Normative ethics
Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of philosophical
Philosophy is the study of general and fundamental problems, such as those connected with existence, knowledge, values, reason, mind, and language. Philosophy is distinguished from other ways of addressing such problems by its critical, generally systematic approach and its reliance on rational...

Ethics, also known as moral philosophy, is a branch of philosophy that addresses questions about morality—that is, concepts such as good and evil, right and wrong, virtue and vice, justice and crime, etc.Major branches of ethics include:...

 that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking. Normative ethics is distinct from meta-ethics
In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics. Ethical...

 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
Descriptive ethics
Descriptive ethics, also known as comparative ethics, is the study of people's beliefs about morality. It contrasts with prescriptive or normative ethics, which is the study of ethical theories that prescribe how people ought to act, and with meta-ethics, which is the study of what ethical terms...

, 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 realism
Moral realism is the meta-ethical view which claims that:# Ethical sentences express propositions.# Some such propositions are true.# Those propositions are made true by objective features of the world, independent of subjective opinion....

, 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
Applied ethics
Applied ethics is, in the words of Brenda Almond, co-founder of the Society for Applied Philosophy, "the philosophical examination, from a moral standpoint, of particular issues in private and public life that are matters of moral judgment"...

. 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 were concerned with finding moral principles which allow one to determine whether an action is right or wrong. Classical theories in this vein include utilitarianism
Utilitarianism is an ethical theory holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes the overall "happiness", by whatever means necessary. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, and that one can...

, Kantianism, and some forms of contractarianism. These theories offered an overarching moral principle to which one could appeal in resolving 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
W. D. Ross
Sir David Ross KBE was a Scottish philosopher, known for work in ethics. His best known work is The Right and the Good , and he is perhaps best known for developing a pluralist, deontological form of intuitionist ethics in response to G.E. Moore's intuitionism...

 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 rightness prima facie
Prima facie
Prima facie is a Latin expression meaning on its first encounter, first blush, or at first sight. The literal translation would be "at first face", from the feminine form of primus and facies , both in the ablative case. It is used in modern legal English to signify that on first examination, a...

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 have defended 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
R. M. Hare
Richard Mervyn Hare was an English moral philosopher who held the post of White's Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford from 1966 until 1983. He subsequently taught for a number of years at the University of Florida...

, 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
John Rawls
John Bordley Rawls was an American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University....

 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

  • Virtue ethics
    Virtue ethics
    Virtue ethics describes the character of a moral agent as a driving force for ethical behavior, rather than rules , consequentialism , or social context .The difference between these four approaches to morality tends to lie more in the way moral dilemmas are...

    , which was advocated by Aristotle
    Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

    , focuses on the inherent character of a person rather than on the specific actions he or she performs. 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
    G. E. M. Anscombe
    Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe , better known as Elizabeth Anscombe, was a British analytic philosopher from Ireland. A student of Ludwig Wittgenstein, she became an authority on his work and edited and translated many books drawn from his writings, above all his Philosophical Investigations...

    , Philippa Foot
    Philippa Foot
    Philippa Ruth Foot was a British philosopher, most notable for her works in ethics. She was one of the founders of contemporary virtue ethics...

    , Alasdair Macintyre
    Alasdair MacIntyre
    Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre is a British philosopher primarily known for his contribution to moral and political philosophy but known also for his work in history of philosophy and theology...

    , and Rosalind Hursthouse
    Rosalind Hursthouse
    -Biography:Hursthouse spent her childhood in New Zealand and taught for many years at the Open University in England. She was head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Auckland from 2002 to 2005...


  • Deontology
    Deontological ethics
    Deontological ethics or deontology is the normative ethical position that judges the morality of an action based on the action's adherence to a rule or rules. It is sometimes described as "duty" or "obligation" or "rule" -based ethics, because rules "bind you to your duty"...

     argues that decisions should be made considering the factors of one's duties and other's rights. Some deontological theories include:
    • Immanuel Kant
      Immanuel Kant
      Immanuel Kant was a German philosopher from Königsberg , researching, lecturing and writing on philosophy and anthropology at the end of the 18th Century Enlightenment....

      's Categorical Imperative
      Categorical imperative
      The Categorical Imperative is the central philosophical concept in the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant, as well as modern deontological ethics...

