Section 2.  Normative Ethics and Metaethics

Normative: an authoritative standard; a model; that by which other things are judged; an example for imitation or emulation.

The term "normative" reflects the ordinary view that some things are better than others.

Illustrations surround us. We evaluate cars, governments, corporate strategies, stereo equipment ...... and students and teachers. We say that a Lexus is a "really nice car", and most people agree. It's well designed, has a smooth, powerful engine, handles tightly, brakes quickly (and in treacherous weather conditions), is safe in accidents, has a long warrantee, is reliable, etc. It's a good car. A Stradivarius is a good violin. (A Stradivarius violin is named after its designer -- Antonio Stradivari) The following is taken from the Smithsonian website:

[Stradivarius'] interpretation of geometry and design for the violin has served as a conceptual model for violin makers for more than 250 years. . . Thousands upon thousands of violins were made in the 19th century as inexpensive copies of the products of great Italian masters of the 17th and 18th centuries. Affixing a label with the master's name was not intended to deceive the purchaser but rather to indicate the model around which an instrument was designed.

Furthermore, the best violins and bows are made with a certain type of wood: Pernambuco. Why? Because the "combination of rigidity, flexibility, density, beauty and ability to hold a fixed curve are properties which make Pernambuco a unique material for bowmaking."

So, we evaluate lots of things. We differentiate between good cars and lousy cars, gifted singers and shouters, good leaders and cronies. These distinctions are "normative." Thus we make normative judgments all the time. And who are in a position to make these sorts of judgments? Experts. I couldn't tell a good violin from a hunk of junk. I know a good paper on Kant when I see one, however.

When we make normative judgments, we have reasons for saying that X is particularly good, though Y is not. There are certain properties which X possesses and which Y does not possess, and the presence or absence of just those properties differentiate our judgments. What makes a good car good is a set of properties that is different than the set of properties that make a shoe a good shoe, or a violin a good violin.

Normative Moral Judgments
Most of the examples given above are non-moral. (If you don't understand the difference between moral and non-moral, review document above.) We are not interested in these, but in normative moral judgments. In fact, this entire semester is especially concerned with normative moral judgments.) So, in summary, we will explore and evaluate different ways of making judgments about things of moral consideration.

What kinds of moral things are there? Generally speaking, ethicists distinguish between a person's actions and the person himself/herself. (This is expressed by the Catholic aphorism: "Hate the sin, love the sinner.")

For example, we say that Jill's intentions were noble, pure, worthy of respect. We say that Bill's actions were terrible, thoughtless, cruel. There are two different types of normative, moral judgments: actions or behaviors on one hand, and on the other hand, people, with their desires, aspirations, hopes, fears, etc.

So, at least the following things can be evaluated from a moral perspective:

The following is from William Frankena's book, Ethics [Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey; Prentice-Hall, Inc., Second edition, 1973].

A. Judgments of moral obligations [judgments of actions or behaviors]

1. Particular

a. I ought not to escape from prison now.

b. You should become a missionary

c. What he did was wrong.

2. General

a. We ought to keep our agreements

b. Love is the fulfillment of the moral law.

c. All men have a right to freedom.

B. Judgments of moral value [judgments of people, with their ...]

1. Particular

a. My grandfather was a good man.

b. Xavier was a saint.

c. He is responsible for what he did.

d. You deserve to be punished.

e. Her character is admirable.

f. His motive was good.

2. General

a. Benevolence is a virtue.

b. Jealousy is an ignoble motive.

c. The man who can forgive such carelessness is a saint .

d. The good man does not cheat or steal.


At certain points in ethical discussions and ethical inquiry, arguments get heated, and sometimes we seem to go round and round, without making progress. It seems that we talk past one another. It seems that we don't even understand each other. And that's because we use the same words, but mean different things by those words. That's the task of metaethics. In order to understand the basis on which we distinguish "bad" from "good", "right" from "wrong", "rights" from "obligations", we need to analyze the meaning of these terms. Metaethics is thus not concerned with discovering what the right action is, or what our obligations might be, or what sort of ideals and values are preferable, or how to become virtuous.

Instead, metaethical discussions are the most abstract discussions in all of ethics.

Metaethics asks such questions as:

·         "What is the meaning of ethical terms, such as 'good' and 'right' and 'should'?"

·         "What are the motives for acting ethically?"

·         "What is the nature of moral reason? How is it different (if it is different) from other types of reasoning?"

