Metaethics versus Normative Ethics. Traditionally, moral philosophy is divided into two kinds of investigations, normative ethics and metaethics. Metaethics is the investigation of the most abstract questions about the nature of morality, for example, whether morality is in some sense subjective or objective, and whether its questions are open to rational resolution or not. Normative ethics is the investigation of right or wrong, good or bad, virtue or vice. More particularly, normative ethics divides into two kinds of investigation. The first is general normative ethics which is the study of the most basic principles of morality. Two major alternatives are Utilitarianism and Kantianism. The second is practical ethics. This is the study of more concrete moral issues such as the morality of abortion, capital punishment, our relationships to the natural environment and the morality of various economic systems.
What is the relation between metaethics, general normative ethics and applied ethics? In the past, it was common to think that one first had to come to some conclusions about metaethics. One had to decide about morality's ultimate nature, say, whether it is objective or subjective. One could then begin to investigate the most general principles of morality. And finally, one could apply those principles to particular moral issues. However, today there is no general agreement on this approach. Philosophers now take up the study of morality wherever they wish. Some continue to focus on metaethics, but many take up general normative ethics without having resolved, to their satisfaction, metaethical questions. And a great many take up particular moral issues without having resolved, to their satisfaction, either metaethical question or general normative questions. In other words, philosophers today feel free to jump into the study of ethics at any point they find interesting.
The Wreck of the William Brown. I begin with an example. The William Brown departed from Liverpool on March 18, 1841 for Philadelphia. On board were 17 seamen and 65 passengers, mostly poor emigrants. On the night of April 19, the ship struck an iceberg and sank. 31 people died, but a number made it to two life boats. Before the lifeboats drifted apart, the Captain, George Harris, put the first mate, Francis Rhodes, in charge of the second boat which held 9 nine crewmen and 32 passengers. The boat was crowded and leaking. After about a day in the boat, the wind picked up and it began to rain. Water sloshed over the sides. Reportedly, the first mate shouted, "This won't do. Help me, God. Men, go to work. Men, you must go to work, or we shall all perish." Most of the male passengers were thrown over. Soon after, the survivors were rescued. Some of the passengers filed a complaint with the District Attorney in Philadelphia The only crewman who could be found was Alexander Holmes. He was convicted of manslaughter and served six months in jail. None of the other crewmen were ever brought to trial.
So now you know what happened. But what should have happened? There are three common answers.
The first answer is that no one should go over. One who believes this might reason that even if it is as certain as it can be that the lifeboat will sink and that all will perish unless the boat is lightened, no one should be thrown over. They might reason that death, though unfortunate, and sometimes even tragic, is inevitable. Murder, however, can be avoided, and it must be avoided at all costs. These folk might go on to argue that it is even wrong for individuals to volunteer to go over to help save the others. For suicide is self-murder, that being the literal meaning of the term 'suicide'.
The second approach has it that someone must go over.It is just a matter of deciding who. On this approach:
The third approach again has it that someone must go over. It is just a matter of deciding who. But on this approach:
Consequentialist and Deontological Approaches. The three possible solutions to the case of the William Brown fall into three categories. Those who argue that someone should go over to save the rest and who reason that it should be the old, the sick, those who weigh a great deal, and so on, are taking a consequentialist approach to the case. They think that the choice should be made based simply on the consequences where, in this example, the main consequence of significance is the preservation of life. Those who argue that no one should go over, that it is better that all die than that one be murdered, are taking a pure deontological approach to this issue. For them, consequences are unimportant. What matters is that murder not be done. Finally, one who argues that someone should go over to save the rest, but that that person must be chosen by some randomizing device in the name of fairness, appeals to both consequentialist and deontological notions. Consequences count, so someone must go over to save the rest, but other things count as well, for example, the fairness of the decision procedure. If someone old and heavy draws the long straw and someone young and light draws the short straw, so be it.
Consequentialist Moral Principles. Consequentialists believe that acts are neither right nor wrong in themselves. Rather, the rightness or wrongness of an action turns only on its consequences, and more particularly, on whether the consequences are good or bad. The structure of basic consequentialist theories is therefore very simple. First, it takes certain things, usually what philosophers call 'states of affairs', to be good or bad. It then defines 'rightness' and 'wrongness' in terms of good and bad consequences. Roughly, acts that produce good consequences are right and acts that produce bad consequences are wrong.
For the consequentialist, how consequences are brought about, the means employed, are morally irrelevant. What we would usually take to be evil means might be justified if the consequences turn out well. Indeed, a typical consequentialist slogan might be that good results can sometimes justify evil means. So, for example, though killing the innocent may usually be wrong, it might be justified on occasion because of the good consequences.
Historically, one of the leading consequentialists was the 19th century English philosopher John Stuart Mill. He advocated a kind of consequentialism called 'utilitarianism'. Though not quite Mill's version of utilitarianism, a modern version of the view says that one should act in ways that produce the best possible consequences for all those affected by the action.
Deontological moral principles. These take the rightness of an act to turn not on consequences, but on something else. Deontologists often speak of an act's being right or wrong because of its own nature. For example, an act might be wrong because it is a lie and it might be right because it involves telling the truth. This rightness and wrongness holds whether the consequences are good or bad. So, for example, a deontologist might say that even though great good can come from throwing people out of a lifeboat in the case of the William Brown, it is murder and must not be done. Historically, the leading deontologist was the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant. He embraced a moral principle which he called the 'Categorical Imperative' which made no appeal to consequences. Though it was a single principle, he provided three 'formulations' of it. One says that we should act only in ways that treat rational beings as ends and themselves and not as mere means.
Mixed Views. It is possible to have a moral view that combines many moral principles, and it is even possible to combine deontological and consequentialist principles. In fact, most of us probably believe a complex mix of deontological and consequentialist principles. An example of an important 20th century philosopher who embraces both consequentialist and deontological principles is W. D. Ross. He thought that there were seven basic moral principles, or as he often said, prima facie duties. Some were consequentialist and some were deontological. For example, he not only embraced consequentialist duties of beneficence (doing good) and non-maleficence (avoiding evil) but duties of gratitude and justice.
Perhaps oddly, it is traditional to speak of someone who embraces and combines both consequentialist and deontological principles as a 'deontologist'.