Unlike other subdivisions of ethics that attempt to either identify moral properties (metaethics) or to identify specific things that possesses these properties (applied ethics), normative ethics focuses primarily on providing a general theory, or framework by which to discern how we ought to live. Any act has three specific aspects that are of interest to ethics: the agent who acts, the ethical act itself and the consequences of the act. Through varied emphasis of these aspects the three sub-sections of normative ethics, namely virtue ethics, deontological ethics and consequentialist ethics have taken form. In this essay I will look briefly at each of these and discuss which one I find most compelling.
Virtue ethics emphasizes the acting agent and focuses on the moral character of that agent. The ethical task, according to virtue theory, is to nurture certain virtues such as courage, generosity, compassion, determination, etc. such that these virtues become the natural disposition of an acting agent. Aristotle—the first philosopher to truly systematize virtue ethics—emphasizes the importance of holism and character development for the virtuous life: if the good life is indeed “activity of soul in accordance with virtue…in a complete life” (1941, p. 943) then the character of the agent is the crucial piece of the theory.
Deontological theories emphasize the rightness and wrongness of the act itself and whether or not this action fulfills one’s duty and upholds the law. Kant remains the foremost advocate of this theory, stressing that actions are simply right or wrong by nature as they either adhere to or deviate from the moral law and practical reason. In this respect, Kant can formulate ethical maxims in absolute terms, such as he does in the two renditions of his categorical imperative: “Act only on that maxim which you can at the same time will to be a universal law” (Kant, 1948, p. 421) and “treat humanity…never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an ends” (Kant, 1948, p. 429). Under this theory, for example, it is always wrong to lie because the act of telling a lie is itself an act that cannot be made universal and thus is deemed wrong in itself.
Lastly, consequentialist ethical theories focus on the consequences, or results of an action, such that an act is judged morally right or wrong based on whether it leads to good or bad consequences. The utilitarians, led by John Stuart Mill, with his motto of “the greatest good for the greatest number” are a prime example of this type of thinking. Under their theory, as opposed to that of the deontologists, nothing is right or wrong in itself, but merely in relation to the personal and social effects it may produce. Therefore, if we consider again the example of telling a lie, the consequentialists claim that telling a lie is not bad if it produces a good result or outcome.
All three of these theories have their drawbacks and all three have their positive aspects; however, in the end I believe that the consequentialist theory is the best theory for the current context in which we live. Deontological ethics are difficult to enforce in a modern, secular, pluralistic and postmodern society. As Alasdair MacIntyre has shown in his influential book After Virtue, reason and divinity are no longer sufficient to instill in us a sense of duty and enforce that we follow moral laws. If I am a postmodern atheist in America, telling me that reason or the Judeo-Christian God has commanded something of me is hardly sufficient to form in me an “ought”. Likewise, virtue theory is also impossible to make function in a society such as America. Virtue theory relies upon a theory of “the good”, such that all actors should be able to develop their characters in respect to this; however, the problem with this is getting everyone to agree to the same, or at least a similar conception of “the good”. Diversity of opinion and lifestyle would never make this possible beyond a few basic and general maxims (such as “It is probably best that we don’t kill one another…”) Therefore, the best system that remains is the consequentialist. By avoiding definitions of the moral life in respect to “the good” and instead defining it in relation to “the good for each person” or the “greatest good” as defined by maximized pleasure (cf. Bentham and Mill), we are better able to incorporate more or all individuals in somewhat of a moral consensus. For example, refraining from hitting my Buddhist neighbor is a good act because it allows for greater happiness for him insofar as he will have no pain in his face, and for me, insofar as I don’t have to feel bad about hitting him, have a sore hand, make my family afraid of me and produce a bad feeling in the neighborhood. In this case, our happiness coincides regardless of our backgrounds and beliefs. Of course, this system may not always be the best. It works well in a political system such as America, where a high amount of respect is already assumed for the individual; however, in a society where this is not assumed, such as modern-day China, consequentialism can prove a dangerous ethic: the greatest good for the greatest number does not prevent any government from taking advantage of, torturing, or even killing the individual in order to achieve a “good” end.
Aristotle (1941). Nicomachean Ethics. (W. D. Ross, Trans.). New York: Random House.
Kant, Immanuel (1948). Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. (H. J. Paton, Trans.).
London: Hutchinson. (Original work published 1785, and published in a collection in 1903; page references to this edition).
MacIntyre, Alasdair (1981). After Virtue. London: Duckworth.