There are three areas of study that ethicists engage in: applied ethics, normative ethics and metaethics. In my last post I discussed applied ethics. Normative ethics is the study of what is right and wrong in general.

The largest current controversy in normative ethics is how to determine whether a particular act is right or wrong. Consequentialists believe that an act is right if it leads to good consequences or maximizes good consequences. Some consequentialists believe that we do not need to maximize the good (there is a point at which we can stop). Others disagree. Deontologists believe that an act is right if it does not violate a duty, fulfills a duty or is consistent with a duty. Some deontologists believe that this is the only condition and are known as absolute deontologists. Others believe that consequences should be considered as well and are known as moderate deontologists. Finally, virtue theorists believe that an act is right if a perfectly virtuous person could do it in your circumstances. Virtue theory can be combined with either consequentialism or deontological theories.

There are other controversies within normative ethics that do not properly belong in normative ethics at all. Such controversies include whether or not just war is possible (political ethics) and how a just society is formed (political ethics). Such controversies arise within normative ethics simply because they existed before the recognition of applied ethics as a separate discipline.

Whenever we ask an ethical question, the answer given by an ethicist will vary depending on which normative theory they believe. Even if we managed to ask a group of people with the same theory, this would not guarantee agreement. Consequentialists do not agree on what the good actually is. So if we asked them, those who believed that the good is pleasure would have a different answer than those who believed that utility is the good. Similarly, deontologists do not all agree on what our duties are, nor do virtue theorists agree on what the virtues are.

Nor is this the only problem. Normative ethicists also may vary in the metaethical commitments. How we understand goodness, obligation and moral knowledge may deeply change our reasoning behind moral theories. How we understand the world in general as well as our particular understanding of humanity will also change our moral theories. Since ethics is an active science, it depends on the theoretical sciences for information.

There is only one area of ethics remaining. Metaethics will discussed in my next post.

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Comments on Normative Ethics

  1. Professor (I’m assuming)

    I enjoy reading the studies of basic philosophical differences based on the establishment of philosophy’s basic structure. This is just that, however, a layman such as myself would like a more brash and committed version whereby the discussion and description is first qualified as “process driven” and “results driven” with “in between” or “combined” as moderators.

    Normative decisions are not purely one or the other, but can certainly be better explained by noting and examining the ’tilt’ of the individual who holds the belief. If that short qualifier were used more, in my feeble opinion, we would have an entire world with better tools with which to determine ‘good and bad’ ideas and policies in a host of arenas that are now sown with confusion and political theater.

    Your thoughts????……………if you’re out there?

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