Normative ethics is one of three main component areas of inquiry of philosophical ethics, the two others being meta-ethics and applied ethics. Normative ethics, also known as normative theory, or moral theory, intends to find out which actions are right and wrong, or which character traits are good and bad. In contrast, meta-ethics, as the term suggests, is a study of the nature of ethics. A meta-ethical study would be concerned, amongst other things, with determining the meaning and objectivity of moral concepts of right and wrong, or good and bad. Applied ethics is just the application of normative ethics to particular issues of practical concern such as abortion, euthanasia, cloning, animal rights, and criminal punishment, sometimes using the conceptual tools of meta-ethics as well.
Normative ethics is normative in that they have either moral principles as standards of right action or virtues as standards of good character in terms of which right action can be known eventually. There are four normative theories: 1) Utilitarianism with the principle of utility as the basic moral principle; 2) Kantianism with the categorical imperative as the fundamental moral principle; 3) ethical intuitionism (in its methodological sense) with a plurality of moral principles; and 4) virtue ethics with virtues as its focus.
Some tension has been noticed between the two different emphases of normative ethics: action, on the one hand, and virtue, on the other. The former asks which actions are right, whereas the latter asks which states of character are morally good. But, the unity of normative ethics can be explored by understanding that the moral principles of action and the virtues of character can be known in view of each other at least to some degree.
Often, the question of where moral rules and virtues in normative ethics come from is asked. This question is usually addressed in the metaphysical inquiry of meta-ethics, which, of course, has other kinds of inquiry as well. While one type of answer says that they are merely human conventions as in moral relativism, another type holds that these moral values are eternal truths from beyond our physical world as in Platonic realism or Medieval philosophy. The latter type often refers to God as the ground of morality, as in the divine command theory in meta-ethics today.
While applied ethics is important as the practical application of normative ethics with the use of meta-ethical concepts, normative ethics and meta-ethics constitue the two main component areas of inquiry in philosophical ethics. It is helpful to consider the relation between these two areas of investigation in understanding the concept of normative ethics.
Meta-ethics is an inquiry into the nature of ethics. The prefix meta suggests "aboutness," as, for example, in the word meta-psychology, which is the study of psychology—what it is as a discipline—rather than a study in psychology. Simplifying somewhat, we can say that a meta-inquiry is a study of a study. Meta-ethics is then the study of ethics, which is itself an area of study.
Meta-ethics is concerned with determining the nature of judgments of moral right or wrong, good and bad. It is not concerned with finding out which actions or things are right and wrong, or which states are good and bad, but with understanding the nature and meaning of concepts of right and wrong, good and bad. Meta-ethics does not ask whether lying is always wrong. Rather, it tries to ascertain whether there really is difference between right and wrong, or tries to clarify what it means to say that an action is right or wrong. A meta-ethical inquiry may ask: What, if anything, makes a judgment that lying is always wrong, true (or false)?
The word normative is an adjective which comes from "norm." In a philosophical context, the word norm usually means standard, or rule, or principle, as opposed to what is "normal" for people to do, that is, what they actually do. For example, the rules of arithmetic are normative in the philosophical sense, because reasoning can be assessed against these rules and judged correct or incorrect, irrespective of whether this usage is the normal usage. If everyone were to calculate 7+5 as 57, they would have made a mistake, for they would have misunderstood the rules (norms) of arithmetic. So even if this mistake were "normal," a normative appraisal would hold everyone's actual thinking to the rule which legislates how they ought to think, and judge it incorrect.
Normative ethics is concerned with moral norms. A moral norm is a norm in the sense of being a standard with which moral agents ought to comply. "Thou shall not murder" is an example of a moral norm: It is meant to guide our actions, and to the extent that people do not comply, we may be judged morally—that is, morally blamed. This is then the meaning of a moral norm.
It is important to bear in mind that when doing normative ethics, one sets aside meta-ethical concerns about whether there really is a moral truth and what moral judgments mean, and assumes that there is a difference between right and wrong, good and bad. Quite independently of meta-ethical thoughts about whether moral statements (for example, "Thou shall not kill") are objectively true, normative ethics reasons about what is right or wrong. This is what John Rawls (1921-2002) means by the "independence of moral theory." This does not imply, however, that divergent meta-ethical theories do not have important implications for the nature of normative ethics at all. Interestingly, these days scholars such as Stephen Darwall argue that normative ethics should work together with meta-ethics to be able to answer its own difficult questions.
Normative ethics has two central concepts: The right and the morally good. The concept of the right is, roughly, the concept of duty, the concept of which actions we ought to perform, which it would be wrong not to perform. The concept of the morally good, a target of the theory of value, or axiology (Greek: axios = worth; logos = study of), refers to morally good properties of human beings. Virtuous character traits such as kindness, courage, and honesty are examples of states that are generally thought to be morally good. It is worth noting here that the term "right" is usually reserved for actions, whereas the "morally good" is for states of character, including motives. But normative ethics is interested in both: It is, roughly, the field of study that aims to determine which actions are right, and which states of character are morally good.
