Introduction to ethics

Ethics is the systematized study or practice of morality, i.e., of norms, values, and principles that govern behavior. Its main sub-disciplines are normative ethics, applied ethics, and metaethics. In this text, I introduce and explain some of the most central problems, distinctions, and theories in contemporary ethics.

I should be noted that there are no theory-independent descriptions of ethics. As it is sometimes said, ”put three philosophers in a room and they will come out with four different opinions.” This text is an introduction to how I think of ethics. It is probably uncontroversial, but it should not be read uncritically.

Metaethics and normative ethics

Consider these sentences:

A Smith is a human being.
B Smith should be treated with respect.

There is a fundamental difference between them: A is a matter of fact and B is a matter of value. To evaluate the truth-status of A, one must observe Smith and assess whether he or she has the property of being a human. Smith could in fact be, for instance, a dog or an umbrella. In those cases, Smith does not have the property of being a human and A is thus false.

Because it is a matter of value, it is different to evaluate B. Is the sentence of a kind that can have a truth-status? Can it be false? Does the sentence reflect something that can be subject to rational scrutiny? Is it just a matter of opinion or taste? These are questions about the nature of values and value-claims. They cannot be answered by observing and analyzing facts about the world and the many Smiths and Jones that inhabit it. Because they are not empirical, i.e., they do not concern physical properties, treating them requires philosophical argumentation.

Questions about the nature of values and value-claims belong to a philosophical field of inquiry which is commonly known as metaethics. The term meta is from the Ancient Greek μετά (metá), which means ”above” or ”beyond.” In this case, the meta-questions are above or beyond normative ethics, which is its own field of inquiry. In normative ethics, philosophers do not treat the nature of values and value-claims but the values and value-claims as such. It is called ”normative” ethics because it concerns prescriptive standards. For example, consider this sentence:

C Smith should not be treated with respect.

It conflicts with B above. Essentially, normative ethicists are concerned with conflicting values and value-claims and how they can be assessed in relation to each other. In practical terms: Normative ethicists are concerned with moral problems such as whether Smith should be treated with respect.

Many ethicists, including myself, are of the view that claims about value are justified to the extent that they fit with all other claims about value, and with relevant facts and beliefs, and with our stable and considered intuitions about the claims. Therefore, ethicists’ arguments about values and value-claims are goal-oriented. The goal is to justify value-claims by producing a strong, coherent, and intuitively valid set of propositions about them.

Moral concerns

Ethicists have various concerns, perhaps most notably states of affairs, actions, characters, and what I call conceptual valuables. This is how I understand these concerns.

Concerns about states of affairs

A state of affairs, such as e.g. a certain distribution of goods, can be more or less desirable. In one perspective, the notion of justice belongs to this category. For instance, a political order in which a ruling elite enjoys institutional privileges is unjust.

One other example is about happiness. Many would argue that happiness is the sole good and that an action is right if and only if it produces the most amount of happiness. This theory is commonly called utilitarianism. To the utilitarian, it does not matter who is happy or whether some people are happy while others are not. Their theory does not include any happiness-independent claims about justice, and therefore it does not matter to the moral status of an action whether it distributes happiness according to some account of justice. Utilitarianism is only concerned with the state of affairs that actions produce, and only happiness counts.

Concerns about actions

Among other things, actions can be allowed, required, prohibited, better, or worse. Here, I think of desires, preferences, and other basic elements in ordinary decision-making as belonging to the category of action broadly construed. As noted above, utilitarians do not care about actions per se but only the results which they produce. In other theories, actions can be evaluated independently from the state of affairs they produce (or fail to produce).

One such theory is commonly called Kantianism, after the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to Kant, all rational beings are able to understand a moral law called the categorical imperative. They should willingly subject themselves to this law; they should do their duty for the sake of duty itself.

Kant was not perfectly clear how the categorical imperative should be understood. In one place, he expresses the law as: ”Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means, but always at the same time as an end” (Kant G:429). However, there are at least three or four different formulations of it in Kant’s writings. While he seems to have been under the impression that they were different formulations of the same principle, detailed scrutiny has shown that they are in fact distinct. In any case, it is clear that Kant was—as modern Kantians are—concerned only with the value of actions and that actions should be evaluated according to whether they are prescribed by the categorical imperative.

