Normative Ethics, Metaethics and Applied Ethics. What is the difference?
Normative Ethics is focused on the creation of theories that provide general moral rules governing our behavior, such as Utilitarianism or Kantian Ethics. The normative ethicist, rather than being a football player, is more like a referee who sets up the rules governing how the game is played.
Metaethics is the study of how we engage in ethics. Thus, the metaethicist has a role more similar to a football commentator rather than to a referee or player. The metaethicist judges and comments on how the ethical game is being played rather than advancing practical arguments, or kicking the football, themselves. For example, the metaethicist might comment on the meaning and appropriateness of ethical language, just as the football commentator might remark on the appropriateness of particular tactics or set-piece routines
Applied Ethics is the study of how we should act in specific areas of our lives; how we should deal with issues like meat-eating, euthanasia or stealing. To use the football analogy, the applied ethicist kicks the philosophical football around just as a footballer kicks the ball on the field. A good applied ethicist might score goals and be successful by offering specific arguments that convince us to change our moral views in a particular corner of our lives.
Consider an analogy put forward by Andrew Fisher (2011). Imagine that ethics is like football.
- The normative ethicist is like a referee interested in the rules governing play. What interests him is the general theories that govern our moral behavior; how do we work out what is right and what is wrong?
- The metaethicist is like a football commentator. What interests her is how the very practice of ethics works. For example, the metaethicist might discuss how people use moral language; or comment on the psychology of immoral people; or ask whether moral properties exist.
- The Applied Ethicists are like the players. They “get their hands [or feet] dirty”. They take the general rules of normative ethics and “play” under them. What interests them is how we should act in specific areas. For example, how should we deal with issues like meat-eating, euthanasia or stealing? (pp. 1–4)
Fisher, A. (2011). Metaethics: An introduction. Oxford: Routledge. https://doi.org/10.1017/upo9781844652594