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Normative ethics

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Tram(The tram dilemma is a thought experiment that can serve to illustrate and test different ethical theories.)

Normative ethics is the branch of ethics that studies the possible moral criteria to determine when an action is right and when it is not. It looks for general principles that justify normative systems and argue why certain standards should be adopted . A classic example of a similar criterion is the golden rule.

Main positions

In normative ethics, there are three main positions:

  • The consequentialism holds that the moral value of an action must be judged only based on whether its consequences are favorable or unfavorable. The different versions of consequentialism differ, however, about what consequences should be considered relevant to determine the morality or not of an action. For example, moral selfishness considers that an action will be morally correct only when the consequences of it are favorable for the person who performs it. On the other hand, utilitarianism holds that an action will be morally correct only when its consequences are favorable to a majority. There is also debate about what should be counted as a favorable consequence.
  • The deontology maintains that there are duties that must be fulfilled, beyond the favorable or unfavorable consequences that they can bring, and that to fulfill those duties is to act morally. For example, caring for our children is a duty, and it is morally wrong not to do so, even though this may result in great economic benefits. Different deontological theories differ in the method to determine the duties, and consequently in the list of duties to fulfill.
  • The virtue ethics focuses on the importance of developing good habits of behavior or virtues , and to avoid bad habits, vices .

According to the criteria used to evaluate moral good: Ethical theories can also be distinguished according to the criteria they use to evaluate the moral good. The moral good can be evaluated by:

  • Consequences (teleological ethics, consequentialism).
  • Behavioral dispositions, character traits and virtues (virtue ethics)
  • The intention of the actor (disposition ethics)
  • Objectives towards moral facts, as objective of moral evaluations on property or action (deontological ethics)
  • Optimization of interests or interested parties (preferably), utilitarian ethics, happiness (eudaimonia), or welfare

Normative ethics and descriptive ethics: Frequently ethics is understood in the sense of normative ethics, that is, this part is confused with the whole. However, while descriptive ethics is concerned with determining what is considered morally correct in a given society, normative ethics reflects on what is morally correct and why.

Normative and non-normative statements: Descriptive ethics formulates non-normative statements since it is limited to declaring what in a certain society is considered correct, but the validity of the consideration is not held, in a strict sense, the validity is not a logical consequence of the generalized acceptance of the rule.

A normative statement is supported by a logical argument that grounds why the application of a norm is correct, in a way that sustains and affirms its validity. These types of statements are those formulated by normative ethics.

Normative theories

Normative ethics has always been present in Western thought and different classifications of its doctrines have been proposed. However, the distinction between consequentialist ethics and deontological ethics is one of greatest strength and discussion in the contemporary field.


Jeremy Bentham(Jeremy Bentham, father of utilitarianism, one of the main consequentialist theories.)

In ethics , consequentialism , also known as teleological ethics (from the Greek τέλος, telos, end, in the sense of finality) refers to all those theories of normative ethics that hold that the goodness or badness of an act is determined by the consequences what it entails. For consequentialist theories, an action is judged good if it generates the greatest possible good or a surplus of the amount of good over evil. Thus, in the consequentialist view, good behavior is the one that optimizes some values ​​given axiologically by a metaethics, provided that the values ​​refer to an effect in the world.

Among the consequentialist ethics we can find many forms of utilitarianism (the best consequences for the greatest number), moral selfishness (the best consequences for myself) and Auguste Comte’s ethics of altruism (the best consequences for the other).

Consequentialist ethics are a group of ethical theories that emanate moral duties or obligations that seek to achieve an ultimate goal, which presumes good or desirable. It is also known as consecutive ethics, since it is based on the judgment of acts in their consequences, and is opposed to deontological ethics (from the Greek δέον, duty), which hold that the morality of an action is independent of good or evil generated from it.

Consequentialism holds that the morality of an action depends only on its consequences (the end justifies the means). Consequentialism does not apply only to actions. To believe that morality is only about generating as much happiness as possible, or about increasing freedom as much as possible, or about promoting the survival of our species , is to hold a consequentialist position; because although all these beliefs differ in terms of the values ​​that matter, they agree that what is desirable takes the form of some consequence. For example, the consequentialist hedonistic theory identifies good with pleasure and evil with pain; and the eudaemonist aims at the full realization of happiness.

One way to classify the different types of consequentialism is from the agents that must be taken into account when considering the consequences of the actions. This gives rise to three categories of consequentialism:

  • Moral egoism : an action is morally correct if it produces positive consequences for the agent.
  • Altruism : a good action is one that produces the good of others, at the expense of the agent.
  • Utilitarianism : an action is morally correct if favorable results predominate over the undesirable, regardless of who the beneficiaries are. Therefore, the best possible action is that which produces the greatest good; as it would be measured by an impartial observer.

Critics of the consequentialist ethics have been argued that it is impossible to fully estimate the consequences of an action, so it is difficult to reach safe judgments about them. In addition, the value of an action would not be determined by the real consequences of such an action but from the assumptions about the probability of its results. The risk of falling into excessive pragmatism is another possible objection against consequentialist ethics, since the exploitation or subordination of some groups may seem justified in terms of some beneficial consequences for individuals or other groups.


Immanuel Kant(Immanuel Kant, one of the leading thinkers of deontology, developed Kantian ethics.)

The deontology (from Greek δέον, -οντος, Deon -ontos, ‘what is necessary’, ‘duty’ and –logía, ‘knowledge’, ‘study’) is the branch of ethics that deals with duties, especially those that govern professional activities, as well as the set of duties related to the exercise of a profession. In turn, it is part of the moral philosophy dedicated to the study of moral obligations or duties.

Deontology is also the theory in normative ethics according to which there are certain actions that must be carried out, and others that should not be carried out, beyond the positive or negative consequences that they may bring. That is, there are certain duties that must be fulfilled beyond their consequences. For deontology, actions have a value in themselves, independent of the amount of good they can produce. According to the conviction that there are good or bad actions in themselves, it is still the duty to perform them or to avoid them. An action can be morally correct, even if it does not produce the greatest amount of good, because it is just by itself. However, deontological ethics are increasingly sensitive to the need to consider the global consequences of actions. If, for example, a human life can be saved through a lie, a deontological ethicist can recognize a weighting of the results of the action. However, in these cases, the consequences of the action and not the proper value of the action are taken into account, which is why deontology is suspended.

Deontologists are those who consider correct a situation in which more people are faithful to their convictions, but at the same time have to judge it right to do something that will inevitably cause more people to act incorrectly.

The ethics that belong to this group are developed from an anthropocentric humanist postulate; with this they postulate a humanistic, enlightened morality that acts on politics and law. This guides, presses and criticizes, with the purpose of promoting a free, democratic and open society.

There are two main types of deontologies:

  • Applied deontology: tells us about the duties of everyday life, whether or not it should be done right in some situation
  • Prescriptive deontology: determines the behavior based on the rules proposed or necessary for coexistence

The term was coined by Jeremy Bentham , in his Deontology or moral science , where he defines it as the branch of art and science that aims to act in a straight and appropriate, refers to the exhibition of “what is correct “and” what should be”. Bentham also considers that the basis of this term is based on the principles of freedom and utilitarianism. On the other hand, Rossini establishes the deontology not of the being, but of the to-be, that is to say, what must be to be considered perfect.

The term arises in the nineteenth century as a new way of calling ethics, however, as time went by it was taken as the ethics applied to the profession specifically. All the professions or offices can count on their own deontology that indicates what is the duty of each individual, that is why some of them have developed their own deontological code.

Deontological norms are incomprehensible without reference to the context or social group in which they are obligatory. The obligation is confined to that group, outside which they lose the obligation. Under the deontological eye a situation in which people are following their convictions will be considered correct, but at the same time it has to analyze if what it will do will cause more people to make incorrect (hypocritical) decisions.

Among the ethical deontologists we can include Immanuel Kant , William David Ross and Frances Kamm . According to Sebastián Kaufmann, one of the most important principles of normative ethics is the categorical imperative proposed by Immanuel Kant:

“Work only according to that maxim by which you can want it to become a universal law at the same time. Work as if the maxim of your action could be converted by your will into a universal law of nature.

For this imperative, an action is morally good when it is based on a principle with qualities of being universalized. We can take as an example the action of lying, this attitude is generally immoral because if everyone were lying the general trust within societies would be ruined and consequently is not a universal maxim.

Virtue ethics

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics(First page of the 1566 edition of the Nicomachean Ethics in Greek and Latin, perhaps the first treatise on the virtue ethics.)

The virtue ethics is the current of study of morality that starts from the fact that this arises from internal features of the person, the virtues, as opposed to the position of deontology – moral arises from rules – and from consequentialism – moral depends on the outcome of the act. The difference between these three approaches to morality lies more in the way in which moral dilemmas are addressed than in the conclusions reached.

The virtue ethics is a theory that goes back to Plato and, in a more articulate way, to Aristotle, according to which an action is ethically correct if doing it was proper to a virtuous person. For example, if utilitarianism have to help the needy because that increases the general welfare, and ethics must be done because it is our duty, to the virtue ethics, we must help those in need because doing it would be charitable and benevolent.

The virtue ethics seeks to explain the nature of a moral agent as a driving force for ethical behavior, rather than rules (ethics) or consequentialism, which is derived as right or wrong result from the act itself.

For example, a consequentialist would argue that lying is bad because of the negative consequences produced by lying, although a consequentialist would allow certain foreseeable consequences to make it acceptable to lie in some cases. A deontologist would argue that lying is always bad, regardless of any potential “good” that could come from a lie. A supporter of the virtue ethics, however, would focus less on lying on a particular occasion, and instead he would consider what the decision to tell or not a lie tells us about one’s character and moral conduct. As such, the morality of lying would be determined case by case, which would be based on factors such as personal benefit, group benefit, and intentions (as to whether they are benevolent or malevolent).

Although concern for virtue appears in several philosophical traditions, in Western Philosophy virtue is present in the work of Plato and Aristotle, and even today the key concepts of tradition derive from ancient Greek philosophy. These concepts include arete (excellence or virtue), phronesis (practical or moral wisdom), and eudaimonia (happiness). In the West, the virtue ethics was the predominant focus of ethical thought in the ancient and medieval periods. The tradition of virtue ethics was forgotten during the modern period, when Aristotelianism fell out of favor. The theory of virtue returned to prominence in Western philosophical thought in the twentieth century, and today is one of the three dominant approaches to normative theories (the other two being deontology (Kant) and consequentialism or teleologism, where we could include the utilitarianism).

Relationship with other disciplines

In addition to descriptive ethics (which is concerned with determining what is considered morally correct in a given society), normative ethics is related to other parts of ethics. The reflection on the norms of the normative ethics is to be continued in the metaethics; it does not formulate normative statements but rather of a linguistic or methodological type that reflects on normative language or on the form and basis of normative theories. However, there is no sense in pretending to establish a clear limit between ethics and metaethics, since no discipline can renounce the investigation of its theoretical foundations or the explanation of the meaning of its fundamental expressions. After the processes of reflection of normative ethics and metaethics, concrete norms of more immediate application proper to applied ethics are projected. The latter includes the most interesting or current topics in a society, such as bioethics.

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