chapter
13 Pages

Normative Ethics and Metaethics

ByMark Schroeder

By its very name, the field of metaethics is contrasted with another field of inquiry, that of normative ethics. Metaethics concerns questions about normative inquiry, rather than questions within normative inquiry. Whereas normative ethics concerns questions like what is good or bad, what we must or ought to do, and why, metaethics is said to be concerned with questions like what it means to say that something is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, whether such claims correspond to facts about the world, and how we know or manage to talk or think about such facts, if there are any. Metaethics may also be contrasted with normative ethics as philosophy of science is contrasted with science. Metaethicists, it is sometimes said, no more make claims within normative ethics than philosophers of science make claims within science, or pundits are engaged in playing football:

What is metaethics anyway? One useful way of answering this question is by contrasting metaethics with applied ethics and normative ethics. Consider an analogy that will illustrate the contrast: imagine ethics as football. We can equate different things associated with football with the different disciplines of ethics… there is the referee, who helps interpret the rules that the players are following. The referee can be thought of as the normative ethicist… Finally, there is the football analyst or pundit, who does not kick a ball or interpret the rules for the players but tries to understand and comment on what is going on in the game itself. This is like the metaethicist, who asks questions about the very practice of ethics, some of which we shall consider below.

(Fisher 2011:1–2)