Three levels of ethical theory:


Meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics.

Ethics is a normative discipline, not a descriptive discipline.  The aim of ethical theory is to give a reasoned account of how we ought to be or act, individually or communally.  Ethics is not concerned with describing the sorts of moral views people in fact hold or how they came to hold them.  Ethics is concerned with the justification of moral belief.


Meta-ethics is concerned with the nature of morality in general.  It is concerned with what justifies moral judgments.  Two central meta-ethical issues are whether there are any moral truths and, if so, what makes moral truths true. The view that there are no ethical truths is alternatively known as moral anti-realism, nihilism or subjectivism.  With regard to what grounds ethical truth, if there are such truths, the view that there are ethical truths and their truth is independent of any person or group’s power or command is moral realism.  The view that ethical truths are grounded in the power or say so of persons is called conventionalism.

If there are moral truths, an account of what makes moral truths true can be given in terms of a theory of value.  Another way to put the fundamental meta-ethical issue is asking if there is value to be discovered.  The ancient Greek philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle would say all say yes.  While these ancients differ in their positive views about the good, they would all agree that goodness exists and is independent of the command of men or gods.  The modern empiricist Hume argues that there are no moral truths.  Hume takes moral expressions to be expressions of sentiment or feeling.  While the ancients were value realists and Hume was a value subjectivist, Nietzche offers a value conventionalist position according to which value is created by willing of great individuals. A society’s system of value is created by its great poets, artists, mystics or leaders.

Normative Ethics

Normative Ethics is concerned with how we ought to live and act.  A normative theory of right action is an attempt to say what it is for an action to be morally permissible, obligatory or wrong.  A normative theory of the good life is an attempt to say what it is for a human to live well.  A theory of social justice is a normative theory of how a society should be structured and how goods, liberties, and power should be allocated in a society.

Applied Ethics

Applied Ethics is concerned with applying general normative theories of how we ought to live, act, or structure our societies to specific types of circumstances.  For instance, whether or not abortion is justifiable according to a respect for persons normative theory of right action is an applied ethical issue.

Some meta-ethical positions:

  1. Moral subjectivism has epistemological and metaphysical variants
    1. Epistemological variants deny the possibility of moral knowledge or justified moral belief.  But this leaves open the possibility of there being unknowable moral facts.
    2. The metaphysical variants denies the existence of moral properties.  On this view, moral claims are either all false or they lack truth-value.
  2. Conventionalism is the view that there are ethical truths and that these are made true by the will or say so of some person or group of people.  Devine command theory, the view that what is right is right because God commands it, and moral relativism are both conventionalist views. Popular varieties of moral relativism are also typically conventionalist theories.
  3. Realism is the view that there are ethical truths and they are grounded in some aspect of the world that has objective value independent of the will or imperatives of persons or groups of people.

Some realist normative ethical views

  1. Utilitarianism, according to Mill, is the view that good actions are those that tend to produce the greatest amount of happiness conceived of as pleasure and the absence of pain.  The utilitarian theory of right action is grounded in a theory of objective value that takes happiness to be the only thing that has intrinsic value.
  2. Respect for Persons is the name often given to the view advocated by Kant that we have a moral obligation to respect persons as beings that have intrinsic value.  Kant’s theory of right action is given in his various formulations of the “categorical imperative” (one version says we are obligated to act only according to maxims (general motives) that we could consistently will that everyone act on.
  3. Aristotle offers a theory of the good life grounded in the functions and capacities that are natural and essential to humans.  The good life, according to Aristotle, is the life of actively exercising one’s rational capacities.
  4. Nozick’s entitlement theory of justice
  5. Rawl’s theory of social justice as fairness

Some issues in applied ethics

  1. Is abortion morally permissible?
  2. Ought we be vegetarians for ethical reasons?
  3. Under what conditions is a nation morally justified in waging war?
  4. Do moral responsibilities towards future generations require that we regulate our use of the environment and natural resources?



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