Normative Ethics

12Oct07

‘Normative’ is an adjective derived from the noun ‘norm’ and in philosophy is used to refer to a standard, rule or principle that is used to judge or direct human action. ‘Normative’ does not refer to ‘what is normal’, but involves questioning the assumptions of ordinary moral behaviour.

Normative ethics is concerned with questions of right and wrong and the kind of behaviour that ‘should’ be engaged in. It must necessarily provide some guidance for action, such as in the resolution of moral dilemmas (e.g. suicide). Whether or not one takes an interest in moral theory one is still subject to moral choices and dilemmas – normative ethics strives to provide some guidance. One way of understanding the distinctiveness of normative ethical theories is that they are action-guiding, or give us a rule that describes our moral beliefs or actions and shows us how to act morally.

In developing normative theories, we adhere to the principle of non-contradiction. Normative theories aim to be logical and consistent. Moral argument often involves attempting to show that a theory is inconsistent or has unforeseen or undesirable consequences.

The first task of normative ethics is to find moral principles to guide choices. However, principles which seem to be acceptable on their own seem to come into conflict (as in the case of euthanasia, where a respect for preserving life and a desire to avoid suffering prescribe entirely different ways of acting). Therefore we seem to need to find a way of deciding between moral principles. This is where meta-ethical considerations become crucial, since we need to properly understand the meaning of our moral language and the nature of moral value.

Normative agreement can (and often does) include meta-ethical difference. For example, it might be accepted that it is wrong to kill. A Consequentialist might justify this principle in terms of universal welfare while a Kantian deontologist could justify it on the grounds that this kind of killing cannot be accepted as a universal principle. They can prescribe the same action, but for quite different reasons.

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