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What is normative ethics?

normative ethics audio

The philosophy of ethics is the study of how humans act and why they act the way they do. Metaethics is the study of the terms and metaphysical considerations of ethical concepts, and is usually too esoteric and academic to actually be useful. Applied ethics is at the other end of the spectrum; it is relevant discussion about the morality of specific actions in such fields as medicine, business and government. Normative ethics is the study of ethical frameworks. It’s the attempt to develop guidelines that do not list ethical actions but can judge if an action is ethical according to a given system. Several systems of ethics have been developed over the years:

Deontology is the study of moral duty. It teaches that ethical behavior starts with an established duty. An act, then, is ethical if it adheres to that duty. The authority of the duty is independent of both the situation and the outcome of the action. Three possible sources give duty its authority: natural law (the general guidelines of behavior common to every person), contractual responsibilities (voluntary or assumed obligations), or God (Divine Command Theory). "Kantian deontology" was developed by Immanuel Kant, who felt that the reluctant or accidental fulfillment of a duty couldn’t truly be considered ethical. He taught that an action must be performed for the deliberate purpose of completing a duty and with a voluntary, gracious spirit.

Consequentialism is a school that almost takes the acting agent out of the process, replacing it with the end result of an action. An act can only be ethical if the condition it produces is good. On this, most consequentialists agree. But there is much they can’t agree on: What is good? Good for whom? Who determines good? And does it matter that none of us can know the ultimate results of our act before we act? Consequentialism is so confusing that even adherents agree that we cannot use it to inform our action; instead, we should rely on rules and instinct.

The definition of ethics does not demand that right and wrong be immutable. That is, in theory, ethics may change for time, place, and circumstance. Ethical relativism takes full advantage of this theory. Cultural relativism says a person’s actions should be compared to the general morals of the acting agent’s society, not to the morals of the observer. Pragmatists believe that ethics should evolve, just like the study of science, as new discoveries and observations are made about our world. Moral relativism teaches that everyone must develop his or her own idea of ethical behavior and follow that.

Virtue ethics says that ethical behavior flows naturally from a virtuous character. Specific laws are unnecessary, and bad consequences are not a factor. To that end, mankind’s responsibility is to develop a character that embodies excellence, wisdom, and a fulfilled life. In a way, virtue ethics combines the three previous schools. The duty of deontology could be construed as the manifestation of excellence; a fulfilled life would be a noble consequence; and pragmatists claim to rely on wisdom about their world.

Unlike the other normative ethical schools, Christian ethics answers the questions. It identifies truth (God), outlines the basis of ethics (principles found in the Bible), and even lists some universal laws that apply directly to the unchanging truth.

The problem with manmade ethics is that they start with a false assumption of truth and try to build from there. Deontology says ethics are based on obligation, without basing that obligation on God’s truth. Consequentialism says that "good" is truth, but then can’t define what "good" is. Relativism says we cannot know the truth. And virtue ethics claims that we can work to embody truth ourselves. Only Christian ethics says that truth exists (Psalm 51:6), truth is knowable (Proverbs 3:3), and we will need help from the Creator of truth to find it (John 14:16-17). It is foolish to base a standard of behavior on our feeble notions of the truth of the cosmos when the Truth Himself is willing to guide us (John 14:6).

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022