The concept of ethics revolves around the classical question of what is right, and what is wrong. The study of ethics is that constituent of general philosophy that specifically addresses the questions surrounding human morals. How are we to deduce what in fact is right, or wrong? Are these concepts of right and wrong absolute and eternal? Or are they dynamic, relative to time and circumstance? What is it that defines our individual ethics? Where does our sense of ethics come from? How do we apply these ethics to our actions, decisions, and opinions?
These are questions that have troubled our minds, and those of our ancestors, past the pre-Socratics and all the way back to the first human with the gift of contemplation. As a result, many ideas about ethics have been put forth by history’s great thinkers, all of them valid, coherent, logically sound arguments. It was those great thinkers who shaped the way in which we look at the issue of ethics; and so we divide the greater question of ethics into a structure of smaller questions.
What is this concept of ethics and where does it come from? Metaethics deals with ethics on the most fundamental level, looking at the origin and meaning of ethics itself from metaphysical and psychological perspectives. What exactly is right, and what is wrong, and how did we arrive at such conclusions? Normative ethics searches the realm of reason for an absolute definition of such. The Golden Rule of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is one of many ideas in normative ethics. How are these abstract ideas of right and wrong to be applied in the practical world? How is one to take the concept of ethics and apply it to one of the many issues we face in our place and time? Applied ethics takes the ideas of Normative ethics and seeks to define the right and wrong sides of an argument.
In my opinion these three areas of ethics seem to coincide with David Lane’s concept of the three levels of consciousness, Pretext, Text and Context. According to this correlation, Lane’s Pretext would align with Metaethics as the ability to understand the idea of ethics itself and how it relates to the physical world. Normative ethics would be parallel to Lane’s Text as the process of actually contemplating ethics and defining what is right versus wrong. Lane’s Context would be the equivalent of Applied Ethics as taking the ideas defined in the Text/Normative stage and actually putting them into the context of the physical world.
We live in a complex world, and before we can begin to understand anything about it, we must possess the most basic tools of cognition. These philosophy classes, Intro, Critical Thinking, Ethics, and so forth teach us how to decide what is logical, or illogical, ethical or unethical. How can we say that an idea is logical if we don’t know logic? How can we say that we’ve been convinced if we can’t separate logic from rhetoric? And finally, how can we say that something is wrong if we don’t know how to determine what is right?