Sources & Extracts

Review this excerpt and then go back to the main thread.


Twentieth-century moral philosophers in England and America often made a distinction between theoretical or meta-ethics and normative ethics. In most cases, they confined their work to the theoretical level and claimed that it served as a preliminary for normative ethics. Here is one set of definitions that may help to clarify Sidgwick's statement in our dialog.

First there is "descriptive" ethics, which studies the moral practices and convictions that have been current among these or those peoples....

Second, there is "normative" ethics, which seeks to reach conclusions about the justice of this or that law, for instance, or the value of this or that type of conduct, and which often (though not always) attempts to systematize these conclusions under general principles, such as the greatest happiness principle of Bentham and Mill, or the categorical imperative of Kant.

Third, there is a branch of ethics that surveys normative ethics with the intent of clarifying its problems and its terminology, and with the intent, in particular, of examining the sorts of reasons by which its conclusions can be supported. It is called "analytical" ethics, though it also goes under alternative names such as "meta-ethics" and "critical" ethics.

From C. L. Stevenson, Facts and Values, p. v-vi. See William K. Frankena Ethics p. 4 for the same set of distinctions. For a longer discussion of normative and meta-ethics see Richard Brandt Ethical Theory, p. 4-10.