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Distinction between Metaethics, Normative and Applied Ethics

Categories: Ethics

Metaethics talks about the nature of ethics and moral reasoning. Discussions about whether ethics is relative and whether we always act from self-interest are examples of meta-ethical discussions. In fact, drawing the conceptual distinction between Metaethics, Normative Ethics, and Applied Ethics is itself a “metaethical analysis. ” Normative ethics is interested in determining the content of our moral behavior. Normative ethical theories seek to provide action-guides; procedures for answering the Practical Question (“What ought I to do? “).

The moral theories of Kant and Bentham are examples of normative theories that seek to provide guidelines for determining a specific course of moral action.

Think of the Categorical Imperative in the case of the former and the Principle of Utility in the case of the latter. Applied Ethics attempts to deal with specific realms of human action and to craft criteria for discussing issues that might arise within those realms. The contemporary field of Applied Ethics arouse in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Today, it is a thriving part of the field of ethics.

Numerous books and web-sites are devoted to topics such as Business Ethics, Computer Ethics, and Engineering Ethics. Ethical Relativism Distinctions within Relativism There is a distinction between “morals” and “mores”. The latter can be defined as “harmless customs” (e. g. , “tea at 4”); the former as “treatment of others” (e. g. , “the practice of Apartheid”). In discussing Relativism, we are concerned only with “moral practices. ” The Problem of Relativism: What one society considers Right, another Society considers Wrong.


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Here we need to be aware of two things: (1) Confusing “harmless conventions” (The British drive on the left side of the road) with “harmful practices” (Clitorectomy is customary among the Somali). (2) Even if “moralities” may differ from society to society, it need not follow that Morality Itself is relative — for there is a further distinction between CULTURAL (“descriptive”) RELATIVISM and NORMATIVE (“Ethical”) RELATIVISM.

Cultural (“descriptive”) Relativism: The descriptive relativist simply notes certain sociological FACTS: (a) Factual Claims: “x is considered right in Society y at time t” and “x is considered wrong in Society z at time t. ” (b) Empirical Conclusion: Moralities are relative [Note that the claims of Cultural Relativism are either true or false. ] Normative (ethical) Relativism The normative relativist goes BEYOND any sociological facts.

(a) Normative Claim: “What is considered right in Society x at time t IS right for that Society. ” (b) Theoretical (metaethical) Claim: Morality Itself is Relative. Note that ethical relativism does not logically follow from any truths uncovered by descriptive relativism. Note also that the ethical relativist has a hard time explaining how radical moral change can occur within a certain society (as with slavery or women’s suffrage in the United States). Ethical Egoism Psychological and Ethical Egoism.

As a metaethical theory of motivation, psychological egoism asserts the descriptive claim that all of our actions can be reduced to self-interest: “Whenever people do something, it is only because they think something desirable for themselves will result from it. ” The claim is descriptive and thus open to counterexamples, and it is broad, stating a reductionistic thesis regarding all of our actions. (Contrast psychological egoism with the psychological state of sympathy, where ‘the weal and woe of the other becomes the motive for our action’.)

Ethical egoism is a normative theory that states that our actions ought to be done from the perspective of self-interest. One of the problems with this position is that it might not be in one’s self-interest to have eveyone act from the perspective of self-interest. This ‘state of nature’ would not be desirable (in Hobbes’ terms, life would be “beastly, brutal, and short”) and so it might ultimately be in one’s self-interest to enter into a contract with others that would place restraints upon self-interested actions.

Utilitarian Theories Utilitarianism Utilitarianism is a normative ethical theory that places the locus of right and wrong solely on the outcomes (consequences) of choosing one action/policy over other actions/policies. As such, it moves beyond the scope of one’s own interests and takes into account the interests of others. Bentham’s Utility Principle: (1)

Recognizes the fundamental role of pain and pleasure in human life, (2) approves or disapproves of an action on the basis of the amount of pain or pleasure brought about i.e, consequences, (3) equates good with pleasure and evil with pain, and (4) asserts that pleasure and pain are capable of quantification (and hence ‘measure’).

