Normative ethics

Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking.

Normative ethics is distinct from meta-ethics because it examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions, while meta-ethics studies the meaning of moral language and the metaphysics of moral facts; and it is distinct from applied ethics in that the former is more concerned with 'who ought one be' rather than the ethics of a specific issue (such as if, or when, abortion is acceptable).

Normative ethics is also distinct from descriptive ethics, as the latter is an empirical investigation of people’s moral beliefs. In this context normative ethics is sometimes called prescriptive, rather than descriptive ethics. However, on certain versions of the meta-ethical view called moral realism, moral facts are both descriptive and prescriptive at the same time.

Most traditional moral theories rest on principles that determine whether an action is right or wrong. Classical theories in this vein include utilitarianism, Kantianism, and some forms of contractarianism. These theories mainly offered the use of overarching moral principles to resolve difficult moral decisions.

Normative ethical theories

There are disagreements about what precisely gives an action, rule, or disposition its ethical force. There are three competing views on how moral questions should be answered, along with hybrid positions that combine some elements of each. Virtue ethics focuses on the character of those who are acting, while both deontological ethics and consequentialism focus on the status of the action, rule, or disposition itself. The latter two conceptions of ethics themselves come in various forms.

  • Virtue ethics, advocated by Aristotle with some aspects being supported by Saint Thomas Aquinas, focuses on the inherent character of a person rather than on specific actions. There has been a significant revival of virtue ethics in the past half-century, through the work of such philosophers as G. E. M. Anscombe, Philippa Foot, Alasdair Macintyre, Mortimer J. Adler, Jacques Maritain, Yves Simon, and Rosalind Hursthouse.
  • Deontology argues that decisions should be made considering the factors of one's duties and one's rights. Some deontological theories include:
  • Consequentialism (teleology) argues that the morality of an action is contingent on the action's outcome or result. Consequentialist theories, differing in what they consider valuable (Axiology), include:
    • Utilitarianism, which holds that an action is right if it leads to the most happiness for the greatest number of people. (Historical note: Prior to the coining of the term "consequentialism" by Anscombe in 1958 and the adoption of that term in the literature that followed, "utilitarianism" was the generic term for consequentialism, referring to all theories that promoted maximizing any form of utility, not just those that promoted maximizing happiness.)
    • State consequentialism or Mohist consequentialism, which holds that an action is right if it leads to state welfare, through order, material wealth, and population growth.
    • Egoism, the belief that the moral person is the self-interested person, holds that an action is right if it maximizes good for the self.
    • Situation Ethics, which holds that the correct action is the one that creates the most loving result, and that love should always be our goal.
    • Intellectualism, which dictates that the best action is the one that best fosters and promotes knowledge.
    • Welfarism, which argues that the best action is the one that most increases economic well-being or welfare.
    • Preference utilitarianism, which holds that the best action is the one that leads to the most overall preference satisfaction.
  • Ethics of care or relational ethics, founded by feminist theorists, notably Carol Gilligan, argues that morality arises out of the experiences of empathy and compassion. It emphasizes the importance of interdependence and relationships in achieving ethical goals.
  • Pragmatic ethics is difficult to classify fully within any of the four preceding conceptions. This view argues that moral correctness evolves similarly to scientific knowledge: socially over the course of many lifetimes. Thus, we should prioritize social reform over concern with consequences, individual virtue or duty (although these may be worthwhile concerns, provided social reform is also addressed). Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, and John Dewey, are known as the founders of pragmatism.
  • Role ethics is based on the concept of family roles.

Binding force

It can be unclear what it means to say that a person "ought to do X because it is moral, whether they like it or not". Morality is sometimes presumed to have some kind of special binding force on behaviour, but some philosophers think that, used this way, the word "ought" seems to wrongly attribute magic powers to morality. For instance, G. E. M. Anscombe worries that "ought" has become "a word of mere mesmeric force".[1] British ethicist Philippa Foot elaborates that morality does not seem to have any special binding force, and she clarifies that people only behave morally when motivated by other factors.

