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9.1 Requirements of a Normative Moral Theory

Ethics is the philosophical study of morality. It is commonly divided into three main areas: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics, each of which is distinguished by a different level of inquiry. A normative moral theory is a systematized account of morality that addresses important questions related to effectively guiding moral conduct. This chapter reviews three main approaches (consequentialist, deontological, and virtue) to normative ethics distinguished by the criterion (consequences, duty, or character) used for determining moral conduct.

9.2 Consequentialism

Consequentialism is the view that the rightness of an action is determined by its consequences. Mohism is a consequentialist theory founded by Mozi. It was created as a response to widespread social unrest and suffering characteristic of ancient China’s Warring States period. Mohists thought ethical norms could be established by looking at what increases overall welfare. They thought everyone should be treated impartially or equally and that preference shouldn’t be given to some people’s welfare over others. A key virtue in Mohism is benevolence, or kindness (rèn). The concept of benevolence is important because it requires one to look outside one’s own interests and treat others with care (ài). Mozi realized that if people adopt the same morality, they will use the same standards to judge their own actions and the actions of others, which will improve social order and harmony.

Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory developed by Jeremy Bentham and later modified by John Stuart Mill. Utilitarians argue that what is right is whatever produces the most utility, the most usefulness. They identify happiness with utility. The principle of utility states that “actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness” (Mill [1861] 2001, 7). Classic utilitarians like Bentham and Mill believed that pleasure and pain are basic, primary means by which people navigate the world and find motivation. The greatest happiness principle (or principle of utility) tells us that actions are right that produce the greatest happiness for the greatest number. When an agent evaluates the moral rightness of an action, they consider the happiness of all affected by the consequences.

9.3 Deontology

Deontological approaches focus on duties (e.g., always tell the truth) to determine whether an act is morally right. Immanuel Kant was the first philosopher to advance a deontological approach. He conceived of morality as rules that any rational being can and should accept because they are norms of rational conduct or agency. He called these rules categorical imperatives. There are two important formulations of the categorical imperative: the universal law formulation and the humanity formulation. Kant distinguished the categorical imperative from the hypothetical imperative, which is an action one takes to achieve a specific goal.

Pluralists like Sir William David Ross attempted to offer a more complex, complete account of morality that explains the common human experience. Ross believed (classic) utilitarianism and deontology fail because they “over-simplify the moral life” (Ross 1939, 189). He thought earlier moral theories reduced morality to a single principle (e.g., Mill’s greatest happiness principle and Kant’s categorical imperative), leaving them unable to adequately account for our common experience of morality. Ross argued that our duties are not absolute, as Kant would have it, but rather are obligatory, other things being equal, or so long as other factors and circumstances remain the same.

9.4 Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics takes a character-centered approach to morality. Right action is said to flow from right character. To do what is right requires having the right character traits or dispositions. You become a good person, then, through the cultivation of character and self-perfection.

Confucius developed Confucianism in response to the widespread social unrest and suffering characteristic of ancient China’s Warring States period. Confucians maintain that it is possible to perfect human nature through personal development and transformation, and they maintain the importance of junzi, a person who is an exemplary ethical figure and thus lives according to the dao. Ren refers to moral excellence, whether in full or regarding specific characteristics or traits. Important to both early and late Confucian ethics is the concept of li (ritual and practice). Li plays an important role in the transformation of character. Social and cultural norms and practices shape and influence our interactions with others. These rituals are a guide or become a means by which we develop and start to understand our moral responsibilities.

Aristotle believed virtuous development is central to human flourishing, eudaimonia. Aristotle identifies rationality as the unique function of human beings, and human virtue or excellence is therefore realized through the development or perfection of reason. To exercise or possess virtue is to demonstrate excellent character. Someone with a virtuous character is consistent, firm, self-controlled, and well-off. Aristotle thought people “are made perfect by habit” (Aristotle [350 BCE] 1998, 1103a10–33). When people practice doing what’s right, they get better at choosing the right action in different circumstances. Through habituation, people gain practice and familiarity, bring about dispositions or tendencies, and gain the requisite practical experience to identify the reasons why a certain action should be chosen in diverse situations.

Like Confucius, Aristotle thinks social relations are important for people’s rational and virtuous development. When people interact with others who have common goals and interests, they are more likely to progress and realize their rational powers. Through social relations, people also develop an important sense of community and take an interest in the flourishing of others.

9.5 Daoism

Like Mohism and Confucianism, Daoism is a response to the social unrest and suffering characteristic of ancient China’s Warring States period. Daoism aims to foster harmony in both society and the individual. Philosophical Daoism was founded by Laozi. Daoists reject the narrow Confucian view of dao as a way of behaving in society to ensure order and social harmony and instead view the dao as the natural way of the universe and all things. Daoism characterizes a fulfilling life as a calm, simple life, one that is free from desires and greed. The practice of wu wei suggests a natural way of acting that is spontaneous or immediate. When people practice wu wei, they act in harmony with the dao, are free of desire and striving, and spontaneously move with the natural flow of existence.

9.6 Feminist Theories of Ethics

The ethics of care is often associated with feminism, and its approach is modeled on a woman’s moral perspective. Psychologist Carol Gilligan’s research led to the development of care ethics. It is an approach that values caring, the relationships of the individuals involved, and the interests of individuals. Gilligan’s approach asks agents to consider the specific interests of individuals and their relationships. The ethics of care values caring and moral reasoning that accounts for the unique factors of concrete situations rather than abstraction.

Feminist scholars criticize traditional normative moral theories for ignoring the interests and perspectives of women (and oppressed groups) and for failing to consider important facts of the concrete situation and the individuals involved when applying norms or standards. They have explored alternative moral frameworks using all major approaches. A viable alternative moral framework must find ways to account for the interests of all persons, focus on the vulnerable and invisible, and lead to moral choices that advance true equality rather than only advancing the interests of the privileged.

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