In measuring pleasure and pain, Bentham introduces the following criteria: INTENSITY, DURATION, CERTAINTY (or UNCERTAINTY), and its NEARNESS (or FARNESS). He also includes its “fecundity” (will more of the same follow? ) and its “purity” (its pleasure won’t be followed by pain & vice versa). In considering actions that affect numbers of people, we must also account for its EXTENT.

John Stuart Mill adjusted the more hedonistic tendencies in Bentham’s philosophy by emphasizing (1) It is not the quantity of pleasure, but the quality of happiness that is central to utilitarianism, (2) the calculus is unreasonable — qualities cannot be quantified (there is a distinction between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ pleasures), and (3) utilitarianism refers to “the Greatest Happiness Principle” — it seeks to promote the capability of achieving happiness (higher pleasures) for the most amount of people (this is its “extent”). Act and Rule Utilitarianism.

We can apply the principle of utility to either PARTICULAR ACTIONS or GENERAL RULES. The former is called “act-utilitarianism” and the latter is called “rule-utilitarianism. ” Act-utilitarianism — The principle of utility is applied directly to each alternative act in a situation of choice. The right act is then defined as the one which brings about the best results (or the least amount of bad results). * Criticisms of this view point to the difficulty of attaining a full knowledge and certainly of the consequences of our actions.

* It is possible to justify immoral acts using AU: Suppose you could end a regional war by torturing children whose fathers are enemy soliders, thus revealing the hide outs of the fathers. Rule-utilitarianism — The principle of utility is used to determine the validity of rules of conduct (moral principles). A rule like promise-keeping is established by looking at the consequences of a world in which people broke promises at will and a world in which promises were binding. Right and wrong are then defined as following or breaking those rules.

* Some criticisms of this position point out that if the Rules take into account more and more exceptions, RU collapses into AU. * More genearl criticisms of this view argue that it is possible to generate “unjust rules” according to the principle of utility. For example, slavery in Greece might be right if it led to an overall achievement of cultivated happiness at the expense of some mistreated individuals. Deontological Theories Acting from Duty Deontological normative ethical theories place the locus of right and wrong in autonomous adherence to moral laws or duties.

Monistic deontology — Kant’s Categorical Imperative (“Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law”) provides the source of right action. Its first formulation states “Act as if the maxim of your action were to secure through your will a universal law of nature;” its second formulation states “Always act so as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or that of another, as an end in itself, never as a means only. “

Actions that conform to these imperatives (i. e., right actions) and are, furthermore, done from a sense of duty, are the epitome of morally praiseworthy actions. Critics of Kant’s approach claim that his Categorical Imperative does not contain within it a way to resolve conflicts of duties. “Lying is wrong” can be interpreted as “Never lie” and thus Universal Principles can ‘harden’ into Absolute Principles. Pluralistic deontology — For the 20th Century philosopher W. D. Ross, there are a number of duties that reflection reveals — and these form a group of prima facie obligations.

The phrase “prima facie” (‘all things being equal’) refers to the fact that these duties do not bind us absolutely, but rather that they generally hold — absent any further considerations. Two key duties are nonmaleficence (don’t harm others) and beneficence (help others). Other prima facie duties include ‘don’t lie,’ ‘don’t kill,’ keep promises,’ etc. When conflicts occur between duties, our actual duty becomes that which “intuitive judgment” discerns as the right thing to do (e. g. , lying to save the life of an innocent person).

Critics are cautious about referring to ‘intuition’ as the criterion for determining our actual course of action. Stephen Toulmin suggested that we “weigh up, as well as we can, the risks involved in ignoring either, and choose ‘the lesser of two evils’. ” Thus, while the principles may be deontic in nature, a resolution of conflicts of principles could appeal to probable consequences. Virtue Ethics Historical Perspective There is a long tradition in ethics that places great importance on the “kind of person one is.

” We not only want those around us to “tell the truth” (for example, according to the Categorical Imperative), but also to be honest. Both Aristotle (arete) and Aquinas (virtu) emphasized this aspect of ethics by highlighting the role of what we would today call character in their discussions of ethics (and the classic virtues of courage, justice, and moderation). David Hume also gave virtue and personal merit a key role in his ethical theory. The recent revival of interest in virtue ethics can be traced back to Philippa Foot.

