The field of moral philosophy involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. The term “morality” can be used either
1. descriptively to refer to a code of conduct put forward by a society or, a. some other group, such as a religion, or
b. accepted by an individual for her own behavior or 2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons. What “morality” is taken to refer to plays a crucial, although often unacknowledged, role in formulating ethical theories. To take “morality” to refer to an actually existing code of conduct put forward by a society results in a denial that there is a universal morality, one that applies to all human beings. Recently, some comparative and evolutionary psychologists (Haidt, Hauser, De Waal) have taken morality, or a close anticipation, to be present among groups of non-human animals, primarily other primates but not limited to them. “Morality” has also been taken to refer to any code of conduct that a person or group takes as most important. Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into three general subject areas: 1. METAETHICS,
2. NORMATIVE ETHICS,
3. APPLIED ETHICS.
The term “meta” means after or beyond. Metaethics is the study of the origin and meaning of ethical concepts. Metaethics investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Metaethical answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves. Two issues, though, are prominent: (1) metaphysical issues concerning whether morality exists independently of humans, and (2) psychological issues concerning the underlying mental basis of our moral judgments and conduct.
a. Metaphysical Issues: Objectivism and Relativism
Metaphysics is the study of the kinds of things that exist in the universe. Some things in the universe are made of physical stuff, such as rocks; and perhaps other things are nonphysical in nature, such as thoughts, spirits, and gods. The metaphysical component of metaethics involves discovering specifically whether moral values are eternal truths that exist in a spirit-like realm, or simply human conventions.
b. Psychological Issues in Metaethics
A second area of metaethics involves the psychological basis of our moral judgments and conduct, particularly understanding what motivates us to be moral. We might explore this subject by asking the simple question, “Why be moral?” Even if I am aware of basic moral standards, such as don’t kill and don’t steal, this does not necessarily mean that I will be psychologically compelled to act on them. Some answers to the question “Why be moral?” are to avoid punishment, to gain praise, to attain happiness, to be dignified, or to fit in with society.
2. NORMATIVE ETHICS
Normative ethics involves arriving at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. Normative ethics takes on a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. This may involve articulating the good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behavior on others. We should do to others what we would want others to do to us. Since I do not want my neighbor to steal my car, then it is wrong for me to steal her car. Since I would want people to feed me if I was starving, then I should help feed starving people. Using this same reasoning, we can theoretically determine whether any possible action is right or wrong. So, based on the Golden Rule, it would also be wrong for us to lie to, harass, victimize, assault, or kill others. The Golden Rule is an...