What is Ethics as a Branch of Philosophy?

What is ethics as a branch of philosophy? Ethics may be defined as moral philosophy or philosophy of morality. This implies that the subject matter of ethics is morality. Given the understanding that morality  is concerned with setting normative standards for evaluating human actions and character with a view to determining which ones are right or wrong, good or bad, just or unjust, ethics, understood as philosophy of morality, may be rightly described as a critical examination of the normative standards employed by individuals, groups and societies to determine the moral status of human actions, character and in some situations, social institutions or practices. This includes:

  1. The analysis of ethical concepts such as good, bad, right, wrong, just,  unjust, duty, rights, etc. The objective of this analysis is to clarify what these ethical concepts stand for as well as their
  2. The examination of moral judgments so as to ascertain their actual meaning and implications. Effort is also made, in this regard, to justify moral judgments by appealing to appropriate moral principles or general
  3. The clarification and justification of the moral principles normally appealed to for justifying moral

From the above, it is evident that while the major concern of morality is to evaluate human conducts, personality traits and social institutions or practices and arrive at normative judgments about them to the effect that they are good or bad, just or unjust, right or wrong, etc, ethics critically examines these judgments and attempts to determine the extent to which they can be justified. But, to do this effectively, it is important that the core concepts featured in these judgments are clarified, and   the principles on the basis of which they are arrived at are also clarified and justified.  

Types of Ethics

There are three prominent sub-divisions in ethics: descriptive ethics; normative ethics and meta-ethics.

  • Descriptive Ethics

Descriptive ethics describes the moral positions subscribed to by individuals, groups or societies. For instance, the claim that many Nigerians believe that homosexuality is morally unacceptable or that it is construed as morally good in ancient Greece falls within the terrain of descriptive ethics. These claims merely give a report that can be verified about the moral conviction of many Nigerians or the people of ancient Greece. This is the kind of report presented by sociologists and anthropologists and is usually rejected as not being truly philosophical.

  • Normative Ethics

Normative Ethics is the sub-division of ethics where moral judgments and principles are made. It is often described as the domain of morality proper. Statements such as John did something wrong by stealing, it was right for Anna to have told the truth, and it is morally bad for Julius to have reneged on his promise are the kind of statements made in normative ethics. Examples of moral principles that are arrived at in this arena include murder is wrong, honesty is good and candour is a virtue.

An important distinction between normative judgments and principles is that while the former are about specific human actions or character, the latter is concerned with kinds of actions or character. Besides, the relationship between moral judgments and principles is that the latter are usually appealed to in the making of the former.

  • Meta-Ethics

In Meta-Ethics, the objective of philosophers is to subject moral statements, moral principles and their constituent moral terms to critical examination in order to determine their actual connotations and implications. Analytic philosophers are of the opinion that this is what should be the primary concern of philosophers in ethics.


We have  concentrated on the clarification of morality and ethics. We have tried to carefully delineate their relationship, with the  former understood as the subject matter of the latter. While morality is primarily about the setting up of normative standards for assessing human actions, personality traits and social institutions or practices as acceptable or unacceptable, the concern of ethics is basically to critically evaluate these outputs of morality in order to clarify and justify them.

One Response

Leave a Reply