Types of ethics

Ethics is a part of philosophy that is dedicated to moral reflection, and is divided into three branches or types: metaethics, normative ethics and applied ethics. Ethics can also be classified according to philosophical currents. Next, let's get to know these classifications.

Types of ethics according to their branches

Metaethics, normative ethics and applied ethics are three branches of ethics, according to the classification presented by the philosopher J. Fieser. These branches respond to different objectives and methodologies.


Metaethics deals with the study of the origin and meaning of moral concepts. The limits of the field of study of metaethics are not clearly defined, since an overview of the discipline is proposed. Thus, it can cover very broad topics.

Researchers recognize at least two main lines of study of metaethics:

  • Metaphysical approaches: analyze whether the notion of good is objective or subjective, that is, if the good exists independently of the human being or if it is a cultural invention.
  • Psychological approaches: study the psychological issues involved with ethics. For example, the desire for social approval, fear of punishment, the attainment of happiness, etc.

Normative ethics

Normative ethics studies moral values ​​in order to build minimum standards that guide people's behavior towards the common good.

These standards can be based on a single principle or they can be based on a set of principles. An example of a unique principle is the so-called "Golden Rule": treat others as we wish to be treated (Fieser, consulted in 2020).

Three main lines of research are recognized within normative ethics. Namely:

  • The theories of virtue: they propose to cultivate virtue as an end in itself, through good habits of character.
  • Theories of duty: also called deontologies, are based on mandatory principles, such as fulfilling responsibilities, regardless of the consequences.
  • Consequentialist theories: study the relationship of actions with the consequences, evaluating the cost-benefit of ethical procedure.

Secular ethics and religious ethics respond to some extent to normative ethics.

Secular ethics, also known as secular ethics, is based on intellectual virtues such as rationality, logical thinking, and empathy.

Religious ethics are based on spiritual and theological virtues in the name of transcendent concepts. It varies from one religion to another. For example, the principles of Christian ethics are solidarity, justice and love.

Applied ethics

Applied ethics studies and applies ethical questions to specific situations. For it to be possible to speak of applied ethics, two conditions must be met: that a moral issue is addressed and that the issue is controversial.

Some of those controversial moral situations can be the death penalty, the carrying of weapons, abortion, euthanasia, surrogacy, the manufacture of biological weapons, etc.

Applied ethics is based on normative principles. Therefore, it is related to normative ethics, especially the theories of duty and consequences.

As examples of applied ethics we can mention the following:

Professional ethics: refers to the set of principles and criteria that govern the actions of a person in professional practice. Study and anticipate conflict scenarios between professional morale and performance of duty. For instance:

  • Legal ethics: guides the principles that guide the practice of law. Some of its topics are professional secrecy, the right to defense, among others.
  • Medical ethics: study and determine the correct actions to be taken by a health professional in situations of conflict between morals and professional duty.
  • Engineering ethics: it relates to the risk and safety of engineering projects in any of their areas.
  • Teaching ethics: establishes principles and rights by which the teacher or professor must govern their teaching activity as well as their relationship with students and with the educational community.
  • Military ethics: establishes criteria for responsible military action, in order to limit the use of state violence as much as possible. For example, how to intervene in civil demonstrations.

Organizational ethics: refers to the guidelines of an organization in terms of principles and values, the observance of which is mandatory. These guidelines must be based on respect and tolerance of the members of the organization.

Business ethics: reflect on scenarios of moral controversy in corporate responsibility. Some issues may be misleading advertising, unfair competition, unsustainable environmental exploitation, employment discrimination, violation of labor rights, etc.

Environmental ethics: studies the behavior of human beings with respect to the environment. It intersects with various areas, such as economics, medicine, law, etc. Some recurring themes are animal rights, environmental overexploitation, endangered species, etc.

Social ethics: study ethical issues in relation to major social problems. Human rights, discrimination, the death penalty, biological warfare, arms control, among others are frequent topics.

