What is an Ethics Degree?

The field of ethics or moral philosophy is concerned with the concepts of right and wrong behavior. Ethics specialists, known as ethicists, are devoted to ethical principles and ideals.

Students who pursue an ethics degree study the theory of morality and its application in various situations and fields, including politics, public service, war and military force, medicine, technology, engineering, research, animal rights, environment and conservation, journalism and publication, education, and business. In other words, they examine frameworks for taking ethical approaches and making ethical decisions in many areas of our lives.

Program Options

Ethics programs are often offered as a concentration within a philosophy major.

Bachelor’s Degree in Ethics – Four Year Duration
At the bachelor’s level, ethics students learn to identify and understand social issues and their ethical aspects, evaluate responses to those issues, and make moral arguments for political and policy decisions that lead to more ethical outcomes. Research projects and internships in environments with a public ethics or public policy component are often part of the program. The curriculum provides foundational knowledge for further studies or entry into the workforce.

Here are examples of courses that are typically part of the ethics bachelor’s program:

  • Introduction to Critical Thinking – exploration of the nature of arguments, common errors in reasoning; evaluating evidence and information; developing research and writing skills
  • History of Western Ethics – ancient and medieval ethics, early modern ethics, post-Kantian ethics (idealism / philosophy developed out of the work of German philosopher Immanuel Kant) ; comparison of Western ethics to selected non-Western traditions
  • Ethics and New Biotechnologies – the impact of robotics and new technologies on the patient-healthcare practitioner relationship, medical interventions, and the way we perceive our own bodies; transhumanism: the social and philosophical movement devoted to promoting research and development of human enhancement technologies aimed at increasing human sensory reception, emotive ability, or cognitive capacity and improving human health and extending human life spans
  • Fundamentals of Democracy and Governance – study of the principal thinkers of democracy and governance, starting with Plato; differences between ancient and modern forms of democracy; the principles of political liberalism; comparison of democracy and other forms of government
  • Utilitarian Ethics – general history of utilitarianism, the ethical theory that determines right from wrong by focusing on outcomes; utilitarianism holds that the most ethical choice is the one that will produce the greatest good for the greatest number; discussion of the dimensions and limitations of this approach
  • Deontological Ethics – general history of deontology, the ethical theory that suggests actions are good or bad according to a clear set of rules concerned with duty – something we are required to do, whether we want to or not; deontology, from the Greek word deon meaning obligation or duty, was formulated by Immanuel Kant, who believed that the end result is not of primary importance, that the real importance is in determining the moral intent of a decision or action; discussion of the dimensions and limitations of this approach
  • Virtue Ethics – general history of virtue ethics, the ethical theory developed by Aristotle and other ancient Greeks; this character-based approach to morality assumes that we acquire virtue through practice, that by practising being honest, brave, just, generous, and so on, a person develops an honorable and moral character; discussion of the dimensions and limitations of this approach
  • Social Justice – exploration, from the perspective of social justice theories, of issues such as social inequalities, poverty, refugees, war, and environmental degradation
  • Human Knowledge – study of the traditional, universalist approach to knowledge, as well as contemporary approaches such as feminist and postmodernist
  • Philosophical Anthropology – study of different philosophical conceptions of the human being
  • Ethics and Education – examination of how various learning theories can be incorporated into teaching ethics to children, both inside and outside a religious context; education as a pillar of democratic citizenship
  • Ethics, AI, and Big Data – examination of ethical issues prompted by the Internet and related technologies: privacy, cyber-bullying, algorithms governance, control society, accessibility, the monetization of data; ethical and public policy issues linked to artificial intelligence technologies
  • Feminist Ethics – examination of the development of theories and ethical models in different feminist currents
  • Environmental and Animal Ethics – survey of ethical issues concerning non-human animals and the environment, including harvesting non-human animals for food production and the social problems arising from global warming
  • Ethics, Multiculturalism, and Immigration – examination of the relation of ethics, multiculturalism, and immigration
  • Ethics and Public Service – definition of the common good and of public service; the role of public policy in the social, political, and economic realms
  • Ethics and Religion – study of the philosophical foundations of various ethical and religious traditions and how they converge in contemporary liberal societies
  • Conservatism and Libertarianism – conservative and libertarian philosophies and their differing views on the nature of truth and reason; conservative and libertarian critiques of social justice
  • Marx and Marxian Traditions – analysis of Marxist theories
  • Ethics, War, and Terrorism – analysis of ethics, politics, and public policy as they relate to just war theory, humanitarian intervention, war and diplomacy, emerging military technologies, torture, detainment, and human rights
  • Applied Ethics in Organizational Contexts – case studies to demonstrate how ethical decisions are made within organizations
  • Ethics and Disability – analysis of models of disability, from medical to social and political models

