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Normative Ethics and Normative Ethical Theories

This is an excerpt from Ethics in Sport, Third Edition, by William Morgan.

We are now well positioned to sketch out the main moral theories that bear on the ethical considerations of sport featured in the essays to come (table 3). These moral theories are largely of the normative variety in that they seek to spell out what principles, reasons, and values should guide our actions in particular sporting circumstances. However, the first section of essays implicates another branch of moral inquiry known as "metaethics," in which the primary aim is to explain and justify the status of normative ethical claims themselves. Thus normative questions such as, "Should you treat your opponents in sport with moral respect?" when cast in metaethical terms are transposed into questions of this sort: "What work is being done by the notion of ’should’ in this and similar questions?" This asks, among other things, whether "should" in this context is to be understood as describing certain facts about us as human agents qua athletes or about the nature of sport itself, or whether the term is to be understood as prescribing certain ways in which sport is supposed to be valued; or is it to be understood as doing both? (The latter option would require denying any hard and fast distinction between facts and values.) One might also ask whether the moral judgments that back up "shoulds" of this kind are to be understood as ascribing some moral property to our actions in sport, or merely registering our attitudes or desires of approval or disapproval (a view variously called emotivism or expressivism). In metaethical inquiry, then, we are interested in the meaning of moral terms such as "right" and "good" when used in social settings such as those characteristic of sport, and in marking off moral from nonmoral considerations of such social practices. Above all else, however, metaethics is concerned with the justification of moral judgments, of whether the claim "You should respect your competitors in sport" is one that is binding on everyone who engages in sport, or is rather a personal claim of approval binding only on those who likewise approve (or disapprove, as the case may be) of actions like these. In the former sense, moral judgments can be treated as true or false, but in the latter they cannot be treated as either because they lack cognitive standing - that is, they are not the sort of thing than can be shown to be true or false (a view known as noncognitivism).


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