Perhaps the central question of normative ethics involves asking which actions fall into the category of the right and the category of the wrong. This is called the theory of right action. The theory of right action is an investigation and an attempt to answer the question: "What ought I to do?" The "ought" in this question is to be interpreted as a moral ought, and may be understood as equivalent to the question: "What is the right thing to do?" Besides the already mentioned terms, "right," "wrong," and "ought," other important normative concepts relating to action include "obligatory," "forbidden," "permissible," and "required."
So, a normative theory aims to answer the question of "what makes actions right or wrong." This usually amounts to drawing out basic principles as standards of right action. These basic principles may be employed as a moral guide to human beings in their lives, deciding whether particular courses of action—or particular types of action—are right or wrong. The principle of utility in utilitarianism, for example, is a fundamental moral principle according to which right actions are those that maximize happiness. In Kantianism, the categorical imperative is such a fundamental principle from which right actions are derived as duties.
The second important focus of normative theory is the question of what states of character are desirable, or morally good. Here normative ethics attempts to answer the question: "What sort of person ought I to be?" This is called the theory of virtue, or virtue ethics. The focus of this aspect of normative ethics is character. A virtue is a morally desirable state of character such as courage. So, the theory of virtue is directed not at what actions one ought to do, but what person one should be. What is a virtuous person like? What is a vicious person like? What makes traits of character virtuous or vicious? Important concepts for the theory of virtue include terms such as good, bad, virtuous, vicious, honest, courageous, and praiseworthy.
Just as a theory of right action aims to specify which actions are right, a theory of virtue should specify the virtues, that is, traits of character it is good or bad to possess. It should say, for example, that courage is a virtue, and cowardice a vice. It should explain why we should think of traits like these as virtues or vices. The form of this justification might be: Courage is a virtue because it tends to bring benefits to other people. Here again, the state of character is assessed against a basic normative principle, namely, that it is right to bring benefits to other people.
Normative theories are concerned with, broadly, the nature of right action and the nature of virtue. All normative theories will have something to say about which actions are right, and which states of character are virtues. Four normative theories currently exist. These are utilitarianism, Kantianism, ethical intuitionism (in its methodological sense), and virtue ethics. If we were to accept the division of normative theories into teleological and non-teleological theories, then utilitarianism and virtue ethics would count as teleological theories, whereas Kantianism and intuitionism as non-teleological theories (see the article on teleological ethics).
Classical utilitarianism says that the right action is that which produces the greatest balance of overall happiness. By saying that happiness is the only determinant of the rightness of an action, classical utilitarianism endorses hedonism as a theory of value. Utilitarianism has undergone many revisions, but one common move has been to deny the hedonistic element, and preserve the claim that right action depends on the best consequences overall in view of the principle of utility, although the best consequences are not necessarily understood in terms of happiness but more broadly in terms of valuable states of affairs. (See the article on consequentialism.)
Kantian ethics stems from the work of the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant. His work has been tremendously influential and thus the need to designate a branch of ethics as Kantian, in order to accommodate the many theories which are broadly influenced by Kant. Kant's own theory revolves around what he calls the categorical imperative, a moral principle which he regards as the fundamental principle of morality, and from which all our duties may be derived. The categorical imperative is basically a principle of consistency, demanding that we act on reasons which all rational agents could endorse, that is, universally acceptable reasons. Kant produces several different versions of the categorical imperative, and introduces the concept of respect for persons. The Kantian conception of respect has proved particularly significant, and here Kant has influenced important contemporary thinkers such as John Rawls.
When ethical intuitionism says that we can directly intuit or apprehend moral principles, it is epistemological and undoubtedly belongs to meta-ethics. But, ethical intuitionism has another sense in which it can be considered to be part of normative ethics as it methodologically refers to unranked pluralism that claims that there are a plurality of moral principles, and that none of these moral principles is more basic or important than any other. Ethical intuitionism in this sense is a normative ethical theory contrasted with versions of monism such as utilitarianism and Kantianism, which assert that there is only one basic moral principle: the principle of utility (utilitarianism) or the categorical imperative (Kantianism). The most well-known theorist in ethical intuitionism in this sense is probably W.D. Ross (1877-1971), who is the author of The Right and the Good. According to him, there are a number of irreducible moral duties (for example, to keep promises, to refrain from harming the innocent, and so on), none of which takes precedence over any other. Ross thinks that the right action in a given situation is determined by a careful weighing of various moral principles which apply in that situation.