She writes that a person’s “virtue may be judged by his innermost desires as well as by his intentions; and this fits with our idea that a virtue such as generosity lies as much in someone’s attitudes as in his actions” . The Moral Concept of Virtue We should distinguish the virtues found in a particular society or culture (e. g. , chastity) from those virtues that can be supported by moral reasoning (e. g. , honesty). “A virtue is a trait of character that is socially valued, and a moral virtue is a trait that is morally valued…Moral reasons must support a claim…of moral virtue” .

By emphasizing the priority of character in discussions of ethics, virtue theorists can say: “…rather than using rules and government regulations to protect subjects in research, some claim that the most reliable protection is the presence of an ‘informed, conscientious, compassionate, responsible researcher’”. The underlying view here is that “character is more important than conformity to rules and that virtues should be inculcated and cultivated over time through educational interactions, role models,” etc.

A practical consequence of this view is that the education of, for example medical doctors, should include the cultivation of virtues such as compassion, discernment, trustworthiness, integrity, conscientiousness as well as benevolence (desire to help) and nonmalevolence (desire to avoid harm). Critical Evaluation of “Virtue Ethics” Often times we encounter “morality between strangers” (as when one enters an Emergency Room after a car accident). At these times, it’s not the person’s character, but his/her need to follow rules and procedures that seem to come to the forefront (“Virtue is not enough”).

Furthermore, persons of ‘good character’ can certainly formulate ‘bad policy’ or make a ‘poor choice’ — and we need to evaluate those policies and choices according to moral principles. Constructive Evaluation of “Virtue Ethics” Yet “…ethical theory is more complete if the virtues are included…motives deserve to be at center stage in a way that some leading traditional theories have inadequately appreciated” … “To look at acts without also looking at the moral appropriateness and desirability of feelings, attitudes, forms of sympathy, and the like is to miss a large area of the moral picture” (B&C, 4th Ed., 69)

Liberal Rights and Communitarian Theories Today we often find moral problems framed by perspectives derived from political philosophy. Issues like euthanasia, stem cell research and abortion as well as distributive justice concerns such as social security and medicare, are likely to be seen along the liberal/conservative divide. Traditional moral theories need to take these frameworks into consideration. Will Kymlicka’s Introduction to Political Philosophy provides analyses of the philosophical ideas behind the “ideological debates” that now envelop many topics in moral philosophy.

Of particular value is his discussion of liberal equality, libertarianism, and communitarianism. Liberal equality is often associated with the work on John Rawls in his Theory of Justice. It argues that we should rationally affirm two fundamental principles of justice designed to protect our political liberties and social opportunities. It can be directly contrasted with the libertarian ideas found in Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia. Nozick challenges Rawls’s approach to social inequalities and argues for a minimalist state.

But both authors (and their followers) conceive of individuals as ‘Socratic’ in nature, capable of reasoning about their life plan and questioning, in principle, the world around them. In this sense, they are both ‘liberals’ in the tradition of John Stuart Mill’s essay, “On Liberty. ” “For liberals, the question about the good life requires us to make a judgment about what sort of a person we wish to be”. Thus liberals will emphasize the role of choice and freedom from government interference in private matters.

For communitarians, on the other hand, individuals are not atomistic, ‘unencumbered selves’ — individuals are situated within a community, embedded in the received wisdom of our human culture. Communal values are ‘authoritative horizons’ wherein we take our orientation toward life . The “self is not prior to, but rather constituted by, its ends — we cannot distinguish ‘me’ from ‘my ends’ [and] our selves are at least partly constituted by ends that we do not choose, but rather discover by virtue of our being embedded in some shared social context” .

Since self-determination does not occur in a vacuum, the government needs to support a social environment that is conducive to the development of what is best in all of us. For those communitarians who are ‘social conservatives,’ this will often take the form of a promotion ‘family values’ that can, for example, discourage changes in the institution of marriage. Broadly speaking, these two positions account for the divide between ‘liberals’ and ‘social conservatives’ in dealing with matters such as abortion and euthanasia. In these situations, liberals tend to become ‘pro-choice’ and social conservatives tend to become ‘pro-life.

