Department of Philosoph and Religious Studies,

Adekunle Ajasin University,

Akungba – Akoko,

Ondo State.








There is no doubt that a relationship of interdependence remains the tool with which subsystems within a system of such a generic field as philosophy gather the resilience necessary for surpassing vicissitude.   In the ease of ethics and epistemology however, this symbiosis has been exposed to be of a unique form.

This paper resumes with a clear distinction between ethics per se and other related or identical fields.   It explores the option of construing ethics as a level of abstraction beyond moral theology, morality and the like.  This level of abstraction brings it closer in form to epistemological enquiries that consist majorly of conceptualization and clarification.

The symbiosis between ethics and epistemology has been examined to the conclusion that the existence, life and certainty of ethics is very much dependent on epistemology and developments within epistemology.   It consequently implies that epistemological investigations have continually served as midwife to ethical issues and have also determined its contents and dictate its direction.



J. Olurotimi Fasoro, in his description of ethics, contends that the characteristic aim of studying ethics is not the acquisition of knowledge about  human action, but the action itself.[1] He supports his view with a reference to the Nichomachean Ethics as saying that we do not study ethics to know how good people act, but to be able to act as good people do.[2] Following this trend of argument, Fasoro distinguishes ethics between ethics from all other theoretical branches of philosophy, such as metaphysics and epistemology. He considers ethics as practical science.[3] This paper considers Fasoro’s position and all such positions which either distinguishes sharply or do not consider the symbioses between ethics and epistemology in their descriptions of the concept and content of ethics as illegitimate and defective.

To begin with, there is no doubt that personal experiences are socially and theoretically constructed, and that it is in this manner that knowledge is produced.   The implication is that knowledge is a product of personal, social and theoretical experience.   It is equally true, that such socially bound problems especially the ethics related issues and phenomenon stem from epistemological experiences.   The claim to be advanced in this paper is that there are no genuine ethical problems; that ethical problems are not necessarily religious problems as they are often concerned, and most of all, that what we call ethical problems are some sort of epistemological problems moralized.

This paper explores the traditional conception of ethics and ethical problems and argues to the contrary that as long as ethical problems involve value judgments and theoretical examination, there is a close relation between ethics and epistemology.   The paper also explores a more systematic approach to the conclusion that as long as ethical problems are traceable to their epistemological foundation, it follows that ethical problems are off-shoots and variations of epistemological problems.   Solutions to such ethical problems can only be found within the framework of epistemology.   In this manner therefore, classifying moral epistemology, as a sub-field of meta-ethics[4]1 is a mis-normal, as it should more properly have been classified as practical or applied epistemology, and even issues in first – order or normative ethics are not different either.


The Nature of Ethical Problems

From the very on-set, it is necessary to differentiate between ethics and morality.   Until such distinction is made, it might appear too difficult to ascertain whether ethical problems are epistemological problems or not.   There is no claim here that, the two concepts – ethics and morality may not or cannot in certain circumstances be used interchangeably. Scholars often correctly use the two terms as through they are the same.  J.A. Aigbodioh for instance refers to ethics as one of the moral disciplines. [5] Jacques Maritain says ethics or morals are the practical science which aims at procuring man are unqualified good. [6]

Properly understood however, while ethics is a branch of philosophy concerned with the study of the fundamental principles of morality and human conduct, morality on the other hand is connected with the rightness of action or behaviour of individuals, class, group or society at large. [7]   The difference lies on the point that while morality concerns itself with the set of rules and principles involved in the assessment of actions of individuals or groups.   The morality of a class or group has to do with the right beliefs or behaviours recommended and approved for the class or group in question. [8]   Ethics on the other hand is a step further from morality.   It is an intellectual reflection on those approved norms and principles of morality with the intent of proffering answers to question that are raised on the moral principles and norms of morality.

The consequence of this is that, ethical problems are systematic or intellectual problems requiring conceptual analysis, clarification and deeper reflection.   Ethics therefore does not aim at describing how individuals, group or people behave, neither does it only try to identify the pattern, norm or principles of conduct of an individuals or people ought to behave, as well as why such principles or norms should be considered good or bad, appropriates or otherwise.