Foot says "People talk, for instance, about the 'binding force' of morality, but it is not clear what this means if not that we feel ourselves unable to escape."[2] The idea is that, faced with an opportunity to steal a book because we can get away with it, moral obligation itself has no power to stop us unless we feel an obligation. Morality may therefore have no binding force beyond regular human motivations, and people must be motivated to behave morally. The question then arises: what role does reason play in motivating moral behaviour?

Motivating morality

The categorical imperative perspective suggests that proper reason always leads to particular moral behaviour. As mentioned above, Foot instead believes that humans are actually motivated by desires. Proper reason, on this view, allows humans to discover actions that get them what they want (i.e., hypothetical imperatives)—not necessarily actions that are moral.

Social structure and motivation can make morality binding in a sense, but only because it makes moral norms feel inescapable, according to Foot.[2] John Stuart Mill adds that external pressures, to please others for instance, also influence this felt binding force, which he calls human "conscience". Mill says that humans must first reason about what is moral, then try to bring the feelings of our conscience in line with our reason.[3] At the same time, Mill says that a good moral system (in his case, utilitarianism) ultimately appeals to aspects of human nature — which, must themselves be nurtured during upbringing. Mill explains:

This firm foundation is that of the social feelings of mankind; the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures, which is already a powerful principle in human nature, and happily one of those which tend to become stronger, even without express inculcation, from the influences of advancing civilisation.

Mill thus believes that it is important to appreciate that it is feelings that drive moral behavior, but also that they may not be present in some people (e.g. psychopaths). Mill goes on to describe factors that help ensure people develop a conscience and behave morally, and thinkers like Joseph Daleiden describe how societies can use science to figure out how to make people more likely to be good.

See also


  1. ^ Elizabeth Anscombe. (1958). "Modern Moral Philosophy". Philosophy 33, No 24.
  2. ^ a b c Foot, Philippa. (2009). Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives. In S. M. Cahn, & P. Markie,Ethics: History, Theory, and Contemporary Issues (pp. 556-561). New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. ^ John Stuart Mill (1863). Utilitarianism. Chapter 3: Of the Ultimate Sanction of the Principle of Utility.

External links

Applied ethics

Applied ethics refers to the practical application of moral considerations. It is ethics with respect to real-world actions and their moral considerations in the areas of private and public life, the professions, health, technology, law, and leadership. For example, the bioethics community is concerned with identifying the correct approach to moral issues in the life sciences, such as euthanasia, the allocation of scarce health resources, or the use of human embryos in research. Environmental ethics is concerned with ecological issues such as the responsibility of government and corporations to clean up pollution. Business ethics includes questions regarding the duties or duty of 'whistleblowers' to the general public or their loyalty to their employers. Applied ethics is distinguished from normative ethics, which concerns standards for right and wrong behavior, and from meta-ethics, which concerns the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments.


Contractualism is a term in philosophy which refers either to a family of political theories in the social contract tradition (when used in this sense, the term is synonymous with contractarianism), or to the ethical theory developed in recent years by T. M. Scanlon, especially in his book What We Owe to Each Other (published 1998).Social contract theorists from the history of political thought include Hugo Grotius (1625), Thomas Hobbes (1651), Samuel Pufendorf (1673), John Locke (1689), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1762), and Immanuel Kant (1797); more recently, John Rawls (1971), David Gauthier (1986) and Philip Pettit (1997).

Convention (norm)

A convention is a set of agreed, stipulated, or generally accepted standards, norms, social norms, or criteria, often taking the form of a custom.

Certain types of rules or customs may become law and regulatory legislation may be introduced to formalize or enforce the convention (for example, laws that define on which side of the road vehicles must be driven). In a social context, a convention may retain the character of an "unwritten law" of custom (for example, the manner in which people greet each other, such as by shaking each other's hands).

In physical sciences, numerical values (such as constants, quantities, or scales of measurement) are called conventional if they do not represent a measured property of nature, but originate in a convention, for example an average of many measurements, agreed between the scientists working with these values.

