DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L145-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2012
Retrieved May 18, 2024, from

Article Summary

A tripartite distinction is often drawn in moral philosophy between (i) applied ethics, (ii) normative ethical theory, and (iii) metaethics. Applied ethics seeks answers to moral questions about specific practices like abortion, euthanasia and business, while normative ethics seeks abstract moral principles that apply generally. We can loosely define metaethics as seeking answers to questions about normative ethics. It does not, at least directly, seek answers to moral or normative questions about (e.g.) which acts are right, what things are good, or how we ought to live our lives; instead it asks a variety of nonmoral questions about morality. While it is sometimes claimed that metaethics is morally neutral in the sense that it leaves normative questions open, metaethical theories can have normative implications, and it is sometimes argued that they all do.

Since there is in principle no limit to the kinds of nonmoral questions one might ask about morality, there is no limit to the possible kinds of metaethical questions other than their relation to the subject of morality. One central kind of question is semantic, concerning the meaning of moral language. For example, what do we mean by saying that something is ‘right’ or ‘good’? Another central kind of question is metaphysical. For example, what kind of property is moral goodness, and does such a thing exist? A third central kind of question is epistemological, concerning how we might come to know moral truths. Some of the many other kinds of metaethical questions are psychological (concerned with the mental attitudes we call ‘moral judgments’ and how they motivate us to action), logical (concerning the inferences we can legitimately draw between different moral claims), sociobiological (concerning how humans may have evolved as beings with a moral sense), and – although it may blur the distinction between metaethics and normative ethics – normative (concerning the rational justification for acting morally). The boundaries of metaethics are vague. For example, just as normative ethics on a broader conception concerns itself not merely with morality narrowly construed but with all practical or normative questions about how to act, choose and live, so too metaethics on a broader conception asks nonnormative questions about normativity more generally.

    Citing this article:
    Finlay, Stephen. Metaethics, 2012, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L145-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
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