Undergraduate Certificate in Ethics – Up to One Year Duration
In terms of content, the undergraduate certificate curriculum is a condensed version of the bachelor’s curriculum. It is designed for students who have completed or are completing a major in an area of study in which ethical issues and considerations frequently arise. Examples are law and social justice, business, medicine and healthcare, biotechnology, and engineering. The objective of certificate programs in ethics is help students apply ethical theories, methods, and concepts to practical issues arising in their professional and personal life.

Master’s Degree in Ethics – Two Year Duration
Master’s programs in ethics focus on applied ethics, the branch of ethics devoted to the treatment of moral problems, practices, and policies in personal life, professions, technology, and government. Because of its breadth, the field of applied ethics is not taught by a single department. Master’s level students, therefore, focus their studies in a specific realm of ethics. Specificity, in fact, is what distinguishes the branch of applied ethics from the other two branches of ethics, which are metaethics and normative ethics. Metaethics or ethical theory deals with whether morality exists. Normative ethics assumes that morality exists; it deals with the construction of moral principles and determines what the fundamental principle of morality is.

Here are some examples of areas of concentration and subject matter in applied ethics:

Bioethics – the study of issues regarding the most basic concerns of human beings, the study of morality as it concerns issues in healthcare, medicine, research, biotechnology, and the environment

  • Physician-Patient Relationship
  • Beginning of Life Issues, including Abortion
  • Death and Dying / End of Life Issues, including Euthanasia
  • Availability of Medical Care / Resource Allocation
  • Assisted Reproductive Techniques and their Use
  • Genetic Testing and Screening
  • Sexuality and Gender
  • Stem Cell Research
  • Clinical Research Ethics
  • Disability Issues
  • Consent, Vulnerability, and/or Coercion - Mental Health Illness, Treatments, and Care for Patients
  • Ethical Treatment of Research Subjects in Clinical Trials
  • Ethical Treatment of Animals

Social Ethics – focuses on the moral dimensions of social structures, systems, issues, and communities, the application of ethical reasoning to social problems

  • Privacy and Confidentiality
  • Censorship
  • Socially Vulnerable Populations
  • Health Insurance Discrimination
  • Employment Discrimination
  • Individual Responsibility
  • Racial and Ethnic Discrimination
  • Morality and Politics
  • Ethical Concerns in Educational Policy
  • The Death Penalty

Business Ethics – the study of moral issues that arise when human beings exchange goods and services, where such exchanges are fundamental to our daily existence

  • Corporate Social Responsibility
  • Corporations and Moral Agency
  • Deception in Business
  • Multinational Enterprises

Environmental Ethics – focuses on the ethical relationships of human beings with the natural world and with other living beings

  • Global Climate Change
  • Worldwide Loss of Biodiversity, Forests, and Wetlands
  • Long-Range Transport of Toxic Substances
  • Decline of Coastal Ocean Quality
  • Degradation of the World’s Freshwater and Ecological Systems
  • Population Growth
  • Agriculture and Human Values
  • Food, Energy, and Water

Graduate Certificate in Ethics – Up to One Year Duration
Like programs at the master’s degree level, graduate certificate programs in ethics focus on a specific field. The certificate option, however, is targeted at three distinct groups of students: professionals already working in areas of applied ethics, students just beginning to explore graduate studies in philosophy, and students in other master’s and doctoral programs, such as biology, health administration, and public policy, who expect their careers to involve work in applied ethics.

Coursework typically includes courses such as these:

  • Ethical Theory
  • Topics in Philosophy
  • Health Law and Ethics
  • Ethics, Biotechnology, and the New Genomics
  • Research Ethics in the Biological and Behavioral Sciences
  • Ethics of Public Policy
  • Ethics and International Affairs
  • Language and Violence
  • Philosophy of Mind
  • Philosophy of Technology
  • Philosophy of Education

Doctoral Degree in Ethics – Three to Five Year Duration
The Doctoral Degree in Ethics is aimed at students seeking careers as researchers and professors at universities and colleges. At this academic level, students complete research in areas of interest such as the history of religious ethics, the interconnection of religion and society, the application of religious thought to other fields of study, and ethical issues and dilemmas in government, business, law, medicine, public health, and other realms.

