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Normative Ethics Theories

There are three important normative ethics theories-

  • Virtue Ethics
  • Consequentialism (prominently utilitarianism)
  • Deontological Ethics (prominently Kantianism)

Virtue Ethics

Virtue ethics focuses on the ‘character’ of the agent rather than on the formal rules for or the consequences of actions. Virtue ethics includes an account of the purpose of human life, or the meaning of life. To Plato and Aristotle, the purpose was to live in harmony with others, and the four Cardinal Virtues were defined as-

  • Prudence/ Wisdom
  • Justice
  • Fortitude/ Courage
  • Temperance

Proponents of virtue theory sometimes argue that a central feature of a virtue is that it is universally applicable. The key elements of virtue ethical thinking are based on the approaches to ethical thinking of the ancient and medieval periods. The roots of the Western tradition lie in the work of Plato and Aristotle, but virtues are important also in traditions of Chinese moral philosophy.


This is the ethical theory that most non-religious people think they use every day. It bases morality on the consequences of human actions and not on the actions themselves. Its emphasis, thus, is on the rightness of the ‘end’ rather than morality of the ‘means’ employed. Thus, from a consequentialist standpoint, a morally right action is one that produces a good outcome, or consequence.

Consequentialism teaches that people should do whatever produces the greatest amount of good consequences. One famous way of putting this is ‘the greatest good for the greatest number of people’.

The most common forms of consequentialism are the various versions of utilitarianism, which favour actions that produce the greatest amount of happiness. Three subdivisions of consequentialism are:

  • Ethical egoism
  • e Ethical altruism, and
  • Utilitarianism

Deontological or Non-consequentialism ethics

Deontology is concerned with the actions themselves and not with the consequences. It looks at the rightness or wrongness of actions themselves, as opposed to the rightness or wrongness of the consequences of those actions. It teaches that some acts are right or wrong in themselves, whatever the consequences, and people should act accordingly.

Ethical Egoism

According to this perspective, an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable ‘only to the agent’ performing the action.

Ethical Altruism

According to this perspective, an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable ‘to everyone except the agent’.


According to this perspective, an action is morally right if the consequences of that action are more favorable than unfavorable ‘to everyone’.

Utilitarianism is the altruistic or universalistic form of Ethical Hedonism (where Hedonism argues that pleasure is the highest good and the supreme ideal of life). Utilitarianism maintains that the supreme ideal of life is pleasure – not the individual pleasure but universal or general happiness. The slogan of Utilitarianism is, “The greatest happiness of the greatest number”.

In other words, Utilitarianism is the idea that the moral worth of an action is solely determined by its contribution to overