The word ‘ethics’ signifies a moral ground, an existence based on morals and principles and values. It lays down the foundation for the basic code of conduct. There are two main branches of ethics, metaethics and normative ethics. When we talk about ‘being ethical’ or ‘he is an ethical person’, we talk about the rules he has laid down for himself, and how sincerely he follows them. This is the layman’s perspective.
It is a general viewpoint to follow certain regulations, to state some actions as good and some as bad, to live in a civilized society. But, ethics comprise further discussion about different reactions and beliefs in different situations, since a person changes as per circumstances.
Metaethics and normative ethics are two branches of ethics the philosophers usually study. Metaethics is the branch of ethics that focuses on the basic nature of ethics, its status, foundations, properties, etc. Normative ethics, on the other hand, focuses on what is morally right and wrong and analyses the moral behavior of people.
Metaethics – Metaethics, which is one of the three main branches of ethics, seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, principles, judgments, attitudes, etc. It also attempts to answer questions like “what is morality?”, “What is goodness?”, “how to identify if something is good or bad?”
In other words, it focuses on what morality itself is and questions the nature of morality; for example, some of these include questions like what is morality, what’s the nature of morality, is morality objective, etc.
Furthermore, Metaethics attempts to examine what people mean by words like good, bad, right, and wrong (moral semantics). It also questions the nature of the moral judgment, i.e., questions whether moral judgments are universal or relative, of one kind or many kinds, etc. Lastly, it also examines how we can know if something is right or wrong. However, unlike normative ethics, metaethics does not try to evaluate specific choices as better, worse, good, bad, or evil.
Normative Ethics – Normative ethics is the branch of ethics that studies ethical action. Basically, normative ethics attempts to determine which actions are right and wrong, or which character traits are good and bad.
There are four major normative theories:
- Utilitarianism – According to this theory, the right action is the action that produces the greatest balance of overall happiness.
- Kantianism – Derived from the work of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, this theory focuses on the categorical imperative, which is a moral principle that acts as the fundamental principle of morality, and from which all our duties may originate from.
- Ethical Intuitionism – According to this theory, our intuitive awareness of the value, or intuitive knowledge of evaluative facts, forms the foundation of our ethical knowledge.
- Virtue Ethics – This theory focuses on the inherent character of a person rather than on specific actions. In other words, it focuses on the role of character and virtue rather than doing one’s duty or acting in order to bring about good consequences.
Normative ethics helps decide the good and bad, thus, we have two types of normative, moral judgments. One of them can be made based on actions, behavior, and commitment, while the other can be made depending on your emotions, thoughts, hopes, and desires.
Teleological ethics and deontological ethics are also two concepts we encounter in normative ethics. In teleological ethics, the goodness or badness of action is determined by examining the consequences of that action, whereas, in deontological theories, the goodness or badness of action is determined by examining the action itself. Therefore, we can consider Kantianism and intuitionism as non-teleological theories, and utilitarianism and virtue ethics as teleological theories.
The Difference –
Metaethics is the study of the origin and meaning of ethical concepts while normative ethics is the study of ethical action, typically focusing on what is morally right and wrong. Thus, the key difference between metaethics and normative ethics is that metaethics focuses on what is morality whereas normative ethics focuses on what is moral.
- Definition – Metaethics is the study of the nature of ethics, whereas normative ethics is the study of ethical action.
- Content – While metaethics analyzes the meaning of moral language and metaphysics of moral facts, normative ethics evaluates standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions.
- Nature – Metaethics is more philosophical in nature as it analyzes the nature of ethics and morality, while normative ethics is more practical in nature.
Moreover, metaethics has a connection to philosophy as it analyses fundamental ethical concepts whereas normative ethics is more practical as it applies to basic human behavior. Therefore, we can consider this as another difference between metaethics and normative ethics.