural impulses, as well as to the pessimistic evaluation of man’s moral faculty.

On the level of philosophical theory, the idea that the fundamental principle of morality cannot be derived from man’s being—that it cannot be found in the sphere of reality—ended with the concept of an autonomous ethics, which in 20th-century bourgeois ethics has been expressed as the denial of the socially expedient character of moral activity (for example, in existentialism and in Protestant neoorthodoxy). A particularly difficult problem for non-Marxist ethics is that of the relationship, in morality, between the universal and the specifically historical; the specific content of moral requirements is understood either as something eternal and universal (ethical absolutism) or as something that is merely private, relative, and transient (ethical relativism).

Supported by the previous course of development of ethical thought, Marxist ethics has raised the materialist and humanist ethical traditions to a new stage by organically linking the objective study of the laws of history to the recognition of man’s real interests and of the vital rights flowing therefrom. In the final analysis, Marxist ethics considers the basis of morality—moral ideas, goals, and aspirations—to lie in the objective laws that govern mankind’s continuing development.

Through its sociohistorical approach to morality, Marxist ethics has overcome the antithesis between ethical relativism and absolutism. Any particular class morality expresses the position of different social groups in the process of the social production and historical development of culture, and ultimately it also reflects, in one way or another, the objective laws of history.

If the social attitudes of a given class are historically progressive, and especially if such progressive attitudes represent the viewpoint of the toiling masses—who have personally suffered under the yoke of exploitation, inequality, and violence and who therefore have an objective interest in the establishment of more humane, equitable, and free relations—then a specific morality, while maintaining its class character, becomes part of universal human morality and thus contributes to the moral progress of society as a whole. This is particularly applicable to the revolutionary morality of the working class; the working class, as Marx pointed out, “proceeding from its particular situation, undertakes the general emancipation of society” (see K. Marx and F. Engels, Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 1, p. 425) and was the first to set the goal of abolishing classes altogether, thereby establishing a truly universal human morality. Thus it is uniquely Marxist ethics, with its specifically historical approach to moral phenomena, that makes it possible to understand the relationship between private or class views of morality and the common laws governing the continuing development of morals; it is the Marxist approach that reveals the common course of universal moral progress emerging from the conflictual development of morality in class society.

The solution of moral questions is the proper province not only of the collective consciousness but of the individual one as well; the moral authority of any given individual depends on his correct realization of the general moral principles and ideals of society (or of a revolutionary movement) and of the historical necessity reflected therein. It is, in fact, the objective foundation of morality that allows the individual, independently and to the extent of his own awareness, to apprehend and fulfill the demands of society, to make decisions, to work out his own rules for living, and to evaluate events as they occur.

The problem that arises here is that of the relationship between freedom and necessity. The correct definition of the general foundation of morality still does not signify that from such a foundation one can simply derive specific moral norms and principles or that the individual will spontaneously follow the “historical tendency.” Moral activity includes not only the implementation of norms and principles but also the creation of new ones and the search for ideals that are best suited to the times as well as ways in which such ideals can be realized.

The formulation of the question of moral criteria in Marxist ethics is similarly defined. Only in the most general sense do the laws of historical development determine the content of moral ideas; they do not predetermine the specific forms that such ideas will take. Inasmuch as in morality every social activity that has a specific purpose is prescribed and evaluated from the point of view of its conformity to a single law that holds equally for all men and for the mass of individual situations—that is, its conformity to a norm, principle, or ideal that is regarded as a moral criterion proper—this means not only that economic, political, ideological, and other specific concerns do not predetermine the solution of each separate moral problem but that, on the contrary, the means and methods of implementing such specific concerns are evaluated, in morality, in terms of such criteria as what is good, just, humane, or honest.

The reason that these criteria are relatively independent is not that they flow from a different source than do concrete social requirements—not at all; the reason is that they reflect such requirements in their most universal form and that they are concerned not simply with the attainment of certain particular goals but with society’s diverse requirements at any given stage of its cultural development. Morality therefore sometimes forbids and condemns actions that may be perceived as most efficient and expedient in terms of the current moment or from the point of view of one’s private concern over some specific issue.

When faced with this contradiction, non-Marxist ethical theorists usually tend toward a pragmatically utilitarian treatment of moral criteria or else view the contradiction as reflecting the age-old conflict between morality and expediency—between morals and politics (or economics). In reality, however, this contradiction is not an absolute one; rather, it is itself an expression of specific sociohistorical contradictions.

In the course of social progress, and particularly in the course of revolutionary changes, it has been found in every instance that the demands of social expediency, if viewed from the general perspective of the continuing development of society, ultimately coincide with the criteria of justice, liberty, and humaneness, as the moral consciousness of the masses expresses such demands in their historical perspective and hence in their most universal form. The utilitarian and opportunistic approach to the solution of specific problems not only contradicts the demands of communist morality but also is politically shortsighted and inexpedient from the point of view of broader and less immediate social goals and consequences.

With its concept of the indissoluble unity of what is moral and what concerns society as a whole, Marxist ethics was able for the first time to resolve rationally the contradiction between morality and politics, between ends and means, between practical needs and moral demands, between social necessity and humane criteria, and between the general moral principle and private expediency. The spirit of utilitarianism is just as alien to Marxist ethics as is the absolutely moralizing point of view, which asserts the “higher” authority of moral judgments over the objective necessity of the laws of history.

