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Branch of philosophy that seeks to determine the correct application of moral notions such as good and bad and right and wrong or a theory of the application or nature of such notions. Ethics is traditionally subdivided into normative ethics, metaethics, and applied ethics. Normative ethics seeks to establish norms or standards of conduct; a crucial question in this field is whether actions are to be judged right or wrong based on their consequences or based on their conformity to some moral rule, such as Do not tell a lie. Theories that adopt the former basis of judgment are called consequentialist (seeconsequentialism); those that adopt the latter are known as deontological (seedeontological ethics). Metaethics is concerned with the nature of ethical judgments and theories. Since the beginning of the 20th century, much work in metaethics has focused on the logical and semantic aspects of moral language. Some major metaethical theories are naturalism (seenaturalistic fallacy), intuitionism, emotivism, and prescriptivism. Applied ethics, as the name implies, consists of the application of normative ethical theories to practical moral problems (e.g., abortion). Among the major fields of applied ethics are bioethics, business ethics, legal ethics, and medical ethics.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on ethics, visit Britannica.com.