Ethical problems can be classified into what is usually called first order issues and second order issues about morality. [9]    First – order problems are often referred to, as ethical issues about what sort of things are morally right, wrong or important.  Very often, they are normative issues within morality.   Here marks the link or overlap between morality and ethics.   The destruction is basically on degrees of abstraction.   Second – order problems properly understood, as meta-ethical problems are problems and questions about, rather than within morality. [10]   These meta-ethical problems in the views of D.O. Brink, take the form of metaphysical, epistemological, semantic, or psychological analysis about morality and our moral claims. [11]   These concern questions such as are there such things as facts or truth about morality?  Can we justify our moral claims and judgments?  Are our actions actually guided by moral considerations?  Is there any such thing as objectivity in moral action or choice?

Ethics became prominent in philosophy with the arrival of the sophists and consequently of Socrates, who sometimes is classified as one of the sophists. [12] This is only with few exemptions of Heraclitus Protagoras and the Pythagoreans.  Who made ethical comments and got engaged in philosophical endevaours that are related to ethics.   Plato and Aristotle amplified elaborated and systematized what was more or less started by Socrates in the form of analysis of ethical concepts. [13]   Plato tried to provide the trajectory to a good life.  The good in Plato’s view consist in knowing and doing the good. [14]   He has only built on an ethical foundation built by Socrates. [15] Aristotle too tried to set the end of the trajectory set by Plato through analysis of human intentions and life’s purpose. [16]    The medieval period experienced as unique form of religio-centric ethics with religious groups and affinities determining the conceptual scheme and consequently the moral view of both the individual and the group including geographical zones.  Notable among the philosophers representing this period are Augustine, Aquinas and Machiavelli.

Since after the medieval period when the church lost its grip over society, ethics has become predominant within competing schools of thought as well as moral standards among which are situationism, intuitionism, naturalism, objectionism, existentialism and utilitarianism.   The historical as well as the analytic survey makes it apparent that moral principle which are component parts of both morality and ethics involves some form of judgment and decision, ethics per se includes further judgments on such judgments and decisions.



Philosophy has remained an intellectual enterprise, which deals with ideas or concepts by way of creating, criticizing and justifying it.   In philosophy, areas of interest is a function of which aspect also that there is also a constant correlation within and between the core areas of philosophy like epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and logic, and other disciplines such as psychology, religion, mathematics, technology, physics medicine history to mention but few.

However, emphasis is often given to this correlation between the core areas of philosophy and these other disciplines as a second order application of philosophy to the neglect of the functional relationship of interdependency between the core areas of philosophy.   Conventionally, it is believed that there is a sharp distinction between epistemology, metaphysics, logic and ethics with a far less relationship than actually exists.  For instance, it is believed that epistemology is concerned with determining the basis of knowledge claims, and that issues in epistemology pertain to the justification of beliefs, enquires into the sources of knowledge as well as the scope and extent of knowledge. [17] As if totally distinct, it is believed that logic concerns it is believed that logic concerns itself with examining the constancy or otherwise of statements of affirmation or denial, [18] and that metaphysics has to do with causation between entities believed or alleged to exist, or even the belief in the existence or otherwise of an entity. [19] As if totally different too, or with a marginal relationship with these others, ethics is believed to be connected with means, ends and moral norms of human actions[20] since the concern of this paper is not primarily an metaphysics an logic, there is therefore a deeper emphasis on epistemology as it was on ethics at the introductions of this papers.

            Usually, the foundation of epistemological enquiry is the belief in the existence of things. [21] An epistemological approach is to specify the method by which we know that things exist or not. According to Nicholas Rescher, it is misleading to call conjuncture theory at large epistemology as its range of concern includes not only knowledge proper but also ration belief probably evident and even erotetics epistemological to call problem. [22] Epistemological problem begins with the concept “know” which has remained evasive owing to its variously understood meanings. Sometimes, one talks about knowing with reference to mere acquaintance of some kind. There is another understanding of ‘know’ which may not involve acquaintance such as knowledge of some sort of prepositional statements about something, knowing how and mere belie (uh as religious belief). This explains which Plato considers knowledge as “justified true belief JTB) [23]