Concerns about characters

At least since the 4th century BC, it has been central to ethical inquiry what it is to be a good person. In this line of though, a morally good person is someone with the right character disposition; some character traits should be cultivated while others should be discarded. For instance, Aristotle, who is one of the most important thinkers in Western history, held that what matters to morality is to flourish as a human being and to lead a good life.

He argued that one must be virtuous to flourish and lead a good life. Among the most important virtues are kindness, courage, generosity, self-discipline, patience, honesty, tolerance, compassion, and fairness. Furthermore, to flourish one must possess practical wisdom, which is to have the capacity to recognize the importance of different features of a situation, and to identify what is virtuous with regard to them. Thus, Aristotelian ethics, or virtue ethics, focus on proper character traits. Moral actions and states of affairs are explained by reference to character dispositions. Good people perform good actions and develop good relationships, and a state of affairs is good if it is comprised of or constituted by virtuous beings.

Concerns about conceptual valuables

Some notions, such as dignity and prosperity, are often thought of as inherently valuable, although they are not by necessity tied to any of the previously mentioned moral concerns. A person, group, memory, heritage, loser, or painting, among many other things, can be treated with dignity. Likewise, a culture, idea, biosphere, etc., can prosper. In the broad category of conceptual valuables, I think of rights as most central.

Politically, it is generally acknowledged that people have human rights such as a right to life, liberty, and security of person. All rights have a moral value (which may be either positive or negative), so the concept of ”rights” is necessarily value-laden. Furthermore, rights usually entail some boundaries on action. For instance, the right to freedom of religion entails that people must refrain from obstructing each others’ religious practices.

Applied ethics

Applied ethics is an independent sub-discipline in ethics. As the name suggests, applied ethicists treat moral problems of a practical nature. Topics in applied ethics include medical ethics, research ethics, and ethics in public policy. Some specific problems in these areas are: What makes a patient competent to make her own healthcare decisions? Should poor people be paid to participate in potentially dangerous experiments? How should resources be prioritized in any particular area of public spending?

There are two main approaches to applied ethics, namely top-down and bottom-up.1 Ethicists that take a top-down approach usually pick one normative theory of ethics and apply it to the case at hand. This is, for instance, Peter Singer’s preferred approach. In his book Practical Ethics, Singer takes a “broadly utilitarian position” on various moral topics, such as animal rights, abortion, and environment (Singer 1993, p. 12). Thereby, he attempts to solve practical problems by applying utilitarianism to them and report of the results. One problem with the top-down approach is that it demands a lot from the theory that is applied. Singer’s proposed solutions are dependent on the truth of utilitarianism, which is far from evident.

In a bottom-up approach, the goal is to identify the (potential) problem independently from normative theories first, and then apply different theories to see what comes out of the analysis. This is, for instance, how Jonathan Wolff approaches moral topics in public policy such as gambling, drugs, and safety. In his book Ethics and Public Policy, Wolff seeks to describe the cases neutrally, before engaging in moral analysis from the perspective of different normative theories (Wolff 2011, “Introduction”). One problem with the bottom-up approach is that moral problems cannot be observed with no prior idea of what is morally relevant. The mere fact that something is described as a moral problem appears to signal that some tacit normative assumptions have been made.

Concluding remarks

The main sub-disciplines of ethics are normative ethics, applied ethics, and metaethics. As an ethicist, one is often specialized in only one of them. Many university programs include courses or modules in ethics, perhaps most often some topic in applied ethics that is of relevance to the program. These courses or modules usually only provide an overview of the moral problems at hand. In-depth analyses are likely to require more advanced studies.

Those who wish to specialize in ethics should consider studying philosophy as a main topic for at least one or two semesters. They should familiarize themselves with other disciplines in philosophy, such as the philosophy of science and political philosophy, to further improve on their analytical skills. Likewise, ethicists who wish to specialize in applied ethics should consider studying the practical area which they are interested in. For instance, if one is interested in the ethics of public policy one may be helped by studies in political science and economics.


1 The description of the two approaches to applied ethics is taken from my yet untitled PhD thesis.


Kant, I. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

Singer, P. 1993. Practical ethics. Cambridge University Press.

Wolff, J. 2011. Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Inquiry. Routledge.

Cite as: Ahlin, J. (2018). Introduction to ethics. Retrieved (date) from: