Normative Ethics

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. Normative ethics is also distinct from descriptive ethics, as the latter is an empirical investigation of people’s moral beliefs. To put it another way, descriptive ethics would be concerned with determining what proportion of people believe that killing is always wrong, while normative ethics is concerned with whether it is correct to hold such a belief. Hence, normative ethics is sometimes said to be prescriptive, rather than descriptive. However, on certain versions of the meta-ethical view called moral realism, moral facts are both descriptive and prescriptive at the same time.

Broadly speaking, normative ethics can be divided into the sub-disciplines of moral theory and applied ethics. In recent years the boundaries between these sub-disciplines have increasingly been dissolving as moral theorists become more interested in applied problems and applied ethics is becoming more profoundly philosophically informed.

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

In the 20th century, moral theories became more complex and were no longer concerned solely with rightness and wrongness, but were interested in many different kinds of moral status. This trend may have begun in 1930 with W. D. Ross in his book, The Right and the Good. Here Ross argues that moral theories cannot say in general whether an action is right or wrong but only whether it tends to be right or wrong according to a certain kind of moral duty such as beneficence, fidelity, or justice (he called this concept of partial rightnessprima facie duty). Subsequently, philosophers questioned whether even prima facie duties can be articulated at a theoretical level, and some philosophers have urged a turn away from general theorizing altogether, while others defend theory on the grounds that it need not be perfect in order to capture important moral insight.

In the middle of the century there was a long hiatus in the development of normative ethics during which philosophers largely turned away from normative questions towards meta-ethics. Even those philosophers during this period who maintained an interest in prescriptive morality, such as R. M. Hare, attempted to arrive at normative conclusions via meta-ethical reflection. This focus on meta-ethics was in part caused by the intense linguistic turn in analytic philosophy and in part by the pervasiveness of logical positivism. In 1971, John Rawls bucked the trend against normative theory in publishing A Theory of Justice. This work was revolutionary, in part because it paid almost no attention to meta-ethics and instead pursued moral arguments directly. In the wake of A Theory of Justice and other major works of normative theory published in the 1970s, the field has witnessed an extraordinary Renaissance that continues to the present day.

Normative Ethical Theories

There are disagreements about what precisely gives an action, rule, or disposition its ethical force. Broadly speaking, 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 multiple forms.

  • Virtue ethics, advocated by Aristotle, 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, and Rosalind Hursthouse.
  • Deontology argues that decisions should be made considering the factors of one's duties and other's rights. Some deontological theories include:
    • Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative, which roots morality in humanity's rational capacity and asserts certain inviolable moral laws.
    • The Contractarianism of John Rawls, which holds that the moral acts are those that we would all agree to if we were unbiased.
    • Natural rights theories, such that of John Locke or Robert Nozick, which hold that human beings have absolute, natural rights.
  • Consequentialism (Teleology) argues that the morality of an action is contingent on the action's outcome or result. Consequentialist theories, differing in 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 stability, 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.
  • Pragmatic ethics is difficult to classify fully within either of the three proceeding 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.

Binding Force

Morality is often presumed to have a special kind of binding force. That is, one ought to act in a particular way by following a rule or maximizing utility, whether one wishes to do this or not. Many philosophers object that such portrayals presume a kind of magical force for morality. G. E. M. Anscombe worries that "ought" has become a "a word of mere mesmeric force". British ethicist Phillipa Foot elaborates on that idea, arguing that morality does not seem to have any special binding force of this kind. The idea is that people only behave morally if motivated in traditional ways, perhaps by feelings, to do so.

Some philosophers argue that moral discussions tend to entertain a faulty assumption. As Foot puts it, "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." Faced with an opportunity to steal a book because we can get away with it, for instance, moral obligation itself has no power to stop us unless we feel an obligation. Discussing the behaviour of a hypothetical man, Foot imagines:

"If he is an amoral man he may deny that he has any reason to trouble his head over this or any other moral demand. Of course, he may be mistaken, and his life as well as others' lives may be most sadly spoiled by his selfishness. But this is not what is urged by those who think they can close the matter by an emphatic use of 'ought'. My argument is that they are relying on an illusion, as if trying to give the moral 'ought' a magic force."

Social structure and motivation can make morality binding, but only by making it feel inescapable. John Stuart Mill said something similar. Although people may believe that there is a transcendental force, and they may feel like it is something mysterious, Mill says

"[Morality's] binding force, however, consists in the existence of a mass of feeling which must be broken through in order to do what violates our standard of right, and which, if we do nevertheless violate that standard, will probably have to be encountered afterwards in the form of remorse. Whatever theory we have of the nature or origin of conscience, this is what essentially constitutes it."

Mill adds that external pressures, to please others for instance, also influence this binding force that is our conscience. He also says it is important to realize that the only force that exists is our subjective feelings, because otherwise our moral system or presumed duties depend on whether we have certain feelings, instead of the other way around. Mill thinks we sometimes must try to bring our feelings in line with our reasoned duties. At the same time, Mill says that a good moral system (in his case, utilitarianism) ultimately appeals to aspects of human nature—which, ideally, are nurtured during upbringing. Mill says:

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.

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