Normative ethics is focused on exploring what actions are morally correct or incorrect and how one ought to conduct themselves in various situations.
It seeks definitive answers to questions like “What makes an action good?” and “How should I strive to act?”.
Three major normative ethics theories are:
- virtue ethics
Each of these theories is based on different philosophical principles and thus offers unique answers to ethical questions.
For example, a person following virtue ethics might strive to be honest in all their dealings with others. On the other hand, a person following deontology might refuse to lie even if it would save them from punishment or benefit them in some way.
And a person following consequentialism might choose to lie if they believe it will lead to the best outcome for everyone involved.
Regardless of which ways an individual follows, normative ethics gives a structure for making moral choices and living out a principled existence.
Definition of Normative Ethics
Normative ethics is a branch of moral philosophy that identifies what should be considered morally acceptable and unacceptable. It seeks to define criteria for judging the morality of behaviors, personality attributes, and other aspects of human conduct.
Through normative ethics, people can develop guiding rules and standards that direct their choices. Virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism are valuable theories in this area that aim to define what conduct is right or wrong (Cella, 2021).
With these frameworks in mind, ethical contemplation becomes easier and more precise when it comes time to make decisions.
According to Bishai (2021), normative ethics:
“…is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking” (p. 155).
Jackson and colleagues (2021) believe that normative ethics:
“tries to get at the most basic or fundamental reason certain actions, attitudes, or character traits are good, bad, right, or wrong” (p. 341).
In simple terms, normative ethics concerns the moral rightness of an action, attitude, or character trait.
Normative Ethics Theories
The three main normative ethical theories are virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism.
1. Virtue Ethics
According to this theory, individuals must cultivate habits and qualities like courage, justice, temperance, wisdom, and compassion in order to lead a moral life that is conducive to human flourishing.
These virtues serve as the foundation for developing ethical behavior.
Unlike deontology or consequentialism, virtue ethics does not subscribe to a set of laws that dictate what is right and wrong.
Instead, it encourages individuals to cultivate their own set of moral virtues in order to make sound judgments about moral issues (Hursthouse & Pettigrove, 2003).
Furthermore, virtue ethics encourages individuals to actively seek opportunities to practice their virtuous behavior to promote moral behavior in society overall.
Deontology is a normative ethical theory emphasizing the importance of following moral rules and laws when making ethical decisions (Alexander & Moore, 2007).
It argues that an action is right or wrong based on whether it conforms to a set of moral principles, regardless of the consequences resulting from such action.
Deontology holds that an individual must follow certain moral duties and obligations, such as honesty, justice, respect for others, etc.
These principles provide an objective basis for morality and can be universally applied. It means that ethical decisions are made without considering context or individual circumstances.
Unlike virtue ethics, deontology does not emphasize an individual’s character but rather their actions and whether they have followed the established set of moral rules.
Deontology is closely linked to Immanuel Kant’s philosophy which believed individuals should act according to universalizable maxims in order to achieve moral behavior (Alexander & Moore, 2007).
Consequentialism is a normative ethical theory that emphasizes the importance of the consequences of the action when making ethical decisions (Sinnott-Armstrong, 2019).
It argues that the morality of an action is determined by its outcome, such that an action is right if it produces a good result and wrong if it produces a bad result.
Consequentialism holds that the end justifies the means as long as the consequences benefit those affected. It means it does not consider moral duties or obligations but focuses on maximizing positive outcomes in any situation.
Unlike deontology, consequentialism does not have a set of universalizable principles. Instead, it relies on context-dependent criteria such as utility, pleasure, or overall happiness when determining right from wrong.
It makes it difficult to apply universally since different actions may produce different results in varying circumstances (Sinnott-Armstrong, 2019).
Importance of Normative Ethics
Normative ethics provides a framework for making responsible, informed decisions when faced with difficult ethical dilemmas. It outlines a set of guidelines that can be used to evaluate right from wrong, good from bad, and moral from immoral.
Normative ethics provides individuals with the knowledge to make responsible choices that are in everyone’s best interests. This ethical practice encourages citizens to consider all parties and act for the greater good.