‘ ***** As is to be expected in a modern, pluralistic democracy, many of these issues are addressed in the political realm and through the political process (including the courts). But the kinds of ‘cases’ that arise within these areas should also be addressed within the framework of applied ethics as a way to get clearer about the nature of the problem and its potential for resolution. Indeed, we often see analyses found in applied ethics, such as the concept of a ‘person in the morally significant sense’ or the distinction between ‘killing’ and ‘allowing to die,’ embedded in the political debate itself.

Ethics of Care In the 1970s and 80s feminist writers began to question the assumptions behind many of the traditional ethical theories. Carol Gilligan’s work in moral psychology challenged “justice-based” approaches to moral discussion: “… men tend to embrace an ethic of rights using quasi-legal terminology and impartial principles … women tend to affirm an ethic of care that centers on responsiveness in an interconnected network of needs, care, and prevention of harm. Taking care of others is the core notion.

” Annette Baier’s philosophical account of an ethics of care “does not recommend that we discard categories of obligation, but that we make room for an ethic of love and trust, including an account of human bonding and friendship. ” In both of these accounts, there is a specific criticism of “Traditional Liberal Theory” and its emphasis on impartiality and universality: The impartiality and the ‘standpoint of detached fairness’ advocated by liberal theories of justice, overlook, for example, the moral role of attachment to those close to us.

Speaking from the perspective of medical ethics, “The care perspective is especially meaningful for roles such as parent, friend, physician, and nurse, in which contextual response, attentiveness to subtle clues, and the deepening of special relationships are likely to be more momentous morally than impartial treatment” In articulating the challenge to “universal principles,” Beauchamp and Childress write: “We can produce rough generalizations about how caring physicians and nurses respond to patients, for example, but these generalizations will not be subtle enough to give helpful guidance for the next patient.

Each situation calls for a set of responses outside any generalization…. ” Proponents of an Ethics of Care emphasize the roles of Mutual Interdependence and Emotional Response that play an important part in our moral lives: “…many human relationships involve persons who are vulnerable, dependent, ill, and frail … [and] the desirable moral response is attached attentiveness to needs, not detached respect for rights” (B&C, 373) and “The person who acts from rule-governed obligations without appropriately aligned feelings such as worry when a friend suffers seems to have a moral deficiency.

In addition…insight into the needs of others and considerate alertness to their circumstances often come from the emotions more than reason. ” Thus the emotions seem to have a ‘cognitive role,’ allowing us to grasp a situation that may not be immediately available to one arguing solely from a ‘justice perspective. ’ Critical Evaluation of the Care Ethic The example of a nurse who personally wants to help a patient die, but who will not do so as it violates professional duty, shows that “…the ethics of care must confront situations in which bona fide requirements of impartiality conflict with acting partially from care.

” Some feminists actually interpret the ‘care ethic’ as culturally determined by the male hierarchy. For example, a terminally ill grand mother may request to be allowed to die because she doesn’t want to be ‘a bother’ to her family. Here someone like Susan Sherwin “sees a need to examine the social context of care as well as to establish limits to the ethics of care. Both enterprises would involve appeals to justice…” Constructive Evaluation of the Care Ethic

Sensitivity and emotional response to particular situations (like family discussions with physicians) provide important guides to morally acceptable actions. A care ethic also seems to favor adopting procedures from Conflict Resolution and Dispute Mediation as alternative ways to approach an apparent ethical conflict. Hedonism The term “hedonism,” from the Greek word (hedone) for pleasure, refers to several related theories about what is good for us, how we should behave, and what motivates us to behave in the way that we do.

All hedonistic theories identify pleasure and pain as the only important elements of whatever phenomena they are designed to describe. If hedonistic theories identified pleasure and pain as merely two important elements, instead of the only important elements of what they are describing, then they would call it Hedonism uld not be nearly as unpopular as they all are. However, the claim that pleasure and pain are the only things of ultimate importance is what makes hedonism distinctive and philosophically interesting.

