The study of ethics looks at questions about what is right and wrong. Within the realm of philosophy, ethics is a formal study that takes different approaches to this question. Here are some approaches and distinctions:
Normative ethics deal with rules and how a person should act. It can approach how a person ought to act with each different role, for instance addressing what are the expectations of someone as a citizen, a friend, a family member, or a worker. Normative ethics can also address what is the right or wrong behavior of someone in a specific situation. It is meant to regulate and guide how a person behaves.
There are different rubrics for what is good or bad behavior. Some guidelines pertain to duty. These deontological theories claim that determining whether an act is good or bad has to be determined by one’s duties or obligations and whether those were upheld. Virtue theory addresses habits, or regularly doing the right thing. In virtue theory, a person’s actions should be guided by the virtues of justice, courage, prudence, and temperance, for example. Another way to look at the morality of an action is to look at its consequences. Utilitarian ethical theory uses the overall happiness (or good) that results from an action to determine its moral worth.
Applied ethics deal with specific situations by referring to normative ethics as a guideline. This field applies to human behavior in both public and private life.
Metaethics tries to determine the answers to more general questions about ethics. It asks questions like, “Where do ethics come from?” “ What is the meaning of moral judgments?” and “How do we defend moral judgments?”
Relativism versus Objectivism
One of the biggest divides in ethics is between relativism and objectivism. Moral objectivism claims that there are universal morals that apply to everyone. Most cultures reject murder and have laws against it. The source for moral objectivism seems to be a shared nature between all humans, since there are general things that attract or repel almost all humans beings consistently.
Moral relativism takes an opposing position by claiming that the rightness or wrongness of an action is affected by the different values of different cultures. There are no universal morals, and although murder seems unacceptable to most cultures, moral relativism would argue that we cannot know if an act of murder in a specific culture is wrong without looking at that specific culture.
An important thing to remember is that while there are many compelling ethical theories, there is usually a conflicting idea with reasonable arguments. Ethical theories are not complete–there are ongoing scholarly conversations about any controversial claims (which is almost all of them).
- Normative ethics deal with how a person should act. Ethicists evaluate what makes something good or bad by different measures, some of which are duty, consequence, and virtue.
- Metaethics deals with foundational questions of ethics, like determining the meaning of moral judgments and assessing what kind of evidence in general supports a moral judgment.
- Applied ethics are meant to be useful in real life situations, rather than being concerned with what someone should believe is right or wrong (normative ethics) and questions concerning the nature of morality (metaethics).
- Moral relativism has no universal moral standards, but moral objectivism does have universal moral standards.