Ethics is a field of study that attempts to answer questions of how we should live and act. As rational creatures who make conscious choices in our actions, we use ethics to decide what is the right and wrong thing to do in particular situations. It’s a vast and important area of enquiry, and involves a wide range of questions. To understand ethics, it’s helpful to divide ethical questions into three main categories.
Metaethics examines the nature of our moral judgments. What do we mean by right and wrong? Are moral judgments statements of fact, or are they just our preferences? If they are facts, what kind of facts are they? Can we even know what they are?
Normative ethics is the study of moral theories that tell us how we should act – they help us determine whether our actions are right or wrong. There are many moral theories, and they don’t always give the same results. Virtue ethics emphasizes the importance of our moral character, while consequentialism evaluates actions on the basis of their consequences. Deontology is based on rules that we should follow rather than considering the consequences of our actions.
Finally practical ethics, or applied ethics, is concerned with how we should act in real-life situations. This can range from bioethics, which examines the ethical issues associated with advances in medicine and biology, such as abortion, euthanasia and cloning, to environmental ethics, which ask how we should act to preserve our planet.
In my next post, I’ll be looking at metaethics. I’ll try to classify the better known metaethical theories that are out there, and explain how they differ from each other.