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What Is Moral Philosophy?

Jessica Ellis
Updated May 23, 2024
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Moral philosophy refers to philosophical theories concerning human ethics. An area of study dating back to ancient civilizations, the examination of right and wrong and the codes created by these terms has remained an area of constant debate and theorizing throughout history. There are many fields of study in moral philosophy, including meta-ethics, practical or normative ethics, and applied ethics.

Meta-ethical moral philosophers consider the questions of how people determine right from wrong, whether morality is relative or universal, and where the concept of morality originates. Unlike practical ethics, which seeks to establish behavioral codes based on theories of ethics, meta-ethics seeks to define the terms of the vocabulary of moral philosophy. For instance, in order to tell someone he or she must do something because it is “good,” it is critical to understand what “good” means, where the concept of it originated, and how an action is logically determined to be “good.” There are many different theories in the field of meta-ethics, stretching from ancient times to the modern day. Plato and Aristotle are frequently cited as the fathers of meta-ethics, since both wrote extensive examinations on the nature of moral philosophy.

Practical moral philosophy involves the determination of rules by which to judge actions on an ethical basis. While some moral theories set out a specific code of ethics, other moral theorists choose to develop a framework with which a person can answer the moral and ethical questions posed by any given situation. For instance, the moral philosophy of consequentialism asserts that the morality of an action is determined by its outcome, regardless of the action itself. If the consequences of an action can be considered “good,” it may justify the means. Deontism, most famously studied by Immanuel Kant, claims the exact opposite, suggesting that actions are moral or immoral regardless of the outcome.

Applied ethics concerns the application of normative moral philosophy to specific circumstances. In this field, scholars and thinkers attempt to reason out moral decisions using a framework of practical ethics. For instance, where a person stands on the question of torturing terror suspects can be determined through applying moral philosophical principles. If a person believes that torture is inherently wrong, but takes the consequentialist argument that information gained through torture might save lives, he or she might come down on the side of permitting the torture. Taking a deontist argument, if a person believes that torture is inherently wrong, then it is wrong regardless of consequences, and should be shunned. Laws, justice systems, and personal opinions on social issues are frequent the concern of applied moral philosophy.

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Jessica Ellis
By Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis brings a unique perspective to her work as a writer for Language & Humanities. While passionate about drama and film, Jessica enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics, creating content that is both informative and engaging for readers.
Discussion Comments
By candyquilt — On Jul 05, 2014

@SarahGen-- I think that the end does justify the means. But it all depends on the circumstances.

For example, we all would agree that it is unethical to torture someone. But if torturing that one person will allow us to get information that will save the lives of 300 innocents, wouldn't it make it acceptable?

So it all depends on the circumstances and the options. If doing something unethical will lead to a result that has great benefits, then it may be right to do it.

By SarahGen — On Jul 04, 2014

I want to hear everyone's opinions about this. Is it okay to do something unethical if the result is good? Or is something unethical always unacceptable? So does the end justify the means in your opinion?

By stoneMason — On Jul 04, 2014

Moral philosophy is very interesting, but I think it's also very complex.

I believe that some ethics rules are universal. There are things which are clearly unethical in all societies and cultures, such as rape or murder. But there are other issues that are not so clear. Some societies might view them as unethical while others view them as ethical. For example, eating beef can be unethical in some cultures, while it's completely ethical in ours.

So it all goes down to what we label as ethical or unethical. And these definitions are shaped by many different factors.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis
With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica Ellis...
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