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Consider two ethical questions:

(1) Is action A more or less ethical than action B?

(2) Is outcome A more or less ethical than outcome B?

Question 1 is the focus of normative ethics. Question 2 seems to be a topic within meta-ethics, but my understanding is that meta-ethics is far broader than just comparing outcomes. Question 2 also seems related to the normative theory of consequentialism, however question 2 is not a normative question.

Is there a field within ethics that focuses on questions along the lines of “question 2”?

Edit:

I realized I need to clarify what I mean by “outcome”. I’m thinking of an “outcome” as a state of the world than can be considered independently of any person’s actions. Using the Trolley problem as an example, I would like to consider the action of the operator who can move the lever (i.e. moving lever to divert train, or not moving lever) as a separate question from the outcome (i.e. lever was moved and 1 person was killed, lever was not moved and 5 people were killed). It seems to me that one can hold an opinion on the ethics of these outcomes independently from how one judges the actions of the operator.

As a more extreme example, we could let outcome A be the state of the world as it is today, and let outcome B be the state of the world after being hit by a meteor that kills all life. Are there approaches to evaluating whether outcome A is more "good" than outcome B?

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 8:38
  • I guess the trolley problem is a particularly bad example as the action and the outcome or so closely and immediately tied to each other. In that if you pull the lever someone is going to die, so pulling the lever isn't just pulling the lever it's killing someone. So action=outcome. But what if there is a lever you don't know what it does and you decide to pull it? Are you responsible for death or glory following it? Would you punish it by the action or by the consequences even if you were not aware of them or do you assume they "should have known" or willfully ignored the risk?
    – haxor789
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 13:07

3 Answers 3

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The terms normative ethics and meta-ethics can be slippery at times. However, in general both 1 and 2 that you have listed would fall more into the normative ethics side of things. To answer your immediate question, topic 2 is called value theory. Value theory concerns the moral value of states-of-affairs (what you have called outcomes). It is worth noting, however, that actions are also a special case of states of affairs when they are considered in an agent-neutral way. That is, if the action of murdering is morally bad (as a state of affairs), then more value is produced by an agent murdering one innocent to prevent the murder of five innocents. However, this may not imply that such an action is morally right from an agent-centric perspective.

To address the background confusion about normative ethics vs meta-ethics. Meta-ethics deals with questions such as what are the nature of moral obligations or moral goods (i.e., as opposed to what is good or what is our duty). Basically you can think of meta-ethics as philosophy of language, metaphysics, and epistemology applied to the subject of morality. Normative ethics is about the actual content of morality.

That said, some philosophers more so that others have attempted to link the two by arguing for normative ethical conclusions from meta-ethical premises. Certainly one's meta-ethics can sometimes influence what kinds of argumentation one finds convincing in normative discussions. To take an obvious example, a philosopher with a meta-ethics that grounds moral truth in God's commandments will tend to use a very different form of argumentation than a philosopher with a meta-ethics that grounds moral truth in human biology (not to say those are the only two options!).

However, often the differences in meta-ethical framework to not line up neatly with differences in normative claims. People have argued for normative positions such as utilitarianism, egalitarianism, contractualism, rights theories, etc. on many different meta-ethical foundations. In my master's thesis, I argued that there is a methodological convergence of all the main plausible meta-ethical frameworks around reflective equilibrium. Thus, in contemporary normative theory, meta-ethics is less important than it was considered to be in the middle of the 20th Century.

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  • Thanks for this answer! It addresses exactly my confusions. I think your idea of framing moral judgements as agent-neutral vs agent-centric is very helpful.
    – C.M.O.B.
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 18:23
  • Glad it was a helpful answer. I can't take credit for the agent-neutral vs agent-centric distinction. I don't know which philosopher first articulated that but it is a well established distinction.
    – Avi C
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 19:07
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Roughly speaking, you describe the demarcation line between deontological and consequentialist ethics.

Deontological ethics roughly evaluate an action by the primary reason the person had to do it according to certain principles. Deontology literally means the study of duties and they generally hold that there are certain actions that are inherently good and others that are inherently bad.

Consequentialist ethics do not evaluate the action itself but only the potential or actual outcomes and ascribe the value to the action accordingly.

Therefore, you basically ask for consequentialist ethics. For starters, you should read the corresponding SEP article to get an overview of the different flavours and authors understood under this umbrella term.

