It’s hard to come up with a definition of ethics that is both precise and satisfactory to everyone. But it helps to think about the levels at which ethical discussion and analysis take place.
Most concrete ethical issues involve questions about what we ought to do in a given situation. Underlying these questions are more abstract ones about right and wrong and good and bad more generally. And some discourse in moral philosophy is even more abstract.
Philosophers divide ethics into into three different levels, which range from the very abstract to the concrete: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Understanding these levels is a good step toward grasping the breadth of subject.
Metaethics is the most abstract and philosophical level of ethics. Where normative and applied ethics seek to determine what is moral, metaethics concerns itself with the nature of morality itself. It deals with the following types of questions:
- What does it mean when someone says something is “good” or “right”?
- What is moral value, and where does it come from?
- Is morality objective and universal, or is it relative to specific individuals or cultures?
- Do moral facts exists?
These and other metaethical questions are important, but if you’re trying to figure out if a particular action is right or wrong, you might never get there pondering them. On the other hand, questions like Why be ethical? or Why do the right thing? are metaethical questions that are important for anyone interested in ethics. And they’re not so easy to answer.
Normative Ethics is concerned with the appropriate standards for right and wrong behavior. Normative ethical theories establish prescriptions – whether by foundational principles or good character traits – for how one ought to act or live. The following are prominent normative ethical approaches:
- Virtue Ethics focuses on a person’s moral character. Virtue ethicists say we ought to develop virtuous characteristics – such as generosity, courage, and compassion – and exhibit virtuous behavior. This is different from other normative theories that propose more precise principles and rules for conduct.
- Deontological theories emphasize one’s moral duties and obligations. They focus on the act itself, as either intrinsically good or bad, regardless of its consequences.
- Consequentialist theories determine whether something is right or wrong by looking at its consequences. The ethical thing to do is that which has the best consequences (i.e., results in the most benefit, happiness, good, etc.) among the alternatives.
Applied ethics consists of the analysis of specific moral issues that arise in public or private life. Whereas normative ethics attempts to develop general standards for morality, applied ethics is concerned with specific moral controversies. Abortion, stem cell research, environmental concerns, and the appropriate treatment of animals are all applied ethics issues.
Applied ethics can use normative ethical theories, principles or rules derived from such theories, or analogical reasoning (which analyzes moral issues by drawing analogies between alike cases). Context-specific norms or expectations, such as those characterizing a particular profession (e.g., medicine or journalism), arrangement (e.g., an agreement between two parties), or relationship (e.g., the parent-child relationship) are also relevant to applied ethical analysis.
Bioethics, business ethics, legal ethics, environmental ethics, and media ethics are all applied ethics fields.
The different levels of ethics can overlap and inform one another. Normative theories, for instance, are based on metaethical assumptions (or even explicit metaethical propositions), such as the existence or non-existence of objective and universal notions of right and wrong. And, as noted above, applied ethics can draw on normative theories to resolve moral disputes. Metaethical perspectives can also drip into applied ethical analysis. A moral relativist, for example, may contend that a practice deemed egregious by his own culture’s standards is truly morally permissible, or even obligatory, in the culture in which it occurs.
Despite the overlap between the three levels, distinguishing between them is useful for clarifying one’s own views and analyzing those of others.