Let’s Get Ethical Pt 2: Normative Ethics

Normative ethics is the second branch of ethics, investigating how we morally act and ought to act. This ranges from discussion concerning murder and assault, to cheating on your girlfriend (naughty naughty). This is distinct from metaethics (my previous blog) in that normative ethics examines the standards and criteria of actions, according to different schools of thought. Most normative theories rest on specific pillars that categorise actions into ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, aiding common moral dilemmas and complex debate. In this blog I will explain two widely known normative theories, Kant’s deontological ethics, and virtue ethics. 

So, here are the basics, bitches

Virtue ethics

Virtue ethics was advocated by Aristotle, focusing primarily on the character of the specific individual more than the action itself. Emphasising virtues (traits/qualities) rather than deontology (duties/rules), virtue ethics was the dominant approach in Western philosophy until the Enlightenment. 

‘Virtue’ stands for excellent trait of character; possessing a virtue is a matter of degree, where virtues arise out of constant habit. This act of habit is how one reaches arete, also known as excellence. Here you may be wondering, isn’t normative ethics about behaviour? Yes, the right action is the act a virtuous person would do in those specific circumstances. This type of ethics provides the guidance for character, which then provides the guidance for behaviour. This has strengths and weaknesses; being character based, this theory is less objective in the sense that it depends on you as a person. The problem with character based ethics, is that it doesn’t provide a clear structure on how to deal with moral dilemmas. However, it’s transparent in providing a criteria for being a good person. This leaves room for different virtues in different societies through time, there is no general agreement on what the virtues actually are – whether this is good or bad is up to you… 

In Ancient Greece, the (cardinal) virtues consisted of: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude / Bravery, and Temperance. In Contemporary Society, the virtues are said to be: Justice, Fidelity, Self-care and Prudence. I think this theory mixes it up a bit from the more objective theories like Kant’s, and it’s easily applied to dilemmas in applied ethics (stay tuned). 

Kant’s Deontological Ethics 

Deontological ethics is duty based – “The word ‘deontological’ comes from the Greek word deon, which means ‘duty’.”

This theory is concerned with what people DO rather than the consequences of their actions. Basically, do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. This sounds simple, but if you want to read Kant’s work, be my guest. The main pillar of our focus will be on is his categorical imperative: Since sentient beings occupy a specific place in creation, morality is imperative, derived from duties and obligations, founded on reason. 

A categorical imperative denotes an unconditional requirement, absolute and must be obeyed in all circumstances. It can be put as simply as this: Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. Essentially, act according to  principles that can be universalised, such as ‘killing is wrong’. This type of theory is not consequentialist (doesn’t focus on consequences), so as long as you are keeping to the imperatives, you’re in the clear. 

However, if ‘telling the truth is always good’ was universal, it would mean that one must tell a murderer the location of his victim. It’s a moral duty not to lie, even to a murderer. Kant agreed, stating that lying to the murderer would treat him as a mere means to an end, since the lie denies the rationality of another person. This ‘means to an end’ is crucial – Kant advocates that rational human beings should be treated as an end in themselves rather than as a means to something else. The fact that we are human has value in itself. 

This is another important foundation to Kant’s theory, treating an individual as an end in themselves. Rational human beings are an end in themselves, meaning that we hold specific value in our existence, and we shouldn’t be treated otherwise. This idea is derived from Kant’s claim concerning reason; since reason motivates morality, we must respect reason as a motive in all beings.

Virtue ethics and Deontological ethics are mere veins in the body of normative ethics, and there are plenty more theories to choose from. I specifically chose these two based on their differing means to achieve the same end – morality. It’s fascinating how so many individuals can create such different routes and all for the same purpose… what do you think that says about morality? My next blog will focus on applied ethics, that being the application of normative accounts such as the ones we just covered, to dilemmas such as abortion and war.

Thank you for reading ! 🙂

Published by Harriet Leslie

Hi! I'm Harriet, and i'm currently a postgraduate student at Kings College London and a freelance medical writer. I hold a first-class degree in philosophy at undergraduate level, and my MA is in medical ethics and law. I hope you enjoy my mini introductions to all things philosophy and ethics.

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