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Metaethics vs. Normative Ethics: What's the Difference?

Edited by Aimie Carlson || By Janet White || Published on March 5, 2024
Metaethics explores the nature of moral judgments and ethical terms, while normative ethics prescribes standards for right and wrong behavior.

Key Differences

Metaethics delves into the foundation of ethical principles, questioning what morality itself means and the nature of ethical judgments. It investigates issues like the origin of moral values and whether they are subjective or objective. Normative ethics, by contrast, is concerned with setting the standards that govern right and wrong actions. It outlines the criteria for what makes actions morally right or wrong, aiming to establish a framework for ethical behavior.
In metaethics, the focus is on understanding the semantics, metaphysics, and epistemology of moral concepts. It asks questions about the meaning of ethical terms, the truth of moral statements, and how we can know what is morally right or wrong. Normative ethics, however, directly addresses the content of moral norms and the justification of moral theories. It includes debates on consequentialism, deontology, and virtue ethics, providing guidelines for moral decision-making.
Metaethics is primarily concerned with theoretical aspects of morality, such as the implications of moral relativism or moral realism. It ponders the existence of universal moral principles, independent of human opinion or culture. Normative ethics takes a more practical approach, offering specific prescriptions for action and evaluating the moral dimensions of human conduct.
The distinction between metaethics and normative ethics lies in their levels of abstraction. Metaethics operates at a higher level of abstraction, analyzing the fundamental nature of morality and ethical reasoning. Normative ethics operates at a more concrete level, establishing norms and rules that guide moral behavior.
Metaethics seeks to understand the underpinnings of moral thought and language, normative ethics aims to apply these concepts in real-world contexts. Metaethics might explore why we consider certain actions right or wrong, while normative ethics would determine which actions are right or wrong based on a specific moral framework.

Comparison Chart


Nature of moral judgments and ethical terms
Prescribing standards for right and wrong behavior

Questions Addressed

What does "good" mean? Are moral values objective?
What actions are morally right or wrong?

Theoretical vs. Practical

Theoretical analysis of moral concepts
Practical application of moral principles

Type of Inquiry

Philosophical inquiry into the meaning of morality
Development of ethical theories to guide behavior


Understanding the essence and semantics of ethics
Establishing guidelines for ethical conduct

Metaethics and Normative Ethics Definitions


It examines the meaning of ethical terms.
In metaethics, clarifying the meaning of justice is crucial for deeper philosophical discussions.

Normative Ethics

Normative ethics seeks to establish rules for ethical behavior.
Normative ethics might argue that lying is always morally wrong.


Questions the universality of moral principles.
Metaethics scrutinizes the claim that morality varies between cultures.

Normative Ethics

Provides frameworks for evaluating actions.
According to normative ethics, actions are judged based on their consequences.


Metaethics investigates the nature of moral values.
Ethical debates often hinge on metaethical considerations about what good really means.

Normative Ethics

Focuses on duty and rules.
In normative ethics, following the law is considered a moral obligation.


Explores how we know what is right or wrong.
Metaethics asks how we can have moral knowledge.

Normative Ethics

Judges actions by their outcomes.
Normative ethics evaluates whether an action's consequences justify its means.


Considers the existence of moral facts.
Metaethics debates whether moral truths exist independently of human beliefs.

Normative Ethics

Emphasizes moral character.
Normative ethics promotes developing virtues like honesty and compassion.


The study of the meaning and nature of ethical terms, judgments, and arguments.


(ethics) The study of the nature and meaning of moral judgments, and the foundations and the possibility of ethical reasoning as such.


Can you give an example of a metaethical question?

"Is morality subjective or objective?"

What is normative ethics?

Normative ethics develops theories about what is morally right or wrong.

What role does normative ethics play?

It guides individuals and societies in making moral decisions.

What is moral realism?

A metaethical view that there are objective moral truths.

What is moral relativism?

The metaethical position that moral judgments are not universally true.

How do metaethicists analyze moral language?

By examining the meaning and use of ethical terms and statements.

What’s an example of a normative ethical question?

"Is it ever morally permissible to lie?"

How does metaethics differ from normative ethics?

Metaethics is about understanding moral thought and language; normative ethics is about prescribing moral behavior.

What is consequentialism?

A normative ethical theory that judges actions by their outcomes.

What is deontology?

A normative ethical theory that emphasizes duty and rules.

What is metaethics?

Metaethics examines the nature, meaning, and foundations of ethical concepts.

How do normative ethics influence laws and policies?

By providing ethical frameworks that inform societal rules and standards.

What is the difference between ethics and morality in metaethics?

Metaethics often treats ethics and morality as broadly interchangeable, focusing on their conceptual foundations.

What is virtue ethics?

A normative approach focusing on moral character and virtues.

Why is metaethics important?

It helps clarify the fundamental principles underlying moral judgments.

Can metaethics influence normative ethics?

Yes, metaethical theories can underpin normative ethical frameworks.

Is ethics subjective according to metaethics?

Metaethics explores both subjective and objective perspectives on morality.

Can normative ethics resolve moral dilemmas?

It can offer guidelines, though dilemmas often require weighing competing ethical principles.

What is the significance of moral ontology in metaethics?

It explores whether moral properties exist and their nature.

How do cultural differences impact normative ethics?

They can lead to diverse ethical systems, though normative ethics seeks universal principles.
About Author
Written by
Janet White
Janet White has been an esteemed writer and blogger for Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Science and Medical Journalism from the prestigious Boston University, she has consistently demonstrated her expertise and passion for her field. When she's not immersed in her work, Janet relishes her time exercising, delving into a good book, and cherishing moments with friends and family.
Edited by
Aimie Carlson
Aimie Carlson, holding a master's degree in English literature, is a fervent English language enthusiast. She lends her writing talents to Difference Wiki, a prominent website that specializes in comparisons, offering readers insightful analyses that both captivate and inform.

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