Normative Ethical Theories
What is a normative ethical theory?
A norm is a rule or principle.
An ethical norm is a moral or ethical principle.
A normative ethical theory is a theory that attempts to specify
correct moral principles.
Toward this end, normative ethical theories attempt to answer
the following basic questions:
What makes an action (institution, policy, etc.) morally
right or wrong?
What makes a person morally good or bad?
To illustrate, consider the theory called ethical egoism.
Ethical egoism holds that what makes an action right is that it is
in your self-interest.
This answer implies the following moral principle:
Any action that is in your self-interest is morally right.
Now, I don’t think this is a correct moral principle. (Can you
think of counterexamples to it?). But it helps to illustrate the
1 aims of a normative ethical theory is.
The theory purports to tell us what makes actions right (or
In doing so, the theory provides us with a moral principle, which
we can then use as a basis for arguments about what is morally
right (or wrong).
1. Any action that is in my self-interest is morally right.
2. Taking your wallet is in my self-interest.
3. Therefore, taking your wallet is morally right.
(This is not a sound argument, of course, but it illustrates the
role of moral principles in moral arguments.)
Look carefully at the structure of this argument …
The principle stated in premise 1 tells us what feature makes an
Premise 2 states that the act in question has this feature.
And these points together logically support the conclusion that
the act in question is morally right.
Normative ethical theories are therefore important, because they
provide the general moral principles we need to support our
2 We’ll now consider several of the most important and influential
normative ethical theories.
These theories do not agree on what makes an action right or
wrong (or a person good or bad). So we’ll need to try to
determine which of the theories is most plausible.
This is perhaps the most influential moral theory of the past
couple of hundred years.
As we’ll see, Peter Singer offers a utilitarian argument against
eating meat and experimenting on animals.
1. Utilitarianism – The Basic Idea
The greatest happiness for the greatest number.
We are morally required to maximize overall good.
Different versions of utilitarianism offer different accounts
of "the good".
2. Classical Act Utilitarianism
This is the version of utilitarianism proposed by its
founders, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill.
CAU is the view that:
The right thing to do in any situation is the act that
will produce the most pleasure (happiness) for all
This view can be “unpacked” in terms of the following
4 (i) Consequentialism: Actions are right and wrong
solely in virtue of their good or bad consequences.
(ii) Hedonism: Pleasure is the only thing that is
intrinsically good; pain is the only thing that is
(iii) Equal Consideration: Everyone’s pleasure is
3. Objections to CAU
One set of objections focuses on the hedonistic component
Nozick’s Experience Machine
The “Laughing Students” objection
Another set of objections focuses on the consequentialist
component of CAU.
The “Transplant” objection
The general problem this objection illustrates is that
CAU seems to permit – even require – unjust acts.
A third set of objections focuses on the principle of equal
5 Kantian (Deontological) Ethics
Consequentialist moral theories, such as utilitarianism, hold that
actions are right (or wrong) solely in virtue of their good (or
German philosopher Immanuel Kant strongly rejects this idea.
He holds that actions are right or wrong independently of their
According to Kant,
An act is right if and only if it is in accordance with our
But what is our duty? To answer this, Kant offered a
fundamental moral principle, which he called the Categorical
An imperative is a rule – e.g., Don’t lie, Keep your promises.
To say that an imperative is categorical, is to say that it is
unconditional and absolute.
There are several different versions of the CI. One of the most
important and influential formulations of the CI goes like this:
Act so that you treat humanity, whether in your own person
or in that of another, always as an end and never as a
6 So what makes an action right, according to Kant, is not that it
has good consequences. Rather, what makes an action right is
that it is in accordance with our duty. And the CI tells us that our
basic duty is to always treat others as ends, and not simply as a
To see what he means by this, we need to back up a bit.
According to Kant, human beings have inherent worth or
dignity – they have value in-themselves, regardless of their
usefulness to others, contribution to society, etc.
Humans have this inherent worth because they are rational
agents – that is, beings who can freely choose their own goals
and guide their conduct in accordance with reason.
Respecting the inherent worth of persons requires that we treat