The last of the four ethical theories currently under discussion is virtue ethics. In contrast with the other normative theories which tend to start with right action, virtue ethics begins with an account of virtuous character. In other words, virtue ethics offers an account of what states of character are desirable, or virtues, and then tends to define right actions in terms of these virtues. For example, virtue ethics might say that lying is wrong because it is dishonest, or not what an honest person (virtuous person) would do. (Contrast it with the utilitarian explanation: Lying is wrong because it tends to bring about unhappiness). Virtue ethicists, particularly, Aristotle and those who follow him, argue that right action cannot be understood as conformity of actions to rules (not even of the prima facie sort suggested by Ross). They tend to emphasize that the virtuous person is someone who acts rightly in the situation upon requirements that are unique to the situation. The virtuous person is someone who is able to perceive what the situation requires and act accordingly.
Normative ethics has two different foci it is interested in dealing with: action and character. The question of action is usually asked by utilitarianism, Kantianism, and ethical intuitionism in its methodological sense, and they address it by setting up moral rules and principles which determine which actions are right. By contrast, the question of character is handled by virtue ethics, which begins with an account of virtuous character. There is some tension between both approaches, which therefore criticize each other sometimes. Utilitarianism and Kantianism criticize virtue ethics for not being able to tell what the moral rules and principles should be to give clear guidance on how to act in specific circumstances. Virtue ethics, in turn, blames utilitarianism and Kantianism for inflexibly imposing rules and principles upon all situations without being able to appropriately accommodate complex circumstances such as abortion, euthanasia, and cloning where the virtue of wisdom, for example, might be needed case by case.
One way to help decrease the tension between the two approaches of normative ethics, is to remind ourselves that virtue ethics, as originally developed by Plato and Aristotle, is actually grounded in some absolute standard which could originate rules and principles very likely. According to Plato, the soul's virtue consists in knowledge of eternal truth in the Forms, and eudaimonia (happiness or well-being) that results from virtue is rooted in the Form of the Good that pertains to God. For Aristotle, eudaimonia is the highest good, which, although it is not a transcendent Form at all, is something perfectly enjoyed in the life of God. So, the above criticism which virtue ethics receives is not entirely legitimate. It may be that virtue ethics, as long as it is teleological, intends to eventually reach moral rules and principles that are grounded in the Form of the Good or God, although its starting point is the development of virtues as character traits of the soul. A radical version of virtue ethics goes even further by ambitiously arguing that moral principles, if not necessarily considered to be grounded in God, can be defined in terms of virtuous states of character.
There is another kind of way to help decrease the tension, and it is from the side of theories of right action such as utilitarianism and Kantianism. For they may have something to say about which states of character are virtues in view of some principles. A utilitarian, for example, may argue that states of character, dispositions, are virtuous, insofar as they tend to promote happiness. Similarly, a Kantian may argue that someone of virtuous character will cultivate dispositions that enable him to do his duty.
Normative ethics is interested in establishing moral principles (to determine which actions are right) and virtues (to decide which states of character are morally good). But, the question is: Where do these moral values (that is, moral principles and virtues) come from? Are they simply human conventions (as in moral relativism adhered to by well-known people such as Greek skeptic philosopher Sextus Empiricus, sixteenth-century French writer Michel de Montaigne, nineteenth century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche) or eternal truths from some realm beyond our physical world (as in Platonic realism or Medieval philosophy)? This metaphysical inquiry is usually not part of the task of normative ethics. It is rather handled by meta-ethics, which also deals with epistemological, semantic, and psychological inquiries.
When this metaphysical question is answered by saying that moral values are eternal truths from some realm beyond our physical world, God is often referred to as the ground of morality. While theists in religion undoubtedly agree to refer to God this way, meta-ethics in its metaphysical inquiry, too, has developed among others a similar option called the divine command theory, according to which moral values ultimately depend on an omnipotent and good God. Twentieth-century philosophical ethicists such as Philip L. Quinn (1940-2004) and Robert M. Adams (1937- ) defend this theory.
The divine command theory is a theistic response to the atheistic proposal made by the British analytic philosopher G.E.M. Anscombe (1919-2001) in her famous 1958 article, "Modern Moral Philosophy," that there is no lawgiver (God) anyway, so that when theories of right action are based on moral laws and principles but without a lawgiver, they are incoherent. According to her, these theories of moral laws should therefore be abandoned in favor of theories of virtues, which she thinks are only grounded in eudaimonia and not in God. The divine command theory is seen as a highly controversial theory in meta-ethics in the modern and contemporary philosophical climate, thus receiving many criticisms. One such criticism challenges the acceptability of the theory by saying that the omnipotent God would capriciously command you to act criminally. Divine command theorists respond that God's omnipotence does not mean that he is capable of doing things contradictory to his morally good nature based on love.
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