Philosophy 166 - 9.1.1 Three Areas of Ethics

Ethics is the field of philosophy that investigates morality and engages in “systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior” (Fieser 1995). It is divided into three main areas—metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics—each of which is distinguished by a different level of inquiry and analysis.

Metaethics focuses on moral reasoning and “whether morality exists” (Dittmer 1995). It is concerned with questions that are more abstract, ones that explore the foundations and assumptions related to our moral beliefs and practice. It attempts to understand the beliefs and presuppositions connected to morality and moral deliberation. Metaethics explores, for example, where moral values originate, what it means to say something is right or good, whether there are any objective moral facts, whether morality is (culturally) relative, and the psychological basis for moral practices and values.

Normative ethics focuses on moral behavior, on what we should do. It thus deals with questions concerning human agency, responsibility, and moral evaluation. Normative ethics attempts to establish criteria or principles for identifying norms and standards to guide correct behavior. Philosophers offer systematized accounts of morality that provide standards and norms of right conduct. There are three main approaches to normative moral theory: consequentialist, deontological, and virtue ethics. Each approach differs based on the criterion (consequences, duty, or character) used for determining moral conduct.

Applied ethics focuses on the application of moral norms and principles to controversial issues to determine the rightness of specific actions. Issues like abortion, euthanasia, the use of humans in biomedical research, and artificial intelligence are just a few of the controversial moral issues explored in applied ethics, which is covered in the next chapter.

A normative moral theory provides a framework for understanding our actions and determining what’s right. A fully worked out moral theory often addresses all three areas of ethics (metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics), but its aim will be establishing and defending the norms of conduct it recommends.

The content of this course has been taken from the free Philosophy textbook by Openstax