DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L132-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved March 25, 2019, from

1. Ethics and metaethics

What is ethics? First, the systems of value and custom instantiated in the lives of particular groups of human beings are described as the ethics of these groups. Philosophers may concern themselves with articulating these systems, but this is usually seen as the task of anthropology.

Second, the term is used to refer to one in particular of these systems, ‘morality’, which involves notions such as rightness and wrongness, guilt and shame, and so on (see Rectification and remainders). A central question here is how best to characterize this system. Is a moral system one with a certain function, such as to enable cooperation among individuals, or must it involve certain sentiments, such as those concerned with blame (see Morality and ethics; Moral sentiments; Praise and blame; Reciprocity)? Sometimes a contrast is drawn between morality, construed narrowly as involving in particular the notion of obligation and the sentiment of blame, and ethics, understood more broadly as covering all sources of reasons for living in one way or another (see Williams, B. A. O.).

Third, ‘ethics’ can, within this system of morality itself, refer to actual moral principles: ‘Why did you return the book?’ ‘It was the only ethical thing to do in the circumstances.’

Finally, ethics is that area of philosophy concerned with the study of ethics in its other senses (see Ethics in Islamic philosophy). It is important to remember that philosophical ethics is not independent of other areas of philosophy. The answers to many ethical questions depend on answers to questions in metaphysics and other areas of human thought (see Aesthetics and ethics; Ethics and literature; Metaphysics; Pragmatism in ethics; Ethics and psychology). Furthermore, philosophers have been concerned to establish links between the ethical sphere of life itself and other spheres (see Art and morality; Law and morality). Some philosophers have, for philosophical reasons, had doubts about whether philosophy provides anyway the best approach to ethics (see Theory and practice; Wittgensteinian ethics). And even those who believe philosophy has a contribution to make may suggest that ethical justification must refer outside philosophy to common-sense beliefs or real-life examples (see Examples in ethics; Moral justification).

A central task of philosophical ethics is to articulate what constitutes ethics or morality, and in particular to understand what is going on when people make moral judgments. This project is that of metaethics (see Metaethics). What is it that especially constitutes the moral point of view as opposed to others? Some argue that what is morally required is equivalent to what is required by reason overall, whereas others see morality as providing just one source of reasons (see Practical reason and ethics; Ethics and action). Yet others have suggested that all reasons are self-interested, and that concern for others is ultimately irrational (see Egoism and altruism; Self-interest). This has not been seen to be inimical in itself to the notion of morality, however, since a moral system can be seen to benefit its participants (see Contractarianism; Decision and game theory). In general, since the 1970s, there has been an increasing focus on the nature of reasons themselves, both what they are and their relation to desires and values in particular (see Normativity).

The moral point of view itself is often spelled out as grounded on a conception of equal respect (see Equality; Respect for persons). But there is some debate about how impartial morality requires us to be (see Impartiality).

Another set of issues concerns what it is that gives a being moral status, either as an object of moral concern or as an actual moral agent (see Moral agents; Moral standing; Responsibility). And how do our understandings of human nature impinge on our conception of morality and moral agency (see Morality and identity)?

Once we have some grip on what ethics is, we can begin to ask questions about moral principles themselves. Moral principles have often been put in terms of what is required by duty, but there has been something of a reaction against this notion (see Duty). Some have seen it as outdated, depending on a conception of divine law with little relevance to the modern world (see Anscombe, G. E. M.; Schopenhauer, A.); while others have reacted against it as a result of a masculine overemphasis on rules at the cost of empathy and care (see Feminist ethics; Wollstonecraft, M.).

These doubts are related to general concerns about the role principles should play in ethical thought. Situation ethicists suggest that circumstances can lead to the abandonment of any moral principle, particularists arguing that this is because it cannot be assumed that a reason that applies in one case will apply in others (see Moral particularism; Situation ethics). The casuistical tradition has employed moral principles, but on the understanding that there is no ‘super-principle’ to decide conflicts of principles. At the other end of the spectrum, some philosophers have sought to understand morality as itself constituted by a single principle, such as not to lie (see Wollaston, W.).

Duties have been seen also as constituting only a part of morality, allowing for the possibility of heroically going beyond the call of duty (see Supererogation). This is a matter of the scope of the notion of duty within morality. There are also issues concerning the scope of moral principles more generally. Does a given moral principle apply everywhere, and at all times, or is morality somehow bounded by space or time (see Moral relativism; Universalism in ethics)? This question is related to that concerning what is going on when someone allows morality to guide them, or asserts a moral principle (see Epistemology and ethics; Moral epistemology; Moral judgment; Moral knowledge). How is the capacity of moral judgment acquired (see Murdoch, Iris; Moral education)? The view that humans possess a special moral sense or capacity for intuition, often identified with conscience, is still found among contemporary intuitionists (see Common-sense ethics; Conscience; Cudworth, R.; Hutcheson, F.; Intuitionism in ethics; Moral sense theories; Moore, G. E.; Ross, W. D.; Shaftesbury). Scepticism about the claims of morality, however, remains a common view (see Moral scepticism; Nietzsche, F.).

In recent centuries, a dichotomy has opened up between those who believe that morality is based solely on reason, and those who suggest that some nonrational component such as desire or emotion is also involved (see Hume, D.; Morality and emotions; Rationalism). Denial of pure rationalism need not lead to the giving up of morality. Much work in the twentieth century was devoted to the question whether moral judgments were best understood as beliefs (and so candidates for truth and falsity), or as disguised expressions of emotions or commands (see Analytic ethics; Emotivism; Hare, R. M.; Logic of ethical discourse; Prescriptivism; Stevenson, C. L.). Can there be moral experts, or is each person entirely responsible for developing their own morality (see Existentialist ethics; Moral expertise)? These questions have been seen as closely tied to issues concerning moral motivation itself (see Moral motivation). Moral judgments seem to motivate people, so it is tempting to think that they crucially involve a desire.

Moral principles can be understood to rest on moral values, and debate continues about how to characterize these values and about how many evaluative assumptions are required to ground ethical claims (see Axiology; Constructivism in ethics; Moral pluralism; Values). A major area of inquiry has revolved around issues concerning whether values are comparable, and if so in what way (see Incommensurability in ethics).

Against the emotivists and others, moral realists have asserted the existence of values, some identifying moral properties with those properties postulated in a fully scientific world view, others insisting, on the basis of an understanding of ethics as ‘autonomous’ or self-standing, that ethical properties are ‘nonnatural’ and independent of scientific investigation (see Fact/value distinction; Moral realism; Naturalism in ethics; Value, ontological status of). Most theorists, including the nonnaturalists, will find themselves required to give an account of the ‘supervenience’ of ethical properties (such as, say, wrongness) on ‘descriptive’ properties (such as the causing of pain to a nonrational being) (see Supervenience).

Citing this article:
Crisp, Roger. Ethics and metaethics. Ethics, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L132-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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