            The first problem encountered in epistemology has to do with how to define knowledge. Te best definition that has ever been given, which defines knowledge as justified true belief has however been refuted[24] with rival analyses, [25] but there is yet neither a better alternative nor a consensus on what knowledge is. Another problem in epistemology, which has remained intractable, has to do with the ultimate source of human knowledge. There are two opposing traditions on this issue:  empiricism[26], which holds that our knowledge is originally derived from reason. [27] In between these two stands skepticism, which doubts or out rightly rejects the possibility of knowledge. [28]

            There are the third and the fourth problems in epistemology which discusses how we should justify our beliefs and how in actual fact e come to perceive the world respectively. In spite of the length, height and depth of arguments, these epistemological problems have remained intractable. All these aspects are of primary relevance to ethics and moral choices of both individuals and groups. For instance, whatever is “known” believed to be right or wrong, good or ad is a major factor in moral decisions, and these have remained the primary issues in ethics.


The Confluence Of Ethics A Epistemology

At the foundation of every ethics and ethical choice stands the quest for certainty and the pursuit of the reasonable, which form the fundamental basis of epistemological issues and debates. Historically, the quest for certainty has played a considerable role in the history and evolution of ideas and the formation of ethical theories. This quest for certainty has brought about the philosophical demarcation between knowledge and belief as first found in Plato’s Theatetus. [29] It is believed that belief or opinion is relative while knowledge is expected to be universal, firmly ground and immutable. As to the nature of and where we can find knowledge, idea varies. These variations in epistemological positions reflect and are well represented in ethics and moral philosophy. This is why the classification of theories in epistemology are of almost equal importance in ethics. This is why in both sub-fields of philosophy we are able to debate on truth, certainty of knowledge, belief, conceptual scheme, grounds or justification of belief and claims to knowledge, commonsensism (as found in Moore) and non-commonsensism, foundationalism as a school of thought, non- foundationalism, rationalism, empiricism and skepticism. It suffices to say that we also have moral realism, reliabilism, naturalized ethics, politicized theories and a host of others that have their root in epistemology. W.D. Ross for instance refers to an aspect of ethics as classifiable as epistemic intuitionism. [30]

According to Ross, some moral propositions are self-evident that merely understanding them produces, at least in the best people, justification for believing them. [31]  This form of intuitionism is of a foundationalist and rationalist bent, because it grounds foundational justification for moral ideas in a rational basis of the self-evident. [32] What differentiates ethic from such related enquiries as morality  (theories of) and moral theology is the fact that ethics also include an attempt to explain how we can have moral knowledge, or at least justified moral beliefs, represented by such assumptions as we have in: moral cognitivism; a view that we can have moral belief contents that are either true or false. Moral realism: a view that we can have moral facts, that corresponds to what moral claims represent. [33]

            The epistemic necessity of Justified True Belief: This is a view that if one is justified in believing something, then it follows that one has a decisively good reason which makes one epistemically responsible in believing it.

            Consequent to the requirement of epistemic justification in ethics, we also talk of moral foundationalism, [34] moral coherentism[35] and moral contextualism[36] to mention but few. Moral luck for instance is meta-philosophical problem spanning the division between sub fields in philosophy and predominantly in epistemology and ethic. [37]

            Among other things, the philosophical theory of innatism is of considerable interest on the issue at hand. In epistemology, innatism represents the position that some ideas are innate, inborn or not acquired through experience. This position is most appropriately portrayed in the philosophical writings of Plato, [38] Descartes[39] Berkeley[40] and Jefferson [41]. In ethics it becomes a view that some moral ideas are inborn or innate, or the opinion that some moral sense, obligations or right are natural. This position accounts for the very introductory statement of the Universal  Declaration of Human Rights that “all men are born with inalienable right to life….”[42]

            There are also those who opine that human conceptual scheme is developed and shaped by experience and other social factors[43] this position is represented by the moral[44] and the cultural relativists, [45] moral realists, [46] legal empiricism[47] and a number of others, who ultimately got their root from the socialized epistemology of notable philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein[48] and Thomas Kuhn. [49]

            Though this is a school of thought, which opines that what we call human choices are mere emotional choices, but the fact remains that this position is equally one of the rival epistemological positions that have become relevant to ethics and therefore confirms further the thesis that ethics is a handmaid of epistemology.

