3.2 What is Philosophical Ethics?



By the end of this section you will discover:

  • The difference between metaethics and applied ethics
  • The difference between descriptive ethics and normative ethics.
  • The meaning of ethical realism (a.k.a.: objective ethics).


A decorative image depicting many different terms for ethics in a Word Cloud
Word Cloud of terms used to describe ethics

People have many different ethical opinions and these opinions are sometimes in conflict with each other. When one person thinks something is morally acceptable and another thinks that thing is wrong, at least one of the parties must be mistaken. For example, some people think homosexual acts are wrong and others don’t. How can we tell who has the better view? It might not always be possible to tell. But even where it’s not possible to settle a specific question we can better understand assorted ethical views by looking into what more general ethical theories have to say about a specific ethical issue. Often the various plausible general ethical theories will align in roughly the same assessment of a specific issue. The case of homosexuality is one such example. There is no plausible theory of morality that entails or explains the view that homosexuality is wrong. This, on the face of it, seems like a good reason to think that homosexuality is morally just fine.

…Notice how we have appealed to different levels of ethical issues. Some ethical opinions are about pretty specific matters like reproductive rights, obligations to future generations, tax policy, etc. These specific matters are issues of applied ethics. The job of applied ethics is to consider what more general theories of good and bad have to say about more specific issues. Whether or not the death penalty is morally justifiable, whether or not drugs should be legalized, and whether tax money should be used to provide benefits to the poor are applied ethical issues. (Payne, Ch. 9: Metaethics)

Metaethics: Crash Course Philosophy #32

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Descriptive vs Normative Ethics

In academics, there are generally two different ways in which ethics can be taught. The first is called Descriptive Ethics, the practice of observing, describing, and reporting on the moral beliefs and practices of other people. Descriptive Ethics is quite appropriate for fields like history, anthropology, sociology, and other disciplines that seek to not make judgments about cultural practices. The second, Normative Ethics, is more appropriate to the discipline of philosophy. Here the goal is not to describe but to evaluate, to suggest norms or rules that ought to govern all human moral deliberation and thus transcend cultural differences. Normative Ethics attempts to use reason to determine a core set of fundamental principles that can be used to bring us to moral judgments, usually case by case or situationally. The assumption of Normative Ethics is that whereas cultures can differ, logic and human moral reasoning is the same in all fully rational human adults, so moral reasoning can be used by all to work through difficult moral dilemmas.

Beyond normative ethical theory, philosophers can ask yet more fundamental questions about the nature of ethics as a theoretical enterprise. These [questions are part of the philosophical area known as meta-ethics. … Below] we will consider whether or not there are any ethical truths and, if so, what makes them true or explains their truth….

An ethical truth would just be any true claim about what is good, right, wrong, permissible, virtuous, vicious, just, or unjust. That’s at least a partial list of the ethically significant things that might be said about something. It will do for our purposes here. So here are some ethical claims:

  • It’s wrong to torture innocent puppies just for fun.
  • Paying your taxes is good.
  • Racism is unjust.
  • Honesty is a virtue.
  • It’s permissible to dine at the soup kitchen when you are down and out….

The ethical claims listed above are all general in the sense that they make claims that are intended to hold for lots of people in lots of situations. But not all of these claims are “absolute,” where this means something like “no exceptions allowed.” Taking honesty to be a virtue doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be wrong to mislead the Nazi SS officer about the Jews hiding in your attic. And ethical claims needn’t be so general. For instance, “It would be wrong to torture Laura’s puppy after we go the movies on Friday,” is a pretty specific claim about particular things. But it is still a candidate for being an ethical truth. So, there might be plenty of ethical truths even if there aren’t any true absolute universal ethical generalizations.

Ponder if you will…

How is an opinion and a truth claim different? “Broccoli is yucky,” is a claim that may be true to you, but it would be false to someone else who likes the vegetable. It is simply a matter of personal opinion. On the other hand, “The world is flat,” is a truth claim because it is a declarative sentence that is either true or false. In this case the claim is demonstrably false.

Moral truth claims are claims that go beyond an individual’s opinion about what one ought to do.

Can you think of anything that would be immoral regardless of popular opinion? Can your opinion bias your moral choices? If there are moral truths would everyone be responsible to act in accordance with those truths?

Hopefully, we are now clear about what sorts of claims are candidates for ethical truth. Now, what would it mean for any claim like those listed above to be an ethical truth? Ordinarily, when a claim is true there is some fact out there in the world somewhere that makes it true. If it’s true that Russ’ favorite bike has 20 speeds, then what makes this claim true is that there is a certain object in the world that is Russ’ favorite bike, and it has 20 speeds. So, one pretty straightforward proposal is that if there are ethical truths, then there are corresponding facts in the world that make them true. These facts needn’t involve concrete physical objects like my favorite bike. We often attribute rightness or wrongness to kinds of actions, for instance. So it might be that certain kinds of actions, like torturing innocent puppies just for fun, have ethical properties like wrongness. Likewise, certain social institutions could have ethical properties of justice or injustice, and characteristics of personalities could be virtuous or vicious.

We are narrowing in on a way to understand a view we will call ethical realism. Ethical Realism (also known as Ethical Objectivism) is the view that there are ethical truths and that they are made true by facts independent of anyone’s say-so, will, or sentiment. These facts will be the truth-makers for ethical truths. We will examine a few realist ethical theories of right action later in this chapter. For any realist ethical theory, we will want some account of what makes the theory true, if it is true. This can be given in terms of a theory of objective value. Utilitarianism, for instance, says that the right action is an action that maximizes overall happiness. This realist ethical theory is based on a particular view of objective value, namely that happiness is the highest value… (Payne, Ch. 9: Metaethics)



Works Cited

CrashCourse, director. Metaethics: Crash Course Philosophy #32. YouTube, YouTube, 25 Oct. 2016, https://youtu.be/FOoffXFpAlU. Accessed 5 Apr. 2022.

Teodoraturovic. “Morals-and-Ethics.” Wikimedia Commons, Wikimedia Commons, 10 Jan. 2016, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Morals-and-ethics.jpg. Accessed 5 Apr. 2022.


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PPSC PHI 1011: The Philosopher's Quest by Daniel G. Shaw, Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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