Normative Ethics

In addition to these three metaethical concerns, normative ethics involves arriving at moral standards or “norms” that regulate right and wrong. The key assumption in normative ethics is that there is only one ultimate criterion of moral conduct, whether it is a single rule or a set of principles. Four different normative ethics are (1) virtue ethics, (2) consequentialism, (3) deontology or “duty” theories, and (4) intuitionism.

Is the Golden Rule Always Golden?

In a sense, normative ethics searches for an ideal litmus test of proper behavior. One example of a normative principle is the Golden Rule, which urges us to “Do unto others what we would want others to do to us.” Since you do not want your neighbor to steal your car, it is wrong for you to steal her car. Since you would want people to feed you if you were starving, you should help feed starving people. Using this same reasoning, you believe that you can theoretically determine whether any possible action is right or wrong.

So, based on the Golden Rule, it would be wrong for you to lie to, harass, victimize, assault, or kill others. The Golden Rule is one example of a normative theory that establishes a single principle against which we judge all actions.

But be careful. Should you help another student to cheat because you would want him to help you cheat? Maybe the rule isn't always so “golden.” Other normative theories focus on a set of foundational principles or a set of good character traits.

Other Normative Theories

Virtue theories, as discussed in Chapter 4, stress developing character traits — or virtues — like courage, self-control, and other excellences which are essential means for achieving happiness. Consequentialist theories, like those of Bentham and Mill examined in Chapter 16, stress actions that produce good consequences. In fact, you are obligated to do that action that promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.

In Chapter 15, which explained the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, you saw the elaboration of his duty-based theory. Kant emphasized a single principle of duty, the categorical imperative. This is: act always such that the maxim of your action can be universalized. Kant stated this in another form, too: act always to treat persons, including oneself, always as ends, never as means.

But Kant did not explain conflict of duty situations. Suppose a person, Smith, promised to meet Miller for lunch. Kant would say that the promise binds Smith to do the promised action. But before Smith could leave for his meeting, his neighbor Jones had a heart attack and needed medical assistance. Here Smith experiences a conflict of duties. You might say intuitively that the duty to render emergency aid overrides the duty to keep a promise in this situation. If this is your conclusion, you are thinking right along with British philosopher W. D. Ross (1877–1971). Ross applied his idea of prima facie duties (prima facie meaning “first glance”) in situations when there is a conflict of duties. In this instance Smith's prima facie duty would be to render emergency aid to Jones, since performing that action appears to have more rightness than the other, in that it would produce better consequences.

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