Marxist ethics has also resolved the traditionally problematic choice between the motive and the act in evaluating moral activity. Man’s moral conduct must always be evaluated as an integral act that joins together the goal and its realization, or the thought and the deed. This, however, is possible only if moral conduct is regarded as a private aspect of man’s entire social activity. On the one hand, the merit of an individual action is manifested only through its social usefulness or harmfulness; on the other hand, the motives of actions, the goals that are pursued, and the given subject’s attitude toward society as a whole, toward different classes, and toward the people surrounding him are discovered and made manifest by analyzing the entire course of conduct of the individual (or, for that matter, of the social group or party).

By thus approaching the problem, Marxist ethics has succeeded in overcoming the traditional opposition between “external” action, or action that is obvious to the observer, and “internal” motive, which is regarded as inaccessible to others—that is, as something about which other people can have no reliable knowledge. In the evaluation of moral activity, the problematic relationship between motive and action is interpreted as the connection between public and private behavior—between individual action and moral activity in its entirety.

Marxist ethics also goes beyond certain other traditional moral alternatives—namely, the choice between hedonism and asceticism, between egoism and altruism, and between the morality of spontaneous aspiration and the rigorist morality of duty. By disclosing the sources of these alternatives, which can be found in the contradictory nature of the antagonistic society and in its conflicting interests, Marxist ethics poses this question not on the plane of moralistic preaching on behalf of a life of pleasure or in favor of asceticism but rather on the sociohistorical plane, thereby removing, in practice, any kind of absolute or universal opposition between them. “Communists do not oppose egoism to selflessness or selflessness to egoism, nor do they express this contradiction theoretically, either in its sentimental or in its high-flown ideological form. They rather demonstrate its material source; when the source disappears, the contradiction disappears by itself” (ibid., vol. 3, p. 236).

The choice between carrying out an external obligation and fulfilling an internal demand must always depend on the solution of a different problem—namely, the problem of finding the most appropriate ways, in each particular instance, to combine social and personal interests so that the historical prospect of achieving their ultimate union may be made apparent. Progress toward this goal is, in fact, what gives moral justification to self-sacrifice, which is found to be necessary in situations of conflict and crisis. Such is the path toward the scientific Marxist solution to the problem of humanism.

Thus, the solution of these problems in Marxist ethics does not lie in the purely theoretical elimination of past errors in ethical thought. Unlike all previous and contemporary bourgeois ethics, which proceed from the ascertainment of existing relations and contradictions (these being either justified by apologia or simply condemned), Marxist ethics is based on the historical necessity of overcoming these contradictions; this, in fact, is what defines the effectively practical nature of Marxist ethics.

Within the system of categories of Marxist ethics, morality is restructured as an integrated social formation that has multiple aspects and elements. It is a system based on the categories of moral activity, moral relationships, and moral consciousness; these categories reflect the three fundamental aspects of morality—namely, the content of morally prescribed and evaluated actions and their moral motivation; the method used by morality to regulate such activity, this method being expressed in the totality of social ties that direct and control individual and group behavior; and finally the ideal reflection of activity and of moral relationships in consciousness, together with their specific moral grounds.

The category of moral activity includes the following elements: the structure of an individual act and its component factors (motive, inducement, intent, choice, decision, action, ends, means, and consequences), the general course of the individual’s conduct (including moral customs, habits, inclinations, convictions, and feelings), and the norms of behavior and social mores that in their aggregate constitute the moral way of life of society as a whole.

By analyzing the structure of moral relationships and moral consciousness, one can establish the connections between such categories as moral requirement, obligation, duty, responsibility, dignity, and conscience—which reflect the various forms of the relationship between the individual and society—as well as the interrelationship of such categories as norm, moral quality, evaluation, moral principle, social and moral ideals, good and evil, justice, the meaning of life, man’s purpose, and human happiness—which make up the logical framework of any system of morality and whose content is constantly changing.

Although Marxist scholars may differ in their definition of the specific functions of morality and in the determination of their number, most consider morality’s most important functions to be the regulative (in its specific evaluative-imperative form), the cognitive-orientational, and the educational function.

The 1960’s and 1970’s saw a significant increase in the number of Marxist studies devoted to questions of ethics and morality, including Marxist ethics as a whole and various individual issues within it, the elucidation of the humanistic meaning of communist morality, the moral aspects of communist upbringing, and critiques of contemporary bourgeois morality and ethics. The practical significance of ethics for the solution of the social problems of modern times and, in particular, for solving the problem of molding a fully developed personality can be realized only through its close interaction with other sciences—specifically, sociology, psychology, the theory of social upbringing, pedagogy, and aesthetics, which pose a number of questions that are coterminous with various ethical problems.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


the philosophical study of the moral value of human conduct and of the rules and principles that ought to govern it; moral philosophy
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005


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Social responsibility as applied to the use of computers and technology. Privacy of information as well as regard for digital property that can be easily duplicated are primary ethical issues. However, as time moves on, the more far reaching issue is the impact of technology on jobs. How the world deals with the declining need for people in the workplace as robots, AI and technology replace both skilled and unskilled workers alike is the major ethics issue in the future... and that future is getting closer all the time. See automation and self-driving car.
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She clarifies that her work as a liberation ethicist falls into four areas: (1) the creation of new womanist pedagogical styles (she gives examples of this in chap.
Lawrence Ponemon, previously an accounting professor and ethicist at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
Each dilemma selected met the definitional criteria of an ethical dilemma as previously stated and was reviewed for clarity by an ethicist from the Department of Philosophy, and a professor and a doctoral candidate from the Rehabilitation Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale (SIU).