Under the first link, in the first section after the introduction, you can also find valid criticisms of consequentialism, for example that in order to judge the value of any action accurately, we'd basically need to be omniscient: no matter whether we take personal feelings of well-being, overall utility, or more obscure things like biological appropriateness as a criterion for the evaluation of consequences, we always have a hard time to know what exactly the impact of our action compared to its alternatives will actually be.

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  • Thanks for your answer! I understand that consequentialism involves evaluating which outcomes are good or bad for the purpose of determining which actions are good or bad. But I’m interested in evaluating outcomes in their own right, not necessarily as a first step towards judging action. Conifold’s comment pointed me toward “value theory”, which seems to be more along the lines of what I’m looking for.
    – C.M.O.B.
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 1:46
  • @C.M.O.B. Well, value theory is a broad field (see the SEP article). Basically, what you are looking for are intrinsic value theories that judge outcomes. These theories are the basis of consequentialism since only if you are convinced that the ethical value is to be found in producing certain outcomes, it does make sense to judge actions according to the outcomes. I, therefore, think that looking into one without looking into the other will be a dead end since you will not find a value theory isolated without this context.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 21, 2022 at 7:44
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No what is right and wrong in a UNIVERSAL sense is what MORALITY is about --NOT Ethics. So you are confusing the terminology as most common folk do. Ethics as a practical field always has a committee making the decision yes or no? What qualifies those people in the first place? Secondly are those people chosen from all walks of life or from the upper part of life? It seems practically hard to find low status people on an ethical committee.

You need to STOP thinking what that Ethics is about right & wrong for all people as you do. A distinct committee determines right & wrong for each field like military ethics, medical ethics, business ethics, legal ethics, and so on. If there were such a THING as right and wrong in ETHICS why are there distinct types of Ethics like I just listed above? There is not different types of MORALITY. There is ONE MORALITY. The ethical rules in one location does not necessarily apply everywhere else. A moral theory is supposed to apply everywhere simultaneously. AGAIN I mention abortion: if pro life advocates are correct that abortion is "murder" then they mean no place should allow abortion not just NY or Texas. EVERYWHERE on EARTH the proposition would be true. Ethics does not do that! Ethics =some places Earth the rule may hold & morality = everywhere on Earth.

Yes Morality does fall under a subject named "Normative Ethics" but the Ethics part of the name is not used in the same sense. You also have Meta-Ethics wrong. Meta- Ethics is about the semantics used in moral arguments & not the application of how to use the decisions in reality. So unless your topic is semantic you will not need Meta-Ethics.

If you desire the practical side of what to do when a decision is made you are looking for APPLIED ETHICS.

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  • If Morality trumps Ethics, why don't we just skip straight to Morality? How can it make sense to decide to do something that is wrong? Could some situations involve a choice where the only 2 options are both immoral? Are there real life "Trolley Problems"? What happens then?
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 11:49
  • Conversely, if sometimes we need to choose the lesser of 2 evils, and that is the function of Ethics, then what is Morality except the yardstick we measure options by? One of the two needs to yield to the other.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 11:52
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    @Scott Rowe, there is not such thing as right & wrong outside of morality. Ethics discusses what actions are appropriate or acceptable by a group making the standards which is not universal. If we are not talking a rule that applies everywhere on Earth we are not referring to morality. Abortion is a moral topic, the death penalty is a moral topic, incest is a moral topic, etc. How Google handles business contracts is an ethical issue, how doctors decide which patients get a rare operation that may not be financially sound due to the patient survival rate is about medical ethics.
    – Logikal
    Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 16:14
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    @Scott Rowe, the two fields may overlap occasionally but this is not necessarily so. Ethics is decided by authorities Morality is not decided by just people on charge. That is a major difference. Objective truth is what makes morality trump other systems of what you call right & wrong actions. For morality to make sense the rule has to apply everywhere & to all people simultaneously or what would we need it for? How would it be different from just authority rule? Authorities can make mistakes too not just the people with lower status. You keep appealing to authority. Morality doesn't do that
    – Logikal
    Commented Jun 19, 2022 at 16:22
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    If the Oxford Handbook of Ethics does say the terms can be used interchangeably, who are you to say this was a "common folk" mistake? The terms go back to the greek and latin word for the exact same thing, even if some philosophers do explicitly distinguish between ethics as being about a (subjectively) happy life and morals being about (objectively) good actions. You basically use Kant's terminology here but that's not the common use in contemporary philosophy, especially as objective values are a subject of debate.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Commented Jun 20, 2022 at 8:42

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