            Infact, it was rightly observed by Philomena Egbe, that ethics primarily deals with the pursuit of truth and the reason for its study is the quest for knowledge, as ethics naturally aims at finding out the truth about the rightness or otherwise of human actions.[50]



            The introductory part of this paper exposes the agenda as well as the theoretical trajectory of the paper. This if succeeded by an explanation of the nature and content of ethics as conceived differently from morality or moral theology.

            The paper argues that human actions especially moral actions or acts are conditioned by one’s epistemological position and conceptual scheme.  This is not made different by the emotionist argument that choices are determined by emotion rather than reason. The argument is that in judging the morality or moral values of an act, “human acts’[51] are distinguished from “acts of man”. [52] Acts of man may be completely devoid of reason and may no be preceded by thought and may be completely biological process, human act cannot. Among authentically human act we cannot have one that is completely emotionless neither can we have such an act completely devoid of reason. Regardless of the degree or speediness of reason or emotion involved, mental evolution of choice and alternatives cannot be ruled out. It logically involve epistemological considerations scheme. This position is not oblivious of the position in metaphysics and consequently in epistemology biological processes, leaving no room for “‘rational choice  “or construing “ the rational” as nothing outside the biological.

            It is also argued that as long as fundamental debate and positions in ethics are determined by concurrent corresponding debates and positions in epistemology, ethics cannot but be an offshoot or a handmaid, or a bye-product of epistemology. Consequently, there are in authentically or fundamentally autonomous ethical position or issue that could be discussed independently and not subject to results of corresponding debated in epistemology only as its extension or practical application or both.












[1] J.O. Fasoro, Theories of Ethics: An Introductory Reading in Moral Philosophy, (Ilorin: Majab Publishers, 2005), P.5.

[2] [2] J.O. Fasoro, Pp.5-6.

[3] [3] J.O. Fasoro, P.5.

[4] P.Tranel, “Moral Epistemology” in The Internet Eucyclopedia of Philosophy (2005)


[5] J.A. Aigodioh, Practical Issue in Applied Ethics: the Facts, Arguments and Options (Benin City: Teredia Technical Ent, 1999), P.2


[6] J. Maritain, An Introduction to Philosophy, Translated by E.I. Wakin (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1962), P.196.

[7] M.Oke and I.F Esikot, Elementary Ethics (Lagos: Minder Int., 1999), P.3


[8] M.Oke and I.F. Esikot, P.3


[9] D.O Brink, Moral Realism and the Foundation of Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), P. 1-4.

[10] D.O. Brink, P. 1


[11] D.O. Brink P.1

[12] J.I. Omoregbe, Epistemology: A systematic and Historical Study (Ikeja: Joja Educational Research and Publications Ltd, 2003), P. 60.

[13] M .Oke and I.F Esikot, P.14

[14] Plato, The Republic, Translated by D.Lee (London: Penguine, 1975), see also B. Russell..History of Western Philosophy (London: Routledge: 2001), P.125-147.


[15] B.Russell, History of Western Philosophy, P 101-111.

[16]Aristotle, “Ethica Nichomachea” Translated by W.D. Ross in the Oxford Translation of Aristotle Edited by W.D Ross, (1923), v.9

[17] M.Oke, “A Critical Study of the Viability of Phenomenalism as an Alternative Theory of Perception”., PhD Dissertation Submitted to University of Ife, Ile-Ife (Ile-Ife: Unpublished, 1990), P.3.


[18] I.M. Copi and L.Cohen, Introduction to Logic, 11th Edition (New York: Macmillian, 2004), P.3 –4.

[19] J.I Omoregbe, Problems and Scope of Philosophy, (Ikeja: Joja Educational Research and Publications Ltd, 2005), P. 19-30.

[20] J. I. Omoregbe, Problems and Scope o Philosophy, P.111-126.


[21]D.W. Hamlyn, The Theory of Knowledge (London: The Macmillan Press, Ltd, 1970), Chapters 1 & 2.