Philosophical hedonists tend to focus on hedonistic theories of value, and especially of well-being (the good life for the one living it). As a theory of value, hedonism states that all and only pleasure is intrinsically valuable and all and only pain is intrinsically not valuable. Hedonists usually define pleasure and pain broadly, such that both physical and mental phenomena are included. Thus, a gentle massage and recalling a fond memory are both considered to cause pleasure and stubbing a toe and hearing about the death of a loved one are both considered to cause pain.

With pleasure and pain so defined, hedonism as a theory about what is valuable for us is intuitively appealing. Indeed, its appeal is evidenced by the fact that nearly all historical and contemporary treatments of well-being allocate at least some space for discussion of hedonism. Unfortunately for hedonism, the discussions rarely endorse it and some even deplore its focus on pleasure. This article begins by clarifying the different types of hedonistic theories and the labels they are often given.

Then, hedonism’s ancient origins and its subsequent development are reviewed. The majority of this article is concerned with describing the important theoretical divisions within Prudential Hedonism and discussing the major criticisms of these approaches. The Origins of Hedonism . a. Aristippus and the Cyrenaics The Cyrenaics, founded by Artistippus were also sceptics and Hedonistic Egoists. Although the paucity of original texts makes it difficult to confidently state all of the justifications for the Cyrenaics’ positions, their overall stance is clear enough.

The Cyrenaics believed pleasure was the ultimate good and everyone should pursue all immediate pleasures for themselves. They considered bodily pleasures better than mental pleasures, presumably because they were more vivid or trustworthy. The Cyrenaics also recommended pursuing immediate pleasures and avoiding immediate pains with scant or no regard for future consequences. Their reasoning for this is even less clear, but is most plausibly linked to their sceptical views – perhaps that what we can be most sure of in this uncertain existence is our current bodily pleasures. b.

Epicurus Epicurus founder of Epicureanism, developed a Normative Hedonism in stark contrast to that of Aristippus. The Epicureanism of Epicurus is also quite the opposite to the common usage of Epicureanism; while we might like to go on a luxurious “Epicurean” holiday packed with fine dining and moderately excessive wining, Epicurus would warn us that we are only setting ourselves up for future pain. For Epicurus, happiness was the complete absence of bodily and especially mental pains, including fear of the Gods and desires for anything other than the bare necessities of life.

Even with only the limited excesses of ancient Greece on offer, Epicurus advised his followers to avoid towns, and especially marketplaces, in order to limit the resulting desires for unnecessary things. Once we experience unnecessary pleasures, such as those from sex and rich food, we will then suffer from painful and hard to satisfy desires for more and better of the same. No matter how wealthy we might be, Epicurus would argue, our desires will eventually outstrip our means and interfere with our ability to live tranquil, happy lives.

Epicureanism is generally egoistic, in that it encourages everyone to pursue happiness for themselves. However, Epicureans would be unlikely to commit any of the selfish acts we might expect from other egoists because Epicureans train themselves to desire only the very basics, which gives them very little reason to do anything to interfere with the affairs of others. c. The Oyster Example With the exception of a brief period discussed below, Hedonism has been generally unpopular ever since its ancient beginnings.

Although criticisms of the ancient forms of hedonism were many and varied, one in particular was heavily cited. In Philebus, Plato’s Socrates and one of his many foils, Protarchus in this instance, are discussing the role of pleasure in the good life. Socrates asks Protarchus to imagine a life without much pleasure but full of the higher cognitive processes, such as knowledge, forethought and consciousness and to compare it with a life that is the opposite.

Socrates describes this opposite life as having perfect pleasure but the mental life of an oyster, pointing out that the subject of such a life would not be able to appreciate any of the pleasure within it. The harrowing thought of living the pleasurable but unthinking life of an oyster causes Protarchus to abandon his hedonistic argument. The oyster example is now easily avoided by clarifying that pleasure is best understood as being a conscious experience, so any sensation that we are not consciously aware of cannot be pleasure.

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Distinction between Metaethics, Normative and Applied Ethics. (2016, Nov 07). Retrieved from

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