Normative Ethics: What Moral Standards Should We Use?

Ethical Decisions
Ethical Decisions. Todd Davidson/Illustration Works/Getty

The category of normative ethics is also easy to understand: it involves creating or evaluating moral standards. It is therefore an attempt to figure out what people should do or whether their current moral behavior is reasonable, given whatever moral standards are being used in that context. Traditionally, most of the field of moral philosophy has involved normative ethics and there are few philosophers out there who haven't tried their hand at explaining what they think people should do and why.

This process involves examining the moral standards people currently use in order to determine if they are consistent, reasonable, effective, and/or justified, as well as attempting to construct new moral standards which might be better. In either case, the philosopher is critically investigating the nature and grounds of moral standards, moral principles, moral rules, and moral conduct.

Such work may or may not include the existence of some god or gods as a premise, though this is far more likely when one is a theologian. Many of the disagreements between atheists and theists on moral questions stem from their disagreement about whether the existence of any god is a relevant or necessary premise to include when developing Normative Ethics.


Applied Ethics

The category of normative ethics also includes the entire field of Applied Ethics, which is the attempt to take insights from the work of philosophers and theologians and apply them to real-world situations. For example, bioethics is an important and growing aspect of applied ethics which involves people using ideas from Normative Ethics in order to work out the best, most moral decisions regarding issues like organ transplants, genetic engineering, cloning, etc.

An issue falls under the category of applied ethics whenever:

  1. There is general disagreement about the correct course of action.
  2. The choice involved is a specifically moral choice.

The first characteristic means that there must be some actual debate in which different groups take opposing positions for what they consider good reasons. Thus, abortion is a question of applied ethics in which people can analyze the facts and values involved and arrive at some sort of conclusion backed by arguments. On the other hand, deliberately placing a poison in the water supply is not a question of applied ethics because there is no general debate over whether or not such an action is wrong.

The second characteristic requires, obviously, that applied ethics only be involved when we are facing moral choices. Not every controversial issue is also a moral issue - for example, traffic laws and zoning codes may be the basis for heated debate, but they rarely turn on questions of fundamental moral values.


Moral Rules and Moral Agents

The ultimate goal of all of this is to show how it might be possible to develop a consistent and reasonable system of moral rules which are valid for all "moral agents." Philosophers often speak of "moral agents," which are any beings capable of understanding and acting upon some moral rule. Thus, it isn't simply enough to answer a moral question, like "Is abortion wrong?" or "Is gay marriage harmful?" Instead, normative ethics is involved with demonstrating that this and other questions can be answered with consistency and in the context of some general moral principles or rules.

In short, normative ethics addresses questions like the following:

  • What should be our moral obligations?
  • What is Right and what is Wrong?
  • What should be our moral values?
  • What is Good and what is Evil?


Here are some examples of statements from Normative Ethics:

  • Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. (Golden Rule)
  • Act as if the maxim of your action was to become through your will a universal law of nature. (Kant's Categorical Imperative)
  • That which wills is the Good.