Sexual ethics: studies the relationship of ethical and moral precepts with human sexuality and its practice. For example, mutual consent, adultery, sexual exploitation, celibacy, among others.

Sports ethics: establishes the values ​​and principles that should govern sports practice. Some topics are fair competition, team spirit, camaraderie, doping, among others.

Bioethics: studies the ethical relationships that exist between life sciences with living beings themselves. Bioethics reflects on abortion, euthanasia, genetic manipulation, bionanotechnology, etc.

Communication ethics: reflect on the social responsibility of the media. Some topics are truthful information, informational balance, freedom of expression, media manipulation at the service of particular interests, etc.

Research ethics: this applies ethical principles to the entire research process, be it natural or social sciences. Some debates are research fraud, data manipulation, plagiarism; experimentation with humans and animals, etc.

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Types of ethics by philosophical currents

Since Classical Antiquity, various philosophical currents have reflected on ethics, proposing different perspectives. The classification that we present is based on the one presented by the specialists Cortina and Martínez in their book Ethics.

Ancient and Middle Ages

Socratic Ethics: Socrates sought to distinguish true virtue from the mere appearance of virtue, as well as to know what is the characteristic excellence of the human being.

Platonic Ethics: Plato maintains that the Good and the Truth is prior to the human being, and therefore should govern the life of the individual and the community. This means that for Plato ethics is an end in itself.

Aristotelian Ethics: Aristotle argued that the purpose of all human activity is to achieve happiness. Therefore, ethics is a motive for human behavior rather than an end in itself.

Epicurean Ethics: comes from Epicureanism. He conceives ethics as the way to happiness, understanding happiness as pleasure. For Epicureans, those who know how to distinguish which actions produce the most pleasure and the least pain are wise.

Stoic ethics: comes from Stoicism. He argues that there is a cosmic reason that determines destiny and that, therefore, ethics is based on seeking inner peace in the face of inescapable destiny, without being disturbed by internal or external agents.

Augustinian Ethics: for Saint Augustine, the highest good or happiness is identified with the loving encounter with God, the beginning and end of existence. The role of ethics is to provide a way for this encounter to be possible.

Thomistic Ethics: proposed by Saint Thomas Aquinas, makes a synthesis between Saint Augustine (God as the Supreme Good and purpose of existence), and Aristotle (the cultivation of human activities as a way to earthly happiness).

Modern age

Ethics of Hume: David Hume proposed that the distinction that the human being makes between good and evil depends more on passions and affections than on rational thought.

Kantian ethics: Immanuel Kant proposes that there is a relationship between the rationality of an action and morality. Thus, he understands that an immoral action is not entirely a rational action.

Scheler's Ethics: known as the material ethics of values, it considers values ​​as goods that are captured and ranked through emotional intuition. It also argues that values ​​and duty are related.

Utilitarianism: it is related to classical hedonism. It suggests that the purpose of ethics is to achieve pleasure (happiness) for as many living beings as possible and not just for the individual.

Socialist ethics: brings together the set of currents of the socialist movement of various authors, who found ethics on the principle of social justice. Among them we can mention:

  • utopian socialism,
  • anarchism,
  • Marxism.

Contemporary age

Ethics of the era of language: refers to the ethical currents from the late nineteenth century to the present. These focus their attention on the language of ethics and the forms of its statements. They have their antecedents in Nietzsche, who studied ethics from a historical and psychological perspective.

Some of these streams are:

  • emotivism,
  • prescriptivism,
  • dialogical formalism,
  • communitarianism.

It may interest you: 7 examples of ethics in everyday life.

References consulted

  • Cortina, Adela and Emilio Martínez: Ethics. Madrid: Akal Editions. 2001.
  • Fieser, James: Ethic. Available in: Internet Encyclopidia of Philosophy (IEP). Recovered from: https://iep.utm.edu/ethic/. Consultation date: October 28, 2020.

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