The field of ethics, also called moral philosophy, involves systematizing, defending, and recommending
concepts of right and wrong behavior. Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into three general
subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.
investigates where our ethical
principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than
expressions of our individual emotions? Metaethical answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal
truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves.
takes on a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and
wrong conduct. This may involve articulating the good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should
follow, or the consequences of our behavior on others. Finally,
involves examining specific
controversial issues, such as abortion, infanticide, animal rights, environmental concerns, homosexuality,
capital punishment, or nuclear war. By using the conceptual tools of metaethics and normative ethics,
discussions in applied ethics try to resolve these controversial issues. The lines of distinction between
metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics are often blurry. For example, the issue of abortion is an
applied ethical topic since it involves a specific type of controversial behavior. But it also depends on more
general normative principles, such as the right of self-rule and the right to life, which are litmus tests for
determining the morality of that procedure. The issue also rests on metaethical issues such as, "where do rights
come from?" and "what kind of beings have rights?"
The term "meta" means
, and, consequently, the notion of metaethics
involves a removed, or bird's eye view of the entire project of ethics. We may define metaethics as the study of
the origin and meaning of ethical concepts. When compared to normative ethics and applied ethics, the field of
metaethics is the least precisely defined area of moral philosophy. Two issues, though, are prominent: (1)
issues concerning whether morality exists independently of humans, and (2)
concerning the underlying mental basis of our moral judgments and conduct.
1a. Metaphysical Issues: Objectivism and Relativism
"Metaphysics" is the study of the kinds of things that exist in the universe. Some things in the universe are made
of physical stuff, such as rocks; and perhaps other things are nonphysical in nature, such as thoughts, spirits, and
gods. The metaphysical component of metaethics involves discovering specifically whether moral values are
eternal truths that exist in a spirit-like realm, or simply human conventions. There are two general directions
that discussions of this topic take, one
. Proponents of the "other-worldly"