Deontological ethics

In moral philosophy, deontological ethics or deontology (from Greek δέον, deon, "obligation, duty")

is the normative ethical theory that the morality of an action should be based on whether that action itself is right or wrong under a series of rules, rather than based on the consequences of the action.It is sometimes described as duty-, obligation- or rule-based ethics, because rules "bind one to one's duty". Deontological ethics is commonly contrasted to consequentialism, virtue ethics, and pragmatic ethics. In this terminology, action is more important than the consequences.

It is an ethical framework that depends on the predefined sets of rules and policies for the proper functioning of a system in the environment. The deontology is simply based on the checklist which includes certain rules to be followed while performing a particular task. According to this framework, the work is considered virtuous only if this checklist is completed.

This procedure is very simple to implement and understand. Minimum time is consumed to decide between right and wrong. However, its simplicity ignores the consequences of the decision taken under this approach.

The term deontological was first used to describe the current, specialised definition by C. D. Broad in his 1930 book, Five Types of Ethical Theory Older usage of the term goes back to Jeremy Bentham, who coined it before 1816 as a synonym of Dicastic or Censorial Ethics (i.e. ethics based on judgement).

The more general sense of the word is retained in French, especially in the term code de déontologie (ethical code), in the context of professional ethics.

Depending on the system of deontological ethics under consideration, a moral obligation may arise from an external or internal source, such as a set of rules inherent to the universe (ethical naturalism), religious law, or a set of personal or cultural values (any of which may be in conflict with personal desires).

Descriptive ethics

Descriptive ethics, also known as comparative ethics, is the study of people's beliefs about morality. It contrasts with prescriptive or normative ethics, which is the study of ethical theories that prescribe how people ought to act, and with meta-ethics, which is the study of what ethical terms and theories actually refer to. The following examples of questions that might be considered in each field illustrate the differences between the fields:

Descriptive ethics: What do people think is right?

Meta-ethics: What does "right" even mean?

Normative (prescriptive) ethics: How should people act?

Applied ethics: How do we take moral knowledge and put it into practice?

Ethical egoism

Ethical egoism is the normative ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest. It differs from psychological egoism, which claims that people can only act in their self-interest. Ethical egoism also differs from rational egoism, which holds that it is rational to act in one's self-interest.

Ethical egoism holds, therefore, that actions whose consequences will benefit the doer can be considered ethical in this sense.

Ethical egoism contrasts with ethical altruism, which holds that moral agents have an obligation to help others. Egoism and altruism both contrast with ethical utilitarianism, which holds that a moral agent should treat one's self (also known as the subject) with no higher regard than one has for others (as egoism does, by elevating self-interests and "the self" to a status not granted to others). But it also holds that one is not obligated to sacrifice one's own interests (as altruism does) to help others' interests, so long as one's own interests (i.e. one's own desires or well-being) are substantially equivalent to the others' interests and well-being, but he has the choice to do so. Egoism, utilitarianism, and altruism are all forms of consequentialism, but egoism and altruism contrast with utilitarianism, in that egoism and altruism are both agent-focused forms of consequentialism (i.e. subject-focused or subjective). However, utilitarianism is held to be agent-neutral (i.e. objective and impartial): it does not treat the subject's (i.e. the self's, i.e. the moral "agent's") own interests as being more or less important than the interests, desires, or well-being of others.

Ethical egoism does not, however, require moral agents to harm the interests and well-being of others when making moral deliberation; e.g. what is in an agent's self-interest may be incidentally detrimental, beneficial, or neutral in its effect on others. Individualism allows for others' interest and well-being to be disregarded or not, as long as what is chosen is efficacious in satisfying the self-interest of the agent. Nor does ethical egoism necessarily entail that, in pursuing self-interest, one ought always to do what one wants to do; e.g. in the long term, the fulfillment of short-term desires may prove detrimental to the self. Fleeting pleasure, then, takes a back seat to protracted eudaimonia. In the words of James Rachels, "Ethical egoism ... endorses selfishness, but it doesn't endorse foolishness."Ethical egoism is often used as the philosophical basis for support of right-libertarianism and individualist anarchism. These are political positions based partly on a belief that individuals should not coercively prevent others from exercising freedom of action.


Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct. The field of ethics, along with aesthetics, concerns matters of value, and thus comprises the branch of philosophy called axiology.Ethics seeks to resolve questions of human morality by defining concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime. As a field of intellectual inquiry, moral philosophy also is related to the fields of moral psychology, descriptive ethics, and value theory.

Three major areas of study within ethics recognized today are:

Meta-ethics, concerning the theoretical meaning and reference of moral propositions, and how their truth values (if any) can be determined

Normative ethics, concerning the practical means of determining a moral course of action

Applied ethics, concerning what a person is obligated (or permitted) to do in a specific situation or a particular domain of action

Ethics of care

The ethics of care (alternatively care ethics or EoC) is a normative ethical theory that holds that moral action centers on interpersonal relationships and care or benevolence as a virtue. EoC is one of a cluster of normative ethical theories that were developed by feminists in the second half of the twentieth century. While consequentialist and deontological ethical theories emphasize generalizable standards and impartiality, ethics of care emphasize the importance of response to the individual. The distinction between the general and the individual is reflected in their different moral questions: "what is just?" versus "how to respond?". Gilligan criticizes the application of generalized standards as "morally problematic, since it breeds moral blindness or indifference."Some beliefs of the theory are basic:

Persons are understood to have varying degrees of dependence and interdependence on one another.

Individuals affected by the consequences of one's choices deserve consideration in proportion to their vulnerability.

Details determine how to safeguard and promote the interests of those involved.

Feminist ethics

Feminist ethics is an approach to ethics that builds on the belief that traditionally ethical theorizing has under-valued and/or under-appreciated women's moral experience, which is largely male-dominated, and it therefore chooses to reimagine ethics through a holistic feminist approach to transform it.


Meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally studied by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics.

While normative ethics addresses such questions as "What should I do?", evaluating specific practices and principles of action, meta-ethics addresses questions such as "What is goodness?" and "How can we tell what is good from what is bad?", seeking to understand the nature of ethical properties and evaluations.

Some theorists argue that a metaphysical account of morality is necessary for the proper evaluation of actual moral theories and for making practical moral decisions; others reason from opposite premises and suggest that studying moral judgments about proper actions can guide us to a true account of the nature of morality.

Moderate objectivism

The Moderate objectivism account of moral principles is based on the ethics of Sir William David Ross (1877–1940). Moderate objectivism adheres to basic notions of the Natural Law Theory. W. D. Ross refers to these moderate objectivists' accounts of moral principles as “prima facie principles” which are valid rules of action that one should generally adhere to but, in cases of moral conflict, may be overridable by another moral principle, hence the moderation.

Moral absolutism

Moral absolutism is an ethical view that all actions are intrinsically right or wrong. Stealing, for instance, might be considered to be always immoral, even if done for the well-being of others (e.g., stealing food to feed a starving family), and even if it does in the end promote such a good. Moral absolutism stands in contrast to other categories of normative ethical theories such as consequentialism, which holds that the morality (in the wide sense) of an act depends on the consequences or the context of the act.

Moral absolutism is not the same as moral universalism. Universalism holds merely that what is right or wrong is independent of custom or opinion (as opposed to moral relativism), but not necessarily that what is right or wrong is independent of context or consequences (as in absolutism). Moral universalism is compatible with moral absolutism, but also positions such as consequentialism. Louis Pojman gives the following definitions to distinguish the two positions of moral absolutism and universalism:

Moral absolutism: There is at least one principle that ought never to be violated.

Moral objectivism: There is a fact of the matter as to whether any given action is morally permissible or impermissible: a fact of the matter that does not depend solely on social custom or individual acceptance.Ethical theories which place strong emphasis on rights and duty, such as the deontological ethics of Immanuel Kant, are often forms of moral absolutism, as are many religious moral codes.

