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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.