This week’s post is eleven years old; I wrote it as a short assignment for David Hall‘s course on method and theory in the study of religion in 2002. The assignment was to write a “genealogy” of a key term in religious studies; I chose “ethics”. I like the paper for its historical awareness, its self-aware methodology and its general optimism for the methods of religious studies. As with many older papers, I would not write it quite the same way now, but I post it because I think it stands up well. I have posted two other posts based on course papers before. Unlike those – which were abridged – I post this one in its entirety.
The term “ethics” comes from the Greek ethike, roughly denoting a virtue, and derived from ethos, the general term for “habit” or “custom.” (Aristotle 1947: 1103a) “Moral,” derived from the Latin moralis, initially meant the same thing — Cicero, it is said, invented the term “moralis” to translate the Greek ethikos (MacIntyre 1984: 38). At some point since then — I haven’t been able to pin down the first instance of this increasingly standard usage — “ethics” came to be seen as the “science” of morals (or morality), as the discipline of moral philosophy, so that ethics was the theory and morality the practice.
We find this distinction articulated in many 20th-century encyclopedia entries. Continue reading