Metaethicists do not prescribe any particular actions or values; their task is one of analysis. It is the most abstract sort of ethical reflection -- it is purely descriptive. See the essay on metaethics in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Let me give you an example of what I mean. In normative ethics, you and I might have an argument about whether or not caring for one's parents is an obligation, or whether it is good to be honest. Well, in order to have an argument, you and I would have to be able to give reasons for our beliefs on the matter. Perhaps we have all sorts of reasons, and perhaps we have a fairly lengthy argument. Well, according to G.E. Moore, it is a mistake to think that one could give an adequate answer to the question, "why is being nice to one's mother good?" Whether something is or is not good, says Moore, is a matter only for one's intuition; one cannot reason to it. One cannot get there by rationality, or at least the sort of rationality that begins with premises and ends in a conclusion. For any given object, one can describe a whole bunch of properties that it has. Perhaps it's red, and round, and heavy, etc. But which of these properties, or what combination of them, makes the object good? Moore thinks that there is always a gap between the list of properties which you might say that an object has, and the property of being good.

The above example illustrates very briefly one sort of thing that metaethics is about. Here, the question was not whether one should be good to one's parents, nor whether being good to one's parents is good. Instead, it was about how humans can come to determine whether something is good, or whether an action is something for which (we could have a rational discussion that) we are obligated.

The page just before this was concerned with metaethical distinctions. I wrote about different ways of using the words "moral" and "ethics", and suggested that we understand by these terms very specific things. If we don't mean the same thing when we use the same words, then we won't make progress! And

Morally permissible vs. Morally obligated
Case #1: I've received a tentative acceptance to Yale, as a transfer student. But I need to have a 3.8 GPA for my last semester at this college, otherwise Yale will retract their acceptance, and I'll attend Hofstra University. I've done very well, but I'm far behind, and risk getting a "C" in two classes. So I am tempted to cheat by turning in my brother's papers for these two classes -- papers which have received "A's" in classes at Harvard. If they receive "A's" from my professors, then I'll get a 3.8 for the semester.

Judgment: "It's moral to cheat in this case; if by doing so I have an opportunity to attend Yale, rather than Hofstra. For that would mean an enormous increase in life options for me (and my family)."

Case #2: I open the door to the house, and there is my sister's ex-fiance. He's obviously beserk, and is carrying a hunting knife. No doubt he intends to harm or kill my sister. He demands that I tell him where she is. I am tempted to reply that she is on her way to the beach -- which would be dishonest, since she is downstairs.

Judgment: "It's moral to lie in this case; if by doing so I protect my sister's life."

Analysis: In Case #1, the moral judgment I come to is really: "It is morally permissible to cheat in this case ..." In no way would I be morally obligated to cheat, since there is no moral obligation to attend Yale rather than Hofstra. Sure, Yale is a better school -- but better in a non-moral way, in a similar way that BMW's are better than Hyundai's. And so I'd be arguing that the value which is at stake is sufficient to make the decision morally acceptable, but not morally obligatory.

In Case #2, however, it seems to me that my choice to lie is something that I ought to do. Not only is it morally permissible or acceptable, it is morally required.

"I have a right to ..." When someone says something like this, it usually means that s/he believes the action in question is morally permissible. This means that the action is in violation of no moral obligation, or that the obligation which it is commonly believed to violate doesn't hold in this particular circumstance because of certain conditions.

In summary, you should know the difference between normative ethics and metaethics. As ethicists, we are concerned with both normative and metaethical aspects of ethics, but when we are simply living within our moral experience, making judgments, acting according to principles, adopting values, and telling people what they ought to do, we are squarely in the realm of normative ethics.

Moral Philosophy to understand and to justify moral principles

Ethics to establish principles of the GOOD and those of right behavior Ethics deals with the basic principles that serve as the basis for moral rules.  Different principles will produce different rules.

Meta Ethics- discussion of ethical theories and language

 So, ethics and morality are not the same things!  A person is moral if that person follows the moral rules.  A person is immoral if that person breaks the moral rules.   A person is amoral if that person does not know about or care about the moral rules. 

A person is ethical if that person is aware of the basic principles governing moral conduct and acts in a manner consistent with those principles.  If the person does not do so they are unethical.

Here is a good general definition and an overview of ETHICS. 


Here is a glossary of general terms in ethics.

if not available try the glossary put together by -Tad Dunne, PhD.  Siena Heights University. 2010) who informs us that: "Many of these definitions are drawn, at least in part, from two generally available Internet sources. The first is from the University of San Diego (, Retrieved on April 2, 2009). The second is part of a site designed to meet the needs EDECEL Foundations’ London Examinations re “Religion in Relation to Philosophy, Ethics and Morality” ( ethics/glossary.html Paper 4, Unit D1). I have shortened or amplified some of these definitions. Others I have composed based on my own studies. Terms from certain other sources are indicated in the endnotes. "

GLOSSARY of Terms associated with Ethics and Ethical Theories


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