[22] N. Rescher, Epistemology: An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, (New York : State University of New York Press, 2003), P. xiii

[23]J.Mcdowell, Plato’s Theaetetus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), Introduction.


[24]E. Gettier, “Is Justified True Belief Knowledge?” in Analysis, Vol. 24, (1963), P.121 –123.

[25] See A. Goldman, “What is Justified  Belief?” in G. Pappas (ed), in justification and knowledge, (Dordrecht: Reided, 1979), P. 1-20, R.Shope, Analysis of knowing (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983) and Lewis, An Analysis of Knowledge and Valuation,  (La Salle: Open Court, 1962), p. 180 – 182.

[26] E.O Kehinde, “Epistemology” in Jim Unah (ed) P. 94 – 109, see also R.M. Clusholm, “The Problem of Empiricism “, in R.J Swarts (ed) perceiving, sensing and knowing, (New York: Anchor Books) P. 347 – 354.

[27]C.P. Olatunji, “ A Critical Study of the Representative Realist Theory of Perception, M.A Thesis, A.A.U. Akungba, (Unpublished, 2003), P. 31-32.


[28] R.H. Popkin, The History of Skepticism (California: University of California Press, 1979), P. 244ff

[29]See J. McDowell, Plato’s Theatetus P.7f


[30]W.D Ross, The Foundations of Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936), P. 10ff

[31] W.D Ross


[32] W.D Ross

[33]D.O Brinks, P. 1-2.

[34]A.C. Ewing, The Definition of Good, (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1949) and G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica, revised ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1903), P.92


[35]J. Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: University Press, 1971), P. 50 – 51

[36] J. Rawls, P. 50 – 52.

[37] M. Timmons, “ Outline of a Contextualist Moral Epistemology” in W. Sinnott Armstrong and M. Timmons (eds), Moral Knowledge: New Readings in Moral Epistemology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996)


[38] B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, P. 126 –146.

[39] Compare D.J. O’Connor, “Locke” in D.J. O’Connor, A critical History of Western Philosophy (New York: Free Press, 1985), P.207 and R. Descartes, The Philosophical Works of Descartes Translate by E.S. Haldgene and G.R.R. Ross (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), P.9 –26.


[40]B. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, P. 584-600.


[41] “(Our Principles (are) Founded on the immovable basis of equal right and reason” in Thomas Jefferson letter to James William, 1797, Memorial Edition 9:379.


[42] Article I, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, see also R.L. Armstrong, “The Right to Life” in Journal of Social Philosophy, Vol.6 (1977), P.13 –19.

[43] A. Jimoh, “Context-Dependency of Human Knowledge: Justification of An African Epistemology” in West African Journal of Philosophical Studies, Vol.2 (1999), P. 18-39.


[44] A.R. Lacey, A Dictionary of Philosophy (London: Routledge, 1991 S.W. “Relativism” and “Moral Relativism” see also. “Four Types of Ethical Relativism” in Philosophical Review, vol. LXIII (1954).

[45]R. Rosaldo, “Of Headhunters and Soldiers: Separating Cultural and Ethical Relativism” in Issues in Ethics. Vol II (2002), No I, P.3 ff.


[46] P. Railton, “Moral Realism” in Philosophical Review, 95, 1986, see also D.O. Brinks, P.1 ff.


[47] F.O.C Njoku, The Empiricist, and Causation in Law, (Enugu: SNAAP Press Ltd., 2003), P. 153 – 197.

[48] L. Wittgenstein, Can Certainty, (Ox ford: Basil Blackwell, 1974), V. 18, P.48

[49]T.S Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, 2nd Ed. (Chicargo: University of Chicargo Press, 1970), P. 10ff

[50] P. Egbe, “Ethics as a Branch of Philosophy” in Jim nah (ed), P.111 – 126.


[51] B. Libet, Neurophysiology of Consciousness: Selected Papers and New Essay, (Boston: Birkhauser, 1993), P.xiii, see also T. Pazhayampallil, Pastoal Guide, (Bagalore: Kristu Jyoti Publications, 1995), P.64.


[52] B.Libet, P.xiii, see also T. Pazhayampallil, P.64-65