Moral blindness

Moral blindness is a state of unawareness or insensibility to moral issues pertaining both to oneself and to one's relations to others. George Eliot considered that "We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves". Healthy development leads away from early egotism to produce greater levels of awareness, leading to degrees of what Abraham Maslow called "lesser blindness".Critics question whether "moral blindness" is ever more than a useful weapon of debate with which to charge one's opponents.

Moral constructivism

Moral constructivism or ethical constructivism is a view both in meta-ethics and normative ethics.

Metaethical constructivism holds that correctness of moral judgments, principles and values is determined by being the result of a suitable constructivist procedure. In other words, normative values are not something discovered by the use of theoretical reason, but a construction of human practical reason.

In normative ethics, moral constructivism is the view that principles and values within a given normative domain can be justified based on the very fact that they are the result of a suitable constructivist device or procedure.


Normative generally means relating to an evaluative standard. Normativity is the phenomenon in human societies of designating some actions or outcomes as good or desirable or permissible and others as bad or undesirable or impermissible. A norm in this normative sense means a standard for evaluating or making judgments about behavior or outcomes. Normative is sometimes also used, somewhat confusingly, to mean relating to a descriptive standard: doing what is normally done or what most others are expected to do in practice. In this sense a norm is not evaluative, a basis for judging behavior or outcomes; it is simply a fact or observation about behavior or outcomes, without judgment. Many researchers in this field try to restrict the use of the term normative to the evaluative sense and refer to the description of behavior and outcomes as positive, descriptive, predictive, or empirical.Normative has specialized meanings in different academic disciplines such as philosophy, social sciences, and law. In most contexts, normative means 'relating to an evaluation or value judgment.' Normative propositions tend to evaluate some object or some course of action. Normative content differs from descriptive content.One of the major developments in analytic philosophy has seen the reach of normativity spread to virtually all corners of the field, from ethics and the philosophy of action, to epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of science. Saul Kripke famously showed that rules (including mathematical rules, such as the repetition of a decimal pattern) are normative in an important respect.Though philosophers disagree about how normativity should be understood, it has become increasingly common to understand normative claims as claims about reasons. As Derek Parfit explains:

We can have reasons to believe something, to do something, to have some desire or aim, and to have many other attitudes and emotions, such as fear, regret, and hope. Reasons are given by facts, such as the fact that someone's finger-prints are on some gun, or that calling an ambulance would save someone's life. It is hard to explain the concept of a reason, or what the phrase 'a reason' means. Facts give us reasons, we might say, when they count in favour of our having some attitude, or our acting in some way. But 'counts in favour of' means roughly 'gives a reason for'. The concept of a reason is best explained by example. One example is the thought that we always have a reason to want to avoid being in agony.

Pragmatic ethics

Pragmatic ethics is a theory of normative philosophical ethics. Ethical pragmatists such as John Dewey believe that some societies have progressed morally in much the way they have attained progress in science. Scientists can pursue inquiry into the truth of a hypothesis and accept the hypothesis, in the sense that they act as though the hypothesis were true; nonetheless, they think that future generations can advance science, and thus future generations can refine or replace (at least some of) their accepted hypotheses. Similarly, ethical pragmatists think that norms, principles, and moral criteria are likely to be improved as a result of inquiry.

Role ethics

Role ethics is an ethical theory based on family roles. Unlike virtue ethics, role ethics is not individualistic. Morality is derived from a person's relationship with their community. The ethics of Confucianism is an example of role ethics.

Shelly Kagan

Shelly Kagan () is Clark Professor of Philosophy at Yale University, where he has taught since 1995. He is best known for his writings about moral philosophy and normative ethics. In 2007, Kagan's course about death was offered for free online, and proved to be very popular. This led to him publishing a book on the subject in 2012. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2016.

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics (or aretaic ethics , from Greek ἀρετή (arete)) are normative ethical theories which emphasize virtues of mind and character. Virtue ethicists discuss the nature and definition of virtues and other related problems. These include how virtues are acquired, how they are applied in various real life contexts, and whether they are rooted in a universal human nature or in a plurality of cultures.

Applied ethics
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