People have lots of different ethical opinions and these opinions are sometimes in conflict with each other. When one person thinks something is morally acceptable and another thinks that thing is wrong, at least one of the parties must be mistaken. For example, some people think homosexual acts are wrong and others don’t. How can we tell who has the better view? It might not always be possible to tell. But even where it’s not possible to settle a specific question we can better understand assorted ethical views by looking into what more general ethical theories have to say about a specific ethical issue. Often the various plausible general ethical theories will align in roughly the same assessment of a specific issue. The case of homosexuality is one such example. There is no plausible theory of morality that entails or explains the view that homosexuality is wrong. This, on the face of it, seems like good reason to think that homosexuality is morally just fine. You might consider the question for yourself when we get to general ethical theories of good action in the next chapter.
For now, I just want you to notice how we have appealed to different levels of ethical issues. Some ethical opinions are about pretty specific matters like reproductive rights, obligations to future generations, tax policy, etc. These specific matters are issues of applied ethics. The job of applied ethics is to consider what more general theories of good and bad have to say about more specific issues. Whether or not the death penalty is morally justifiable, whether or not drugs should be legalized, and whether tax money should be used to provide benefits to the poor are applied ethical issues.
Ethics is a normative discipline. That is, ethics is not concerned with describing how things are, it’s concerned with looking into how things ought to be. Sociology or Anthropology might take an interest in describing the ethical opinions that are held by this group or that. Ethics is concerned with whether and how those ethical opinions can be reasonably justified. Normative ethics in particular is concerned with articulating and developing the general ethical theories in terms of which ethical opinions at the applied level might be justified. Central issues in normative ethics include what it is for an action to be morally permissible and what it is for a society to be just.
Beyond normative ethical theory, we can ask yet more fundamental questions about the nature of ethics. These will be meta-ethical issues. We will organize this chapter around two meta-ethical issues. We will consider whether or not there are any ethical truths and, if so, what makes them true or explains their truth.