Degrees Similar to Ethics

Bioethicists analyze the ethical components of real or potential healthcare actions and decisions and offer ethical justifications that support specific choices. Their work is vital to ensuring that medical practices and procedures benefit society as a whole.

Students of bioethics learn how to approach the ‘what is the right thing to do’ question by asking other related questions: What is worthwhile? What are our obligations to one another? Who is responsible, to whom, and for what? Their course of study starts with considering the fundamental ethical issues in biomedical practice, the relationship between the law and ethics, how clinical ethics influences patient care, the connection between moral and cultural values and bioethics across industrialized and developing nations, and the components of ethical research.

Criminal Justice
Criminal justice is concerned with society’s response to crime. Degree programs in the field teach students about the agencies and processes that governments have created to control crime and punish those who violate laws. At the heart of training are the five components that make up the criminal justice system: law enforcement, prosecution, defense, courts, and corrections.

Philosophy encourages the asking of big questions and the formulation of arguments to attempt to answer them. Who are we? Why are we here? What do we believe? Why do we believe it? What is right and wrong in life? What is true and false? What is real and unreal? Philosophy is concerned with the nature of existence and knowledge.

Religious Studies
The focus of religious studies degree programs is the nature and origin of religious belief and traditions. Coursework includes the study of specific religions such as Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Judaism and Catholicism, as well as religious history, politics, and anthropology.

Degree programs in sociology are focused on studying groups, from two people and beyond. Sociology students examine human behavior patterns and relationships at both the micro-level and the macro-level. They study interactions between individuals as well as in families, peer groups, cultural groups, gender groups, racial groups, religious groups, and social classes.

Skills You’ll Learn

The wide subject matter of ethics naturally leaves its students with a set of core competencies that can be applied in virtually any conversation, task, or occupation. Many of these skills can also be used to acquire other aptitudes and abilities.

  • Adaptability / Ability to consider multiple viewpoints
  • Critical Thinking
  • Data Interpretation / Statistical Methods
  • Sensitivity to Diversity / Inclusion
  • Ethical Reasoning – understanding the concept of right versus wrong and the fundamental standards of society
  • Information Summarizing / Report Writing / Documentation
  • Investigation / Analysis / Research
  • Oral and Written Communication
  • Partnering / Collaboration / Advocacy
  • Organization
  • Policy and Program Planning, Implementation, and Evaluation
  • Problem-Solving / Decision-Making
  • Understanding of Human Social Behaviors – competency interpreting how and why humans conduct themselves as they do
  • Legal Awareness

What Can You Do with an Ethics Degree?

Ethics graduates stand out to employers who are committed to ‘doing well by doing good.’ Here are some career paths and specific roles closely aligned with ethics and social justice:

Advancing Health and Social Justice

  • Clinical Ethicist
  • Hospital Ethics Committee Member
  • Ethics Consultant
  • Researcher, Journalist, or Writer focusing on issues in biomedical ethics and health justice
  • Community Organizer or Advocate with a non-profit community health organization
  • Expanding access to medical care throughout the world by working for an international NGO (non-governmental organization)
  • Working to protect clinical research subjects and promote justice in clinical research as a Research Ethics Professional
  • Bioethics or Health Justice Policy Advisor for a local, state, national, or international agency or organization

Pursuing Law, Compliance, and Policy in the Public Interest

  • Working in civil rights, immigration, environmental law, or criminal justice
  • Working with an advocacy group or think tank as a researcher, analyst, or advocate to help shape policy
  • Examining the social justice implications of proposed legislation as a Legislative Policy Analyst or Legislative Aide
  • Working for a federal agency such as the National Institutes of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Health and Human Services, or the Department of Housing and Urban Development and helping to develop more just, equitable, and sustainable regulations
  • Working as an Ethics Consultant or Ethics Committee Member to help a company or organization develop or revise its code of ethics
  • Becoming an Ombudsperson for an institution or organization

Ethics education can also make a significant difference in positions dedicated to:

  • Empowering and Educating Youth
  • Making Change through Public Service, Non-Profit Work, and Philanthropy
  • Encouraging Socially-Responsible Business and Social Entrepreneurship
  • Incorporating Values into Academic Research


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