Normative Ethics

… a core concept in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M

Concept description

Writing in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, James Fieser (reference below) describes normative ethics as “arriving at moral standards that regulate right and wrong conduct … a search for an ideal litmus test of proper behavior.”

Three main approaches

Many treatments of normative ethics distinguish three broad approaches, which can have slightly different names. Fieser summarizes the three main approaches to normative ethics as:

“It is common for us to determine our moral responsibility by weighing the consequences of our actions. According to consequentialism, correct moral conduct is determined solely by a cost-benefit analysis of an action’s consequences … Consequentialist normative principles require that we first tally both the good and bad consequences of an action. Second, we then determine whether the total good consequences outweigh the total bad consequences. If the good consequences are greater, then the action is morally proper. If the bad consequences are greater, then the action is morally improper. Consequentialist theories are sometimes called teleological theories, from the Greek word telos, or end, since the end result of the action is the sole determining factor of its morality.”

“Many of us feel that there are clear obligations we have as human beings, such as to care for our children, and to not commit murder. Duty theories base morality on specific, foundational principles of obligation. These theories are sometimes called deontological, from the Greek word deon, or duty, in view of the foundational nature of our duty or obligation. They are also sometimes called nonconsequentialist since these principles are obligatory, irrespective of the consequences that might follow from our actions. For example, it is wrong to not care for our children even if it results in some great benefit, such as financial savings.”

““Virtue ethics … places less emphasis on learning rules, and instead stresses the importance of developing good habits of character, such as benevolence (see moral character). Once I’ve acquired benevolence, for example, I will then habitually act in a benevolent manner. Historically, virtue theory is one of the oldest normative traditions in Western philosophy, having its roots in ancient Greek civilization. Plato emphasized four virtues in particular, which were later called cardinal virtues: wisdom, courage, temperance and justice. Other important virtues are fortitude, generosity, self-respect, good temper, and sincerity. In addition to advocating good habits of character, virtue theorists hold that we should avoid acquiring bad character traits, or vices, such as cowardice, insensibility, injustice, and vanity. Virtue theory emphasizes moral education since virtuous character traits are developed in one’s youth. Adults, therefore, are responsible for instilling virtues in the young.”

Atlas topic, subject, and course

The Study of Ethics in Public Policy and Management (core topic) in Ethics, Rights, and Accountability and Atlas111M Ethics.


James Fieser, Normative Ethics, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, at, accessed 12 March 2019.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 12 March 2019.

Image: OpionFront, at, accessed 12 March 2019.