Types of Moral Philosophy


Moral philosophy asks: What is right and what is wrong? Moral philosophy has three branches: applied ethics, normative ethics and analytic ethics. Applied ethics cover people’s daily moral decisions; normative ethics focus on how people make those decisions; and analytic ethics question the nature of morality.

History of Moral Philosophy

  • Moral philosophy addresses the foundation of society's rules. It is behind every important law, from the condemnation of murder to the prohibition of alcohol. Moral philosophy is a discourse, and its rules change over time. The rationalist Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) stated that an action should only be performed if it could safely become a universal law. No one should allow himself to do something he would not want everyone else to do. Only recently has morality come to be considered subjective, with Nietzsche (1844-1900) encouraging a personal morality and Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) encouraging individuals to make their own judgments. Such debates continue to feature in today's moral philosophy.

Applied Ethics

  • Applied ethics is the most specific type of moral philosophy. It takes an individual issue and asks, "What is right or wrong in this situation?" The answer is not always objective. For instance, in the abortion debate, those who are anti-abortion believe it is morally wrong to destroy the life of a potential human being, while those who want abortion to be legal believe each potential mother has the moral right to make her own decision about abortion.

    Applied ethics is often concerned with doing what a person believes is right. It can also be utilitarian, meaning that for an action to be morally right, its consequences must be advantageous. Finally, applied ethics can be a set of rules about moral conduct, like those we teach children when we tell them not to hit others because it hurts them, or laws prohibiting murder or theft.

Normative Ethics

  • Another type of moral philosophy is normative ethics. Rather than determining what is right and wrong in any given situation -- the job of applied ethics -- normative ethics assesses the factors that enable us to make moral decisions in the first place. It considers three main factors: the action, the person who performs the action and the action's consequences.

    If the focus is on the action, we find that some actions are considered to be fundamentally wrong, no matter who performs them or what their consequences are. This focus of normative ethics is called deontology, from the Greek word "deon," meaning duty.

    If the focus is on the person performing the action, moral action becomes a question of the person's virtues. This is called virtue ethics. People possess moral traits, such as generosity, and in order to be moral, they must act on them rather than acting on bad traits. An action is therefore moral according to whether the person's intentions are good.

    Finally, if the focus is on the consequences of an action, all that matters is the outcome of the action. This is called consequentialism, and it emphasizes that the end justifies the means. In this way, it is similar to utilitarianism. People are supposed to perform actions that have positive results, such as happiness.

Analytic Ethics

  • Analytic ethics, also known as metaethics, is not concerned with determining what is right and wrong, but instead debates moral philosophy on an abstract level. It asks questions about the nature of morality, rather than the specifics of right and wrong. For instance, metaethics ask whether morals exist naturally in the world or are man-made, and whether they can be objective.

Significance of Moral Philosophy

  • Together, the three branches of moral philosophy help people answer the tough decisions with which they are faced every day. Only by stepping back from a situation and analyzing it from these philosophical perspectives can someone come to a moral decision. Questioning existing rules and thinking through moral choices can help everyone behave better and make the world a more decent place.

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