Metaethics talks about the nature of ethics and moral reasoning. Discussions about whether ethics is relative and whether we always act from self-interest are examples of meta-ethical discussions. In fact, drawing the conceptual distinction between Metaethics, Normative Ethics, and Applied Ethics is itself a "metaethical analysis."
Normative ethics is interested in determining the content of our moral behavior. Normative ethical theories seek to provide action-guides; procedures for answering the Practical Question ("What ought I to do?"). The moral theories of Kant and Bentham are examples of normative theories that seek to provide guidelines for determining a specific course of moral action. Think of the Categorical Imperative in the case of the former and the Principle of Utility in the case of the latter.
Applied Ethics attempts to deal with specific realms of human action and to craft criteria for discussing issues that might arise within those realms. The contemporary field of Applied Ethics arouse in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Today, it is a thriving part of the field of ethics. Numerous books and web-sites are devoted to topics such as Business Ethics, Computer Ethics, and Engineering Ethics.
Distinctions within Relativism
There is a distinction between "morals" and "mores". The latter can be defined as "harmless customs" (e.g., "tea at 4"); the former as "treatment of others" (e.g., "the practice of Apartheid"). In discussing Relativism, we are concerned only with "moral practices." The Problem of Relativism: What one society considers Right, another Society considers Wrong. Therefore, RIGHT AND WRONG are RELATIVE to a PARTICULAR SOCIETY. Here we need to be aware of two things: (1) Confusing "harmless conventions" (The British drive on the left side of the road) with "harmful practices" (Clitorectomy is customary among the Somali). (2) Even if "moralities" may differ from society to society, it need not follow that Morality Itself is relative -- for there is a further distinction between CULTURAL ("descriptive") RELATIVISM and NORMATIVE ("Ethical") RELATIVISM. Cultural ("descriptive") Relativism:
The descriptive relativist simply notes certain sociological FACTS: (a) Factual Claims: "x is considered right in Society y at time t" and "x is considered wrong in Society z at time t." (b) Empirical Conclusion: Moralities are relative [Note that the claims of Cultural Relativism are either true or false.]
Normative (ethical) Relativism
The normative relativist goes BEYOND any sociological facts. (a) Normative Claim: "What is considered right in Society x at time t IS right for that Society." (b) Theoretical (metaethical) Claim: Morality Itself is Relative. Note that ethical relativism does not logically follow from any truths uncovered by descriptive relativism. Note also that the ethical relativist has a hard time explaining how radical moral change can occur within a certain society (as with slavery or women's suffrage in the United States).
Psychological and Ethical Egoism
As a metaethical theory of motivation, psychological egoism asserts the descriptive claim that all of our actions can be reduced to self-interest: "Whenever people do something, it is only because they think something desirable for themselves will result from it." The claim is descriptive and thus open to counterexamples, and it is broad, stating a reductionistic thesis regarding all of our actions. (Contrast psychological egoism with the psychological state of sympathy, where 'the weal and woe of the other becomes the motive for our action'.)
Ethical egoism is a normative theory that states that our actions ought to be done from the perspective of self-interest. One of the problems with this position is that it might not be in one's self-interest to have eveyone act from the perspective of self-interest. This 'state of nature'...