What is Ethics? Pt 3: Normative Ethics

What is ethics? metaethics normative ethics

In the last post we covered metaethics, and in this post we’re going to cover normative ethics. Metaethics largely centered around the nature and meaning of ethics and moral content, but normative ethics more specifically seeks to illuminate the most general principles behind our ethics. Normative ethics and applied ethics are likely what laypeople think of when they think of ethics as a practice. For this reason normative ethics is sometimes referred to as “prescriptive ethics.”

Defining normative ethics

You’ve likely heard of the term “norm” (as in social norm) before. Norms are related to the concept of normativity, which is itself a concept concerned with how standards, especially behavioral ones, are established. Philosophers engage in normative ethics by taking either a principle, sets of principles or frameworks and use them as the basis for determining the appropriate or ethical behavior in a particular circumstance. To give a concrete example consider a principle like the Golden Rule. By reflecting on its basic premise, to think about how our actions might make others feel and whether or not we’d want to be made to feel that way, we can deduce that things we wouldn’t like. Through reflection of this principle we can determine that we shouldn’t mug others because we wouldn’t like it, and thus the act probably wouldn’t be enjoyable to other people.

In contemporary philosophy, discussions about normative ethics are dominated by a debate between two different schools of thought, consequentialism and deontology. These two approaches broadly categorize a wide range of competing ethical theories found within Western philosophy. Consequentialism holds that measures of right and wrong come from the consequences or outcomes of any given action. This idea is somewhat encompassed by the saying “the ends justify the means.” Deontological ethics, however, tends to ascribe inherent rightness or wrongness to actions. Sometimes deontological ethics are seen as “duty” or “obligation” based ethics as there are certain actions that are seen as never being desirable, regardless of the outcomes they might bring about.

These two competing systems can take various forms. For example, utilitarianism, arguably one of the most pervasive consequentialist ethical systems in Western history, essentially suggests that the ends we want are those where the greatest amount of good happens for the greatest number of people. Various deontological systems can be found in different theistic religions, but perhaps one of the most analyzed deontological systems is the one discussed by 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant suggested that through pure reason humans could deduce what was right and what was wrong in any circumstance. Key to Kant’s system was a construct referred to as the “Categorical Imperative,” a universal moral principle that is fundamental to how we should act in a given situation.

For most of us, consequentialism, specifically utilitarianism, probably seems more intuitive because it’s so pervasive in modern Western society. For example, economics and social policy are conducted with regards to utilitarian considerations like social good, personal preferences, and compensation. However, despite the pervasiveness of consequentialism, especially utilitarian ethics, deontological ethics is still relevant as some of our notions of justice might be rooted in seemingly universal notions of right and wrong.

Discussion around topics like organ harvesting and euthanasia can reveal this. In the case of the former, in many countries it’s illegal to sell organs, despite the fact that there very likely are people willing to buy organs legally, which could save lives. For better or for worse, organ markets clearly tread on some sort of taboo which obligates us not to put a price on human life. In the case of the latter, discussions around suicide and how certain type of euthanasia might “devalue” human life are also common. Both reveal that deontological ethics might inform some of our most basic values, like the significance of human life. In future posts we’ll go more into depth on these issues from the perspective of normative ethics.