Ethical theories can doubtless be classified, cross-connected and contrasted in many ways. I am not looking for a definitive classification, only a useful typology to get me started. Refinements and alternatives can come later.

I have encountered references to deontology, utilitarianism, consequentialism... but don't know how to align these so as start the study of ethics without unnecessary confusion.

  • Quite a few.. Ones relating to professions : law, medicine, science, politics etc. Ones relating to religions and ideologies, classical ones, modern ones, individual ones.. and otbers I haven't thought of.
    – Richard
    Mar 19, 2019 at 1:38
  • The main types are consequentialism (utilitarianism is a subtype), deontology, and virtue ethics, see IEP Ethics. This type of question is too broad for us, we answer more specific ones.
    – Conifold
    Mar 19, 2019 at 3:36

2 Answers 2


James Fieser divides the study of ethics into three subject areas:

The field of ethics (or moral philosophy) involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior. Philosophers today usually divide ethical theories into three general subject areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Metaethics investigates where our ethical principles come from, and what they mean. Are they merely social inventions? Do they involve more than expressions of our individual emotions? Metaethical answers to these questions focus on the issues of universal truths, the will of God, the role of reason in ethical judgments, and the meaning of ethical terms themselves. Normative ethics takes on a more practical task, which is to arrive at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct. This may involve articulating the good habits that we should acquire, the duties that we should follow, or the consequences of our behavior on others. Finally, applied ethics involves examining specific controversial issues, such as abortion, infanticide, animal rights, environmental concerns, homosexuality, capital punishment, or nuclear war.

These three subject areas can be further divided.

He focuses on two issues of metaethics:

Two issues, though, are prominent: (1) metaphysical issues concerning whether morality exists independently of humans, and (2) psychological issues concerning the underlying mental basis of our moral judgments and conduct.

He breaks normative ethics into three strategies:

The key assumption in normative ethics is that there is only one ultimate criterion of moral conduct, whether it is a single rule or a set of principles. Three strategies will be noted here: (1) virtue theories, (2) duty theories, and (3) consequentialist theories.

Applied ethics includes specific issues. The problem here is to distinguish when an issue is an applied ethical issue from social policy issues. He notes two criteria he claims are necessary for an issue to be an applied ethics issue:

First, the issue needs to be controversial in the sense that there are significant groups of people both for and against the issue at hand.


The second requirement for an issue to be an applied ethical issue is that it must be a distinctly moral issue.

Let's consider the question: So, what are the classifications of these ethics?

Fieser's way to classify what people do when they write about ethics is to consider if the subject area is metaethics, normative ethics or applied ethics. From there one can continue dividing the subject areas as needed.

James Fieser, "Ethics" Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy https://www.iep.utm.edu/ethics/


Welcome Guilherme Penteado

Normative ethics

These ethical theories set out what (in their view) one ought to do or how one ought to be.

I should say that very broadly there are three types of such ethics :

  1. Ethical theories that focus on results, on states of affairs to be achieved. The stress is on the best outcome, however assessed. Such theories are consequentialist and in looking for an end-result of action teleological in the sense of aiming at an end or goal. A standard example is utilitarianism but consequentialism and utilitarianism need to be held conceptually just a bit apart. If consequentialism holds that the moral rightness or wrongness of an action is determined by - is a function of - its consequences, utilitarianism adds the requirement that consequences are to be maximised according to a certain metric. So, for instance, a consequentialist might hold that an action is right or wrong according as its consequences produce pleasure or happiness; a utilitarian will more rigorously demand that an action is morally right only if, in its consequences, it maximises within the capacity of the agent the production of pleasure of happiness. Not just consequences count but the maximisation of consequences for pleasure, happiness or whatever the utilitarian metric.

  2. Ethical theories that focus on the agent's state of mind, on the structure of moral motivatation. Kantian ethics with its stress on the agent's acting on universalisable rules and doing one's duty because it is required of a rationally consistent agent and not because it will produce a certain outcome. The label, deontological, duty-centred, is often used to indicate this type of ethical theory

  3. Ethical theories that focus on the agent's character, on her possessing and exercising certain traits of character - virtues - which are proper to a human being. Such traits might be courage, truthfulness, justice. Theories of this type are generally referred to a virtue ethics. The prime philosopher here is Aristotle, though virtue ethics has attracted present-day interest not tied to Aristotle.

Note on religion

Note on applied ethics

Applied ethics aren't a type of ethical theory but aim to work out how normative ethical theories pertain to particular states of affairs and situations. If I am a consequentialist, for instance, what are the implications of my ethical stance for policies about the environment or intervention in the affairs of other countries or voluntary euthanasia ?

Religious or theological ethics are not of a distinct type from the three above and have not been ignored or excluded. Goals of action, states of mind, and traits of character may be matters of divine command or otherwise fit with a religious view of the world. Equally the three types of ethics fit into non-religious perspectives.


This covers the ground of theories about ethical theories. They are one level up from normative theories. So, for instance, a theory that tells us there is no objectivity in normative theories, that all moral judgements are false (J.L. Mackie's 'error' theory) and merely express our emotions or attitudes or social mores, is meta-ethical. It is at a remove from the normatively ethical and aims to tell us something about it. The same would be the case with a theory that accepted that moral judgements can be true but denied that we have any way of knowing which judgements are true because we lack the power of moral cognition. This would be a meta-ethical theory.

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