Grasping the ramifications of various ethical theories, like deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics can help people to more accurately examine their behavior and make sure it is compatible with accepted moral codes.
Furthermore, normative ethics serves as a valuable tool for decision-making in organizations and businesses, offering an effective way to evaluate the potential risks of each action.
When businesses base their decisions on ethical principles, rather than solely seeking profit and power, they are more likely to thrive.
Crucially, normative ethics encourages individuals to ponder their actions carefully and assess the positives and negatives prior to making any potentially dire decisions.
Ultimately, normative ethics emphasizes values like fairness and respect which are necessary for developing beneficial interpersonal relationships in various settings like home, school, work or any other social setting.
Normative Ethics Examples
- Honesty: Being honest and truthful is a core principle of normative ethics. It means that when faced with a difficult situation, it’s important, to be honest about feelings and intentions. It also means not lying or deceiving others in order to get ahead.
- Compassion: Showing compassion towards those who are suffering or in need is another example of normative ethics in action. It includes demonstrating empathy towards struggling people and providing assistance whenever possible without expecting anything in return.
- Respect: Respect for oneself and others is important to normative ethics. It means treating everyone with kindness, regardless of their background or beliefs. It also implies respecting the rights and opinions of others, even if one doesn’t agree with them.
- Responsibility: Taking responsibility for one’s actions is essential in living ethically according to normative standards. It includes being accountable for the consequences of one’s decisions and making sure to do what is right, even when it may be difficult or unpopular to do so.
- Fairness: Fairness is another key component of normative ethics. It means treating people fairly regardless of their race, gender, religion, or any other factor that may lead to discrimination or prejudice. Such an attitude also suggests giving everyone an equal chance at success and not taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune for personal gain.
- Integrity: Having integrity means doing the right thing even when no one else is watching or holding you accountable for your actions. It also involves having strong moral principles that guide one’s behavior and staying true to them no matter the circumstances around you at any given time.
- Gratitude: Expressing gratitude towards those who have helped people along their journey is an important part of living ethically according to normative standards as well as being mindful about how their words and actions affect others around them positively or negatively daily.
- Generosity: Being generous with one’s resources, whether they be money, time, or knowledge, can go a long way towards helping out those less fortunate than themselves. Generosity can take many forms, such as donating money, volunteering time at local charities, offering advice to friends, etc.
- Forgiveness: Forgiving those who have wronged us can be difficult, but it’s an important part of living ethically according to normative standards. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting what happened but rather understanding why someone did something wrong and allowing ourselves to move on from it without harboring resentment.
- Humility: Humility involves recognizing our own limitations while still striving for excellence in whatever we do. It’s about understanding that no one person has all the answers and that sometimes we need help from others to succeed.
Normative ethics offers a comprehensive framework for understanding and evaluating the moral implications of our choices and, as a result, helps cultivate a more ethically responsible and compassionate society.
With its three major subfields—virtue ethics, deontology, and consequentialism—normative ethics provides different perspectives on approaching moral dilemmas.
Thus, it enables individuals to develop a well-rounded and nuanced understanding of ethical behavior.
By fostering essential values such as honesty, compassion, fairness, and respect, normative ethics build stronger relationships within families, organizations, and communities, ultimately promoting a more just and morally-conscious world.
Alexander, L., & Moore, M. (2007). Deontological ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-deontological/
Bishai, A. (2021). Busker and the trees. FriesenPress.
Cella, P. (2021). Managing modern social conflict through mixed ethical foundations: Deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics as pillars of Salvador Giner’s republicanism. OXÍMORA Revista Internacional de Ética Y Política, 18, 83–106. https://doi.org/10.1344/oxi.2021.i18.31511
Hursthouse, R., & Pettigrove, G. (2003, July 18). Virtue ethics. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/
Jackson, E., Goldschmidt, T., Crummett, D., & Chan, R. (2021). Applied ethics. Hackett Publishing.
Sinnott-Armstrong, W. (2019, May 20). Consequentialism. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/