By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Identify the meaning and purpose of normative moral theory.
- Distinguish between the three areas of ethics.
This section focuses on the how normative moral theories relate to other branches of ethics, examines the requirements of normative moral theories, and introduces three major types of moral theories.
Three Areas of Ethics
Ethics is the field of philosophy that investigates morality and engages in “systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong behavior” (Fieser 1995). It is divided into three main areas—metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics—each of which is distinguished by a different level of inquiry and analysis.
Metaethics focuses on moral reasoning and “whether morality exists” (Dittmer 1995). It is concerned with questions that are more abstract, ones that explore the foundations and assumptions related to our moral beliefs and practice. It attempts to understand the beliefs and presuppositions connected to morality and moral deliberation. Metaethics explores, for example, where moral values originate, what it means to say something is right or good, whether there are any objective moral facts, whether morality is (culturally) relative, and the psychological basis for moral practices and values.
Normative ethics focuses on moral behavior, on what we should do. It thus deals with questions concerning human agency, responsibility, and moral evaluation. Normative ethics attempts to establish criteria or principles for identifying norms and standards to guide correct behavior. Philosophers offer systematized accounts of morality that provide standards and norms of right conduct. There are three main approaches to normative moral theory: consequentialist, deontological, and virtue ethics. Each approach differs based on the criterion (consequences, duty, or character) used for determining moral conduct.
Applied ethics focuses on the application of moral norms and principles to controversial issues to determine the rightness of specific actions. Issues like abortion, euthanasia, the use of humans in biomedical research, and artificial intelligence are just a few of the controversial moral issues explored in applied ethics, which is covered in the next chapter.
A normative moral theory provides a framework for understanding our actions and determining what’s right. A fully worked out moral theory often addresses all three areas of ethics (metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics), but its aim will be establishing and defending the norms of conduct it recommends.
Three Coherent Frameworks for Understanding Morality
A moral theory should make it possible to effectively guide behavior by providing a framework for determining what is morally right and arguments justifying its recommendations. Such a framework must be based on a logical foundation for its principles and provide consistent recommendations. It should, in short, make sense.
This chapter examines three distinct moral framework approaches to normative ethics: consequentialist, deontological, and virtue. Consequentialism looks at an action’s outcome or consequences to determine whether it is morally right. Consequentialists think an action is right when it produces the greatest good (e.g., happiness or general welfare). Deontology focuses on duties or rules to determine the rightness of an action. Deontologists argue that an action is right when it conforms to the correct rule or duty (e.g., it is always wrong to lie). Virtue ethics focuses on character and the development of the right habits or traits. Virtue ethicists argue that right action flows from right character. These three main approaches are distinguished by the criterion (i.e., consequences, duty, or character) used for determining moral conduct.