Moral Philosophy is the rational study of the meaning and justification of moral claims. A moral claim evaluates the rightness or wrongness of an action or a person’s character. For example, “Lying is wrong” claims the act of lying is wrong, while “One shouldn’t be lazy” claims a character trait (i.e., laziness) is wrong. Moral philosophy is usually divided into three distinct subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.
What is Metaethics?
Metaethics examines the nature of moral claims and arguments. This partly involves attempting to determine if moral claims have clear essential meanings (i.e., they avoid vagueness and ambiguity). But it also attempts to answer questions such as: Are moral claims expressions of individual emotions? Are moral claims social inventions? Are moral claims divine commands? Can one justify moral claims? How does one justify them?
Our class discussions will focus on metaethics when we examine Nagel’s moral philosophy chapter in What Does It All Mean?. Nagel attempts to answer the ancient metaethical question, “Why be moral?”
What is Normative Ethics?
Normative ethics examines moral standards that attempt to define right and wrong conduct. Historically, this has involved examining good and bad habits, duties, or an action’s consequences. In addition, historically, normative ethics has focused on the prospect of a single moral standard defining right and wrong conduct; but it has become more common for philosophers to propose a moral pluralism with multiple moral standards.
Our class discussions will examine four moral standards: ethical egoism, ethical relativism, the principle of utility, and Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative.
What is Applied Ethics?
Applied ethics examines specific moral issues. For example, one is doing applied ethics when one addresses the morality of abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, environmental concerns, or homosexuality. By using the conceptual tools of metaethics and normative ethics, discussions in applied ethics try to resolve these issues.
Our class discussions will not focus on applied ethics. If you are interested in applied ethics, the philosophy department offers Philosophy 7, Contemporary Moral Issues. While the topics can vary from semester to semester, recent contemporary moral issues classes have examined abortion, capital punishment, homosexual marriage, pornography, and war and terrorism.
Doing Moral Philosophy
While metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics are distinct subjects, these subjects are interdependent. For example, how one pursues normative ethics will be greatly affected by one’s metaethical assumptions. If one assumes, for example, that moral claims are divine commands, then one’s normative positions will be determined by identifying divine commands. Given this relationship between metaethics and normative ethics, it is common for metaethical questions to arise during a class discussion on normative ethics. If you have such a question, don’t hesitate to ask. While I will be able to give only a brief answer in class, I think such questions are a vital part of doing moral philosophy. Similarly, how one pursues applied ethics will be greatly affected by one’s normative assumptions. If one assumes that one always should pursue those actions which lead to the best consequences, then one’s position on, for example, capital punishment, abortion, and terrorism will be determined by identifying which action(s) will lead to the best consequences. Given this relationship between metaethics and normative ethics, it is common for normative questions to arise during a discussion on normative ethics. Since we will not focus on applied ethics, it probably will not occur in our class discussions. However, if this occurs when discussing an applied ethical issue (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, war and terrorism), remember that such questions are a vital part of doing moral philosophy.
Potential Essay Questions
The following are potential final exam essay questions based on our examination of moral philosophy:
1- Clearly, concisely, and comprehensively examine ethical egoism.
2- Clearly, concisely, and comprehensively examine ethical relativism.
3- Clearly, concisely, and comprehensively examine the principle of utility.
4- Clearly, concisely, and comprehensively examine the third formulation of the categorical imperative.