      , which roots morality in humanity's rational capacity and asserts certain inviolable moral laws.
    • The Contractarianism of John Rawls
      John Rawls
      John Bordley Rawls was an American philosopher and a leading figure in moral and political philosophy. He held the James Bryant Conant University Professorship at Harvard University....

       or Thomas Hobbes
      Thomas Hobbes
      Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury , in some older texts Thomas Hobbs of Malmsbury, was an English philosopher, best known today for his work on political philosophy...

      , which holds that the moral acts are those that we would all agree to if we were unbiased.
    • Natural rights
      Natural rights
      Natural and legal rights are two types of rights theoretically distinct according to philosophers and political scientists. Natural rights are rights not contingent upon the laws, customs, or beliefs of any particular culture or government, and therefore universal and inalienable...

       theories, such that of Thomas Aquinas
      Thomas Aquinas
      Thomas Aquinas, O.P. , also Thomas of Aquin or Aquino, was an Italian Dominican priest of the Catholic Church, and an immensely influential philosopher and theologian in the tradition of scholasticism, known as Doctor Angelicus, Doctor Communis, or Doctor Universalis...

       or John Locke
      John Locke
      John Locke FRS , widely known as the Father of Liberalism, was an English philosopher and physician regarded as one of the most influential of Enlightenment thinkers. Considered one of the first of the British empiricists, following the tradition of Francis Bacon, he is equally important to social...

      , which hold that human beings have absolute, natural rights.

  • Consequentialism
    Consequentialism is the class of normative ethical theories holding that the consequences of one's conduct are the ultimate basis for any judgment about the rightness of that conduct...

     (Teleology) argues that the morality of an action is contingent on the action's outcome or result. Consequentialist theories, differing by what they take to be valuable (Axiology
    Axiology is the philosophical study of value. It is either the collective term for ethics and aesthetics—philosophical fields that depend crucially on notions of value—or the foundation for these fields, and thus similar to value theory and meta-ethics...

    ), include:
    • Utilitarianism
      Utilitarianism is an ethical theory holding that the proper course of action is the one that maximizes the overall "happiness", by whatever means necessary. It is thus a form of consequentialism, meaning that the moral worth of an action is determined only by its resulting outcome, and that one can...

      , 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
      Ethical egoism
      Ethical egoism is the normative ethical position that moral agents ought to do what is in their own self-interest. It differs from psychological egoism, which claims that people can only act in their self-interest. Ethical egoism also differs from rational egoism, which holds merely that it is...

      , 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 to take is the one which creates the most loving result, and that love should always be our goal.
    • Intellectualism
      Intellectualism denotes the use and development of the intellect, the practice of being an intellectual, and of holding intellectual pursuits in great regard. Moreover, in philosophy, “intellectualism” occasionally is synonymous with “rationalism”, i.e. knowledge derived mostly from reason and...

      , which dictates that the best action is the one that best fosters and promotes knowledge.
    • Welfarism
      Welfarism is a form of consequentialism. Like all forms of consequentialism, welfarism is based on the premise that actions, policies, and/or rules should be evaluated on the basis of their consequences. Welfarism is the view that the morally significant consequences are impacts on human welfare...

      , which argues that the best action is the one that most increases economic well-being or welfare.
    • Preference utilitarianism
      Preference utilitarianism
      Preference utilitarianism is one of the most popular forms of utilitarianism in contemporary philosophy. Unlike classical utilitarianism, which defines right actions as those that maximize pleasure and minimize pain, preference utilitarianism promotes actions that fulfill the interests of those...

      , which holds that the best action is the one that leads to the most overall preference satisfaction.

  • Pragmatic ethics
    Pragmatic ethics
    Pragmatic ethics is a theory of normative philosophical ethics. Ethical pragmatists, such as John Dewey, believe that societies have progressed morally in much the way they have attained progress in science...

     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
    William James
    William James was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher who was trained as a physician. He wrote influential books on the young science of psychology, educational psychology, psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and on the philosophy of pragmatism...

    , and John Dewey
    John Dewey
    John Dewey was an American philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer whose ideas have been influential in education and social reform. Dewey was an important early developer of the philosophy of pragmatism and one of the founders of functional psychology...

    , are known as the founders of pragmatism; although ethical pragmatism may have been practiced by such social reformers as Socrates
    Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

    , Thomas Jefferson
    Thomas Jefferson
    Thomas Jefferson was the principal author of the United States Declaration of Independence and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom , the third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia...

    , Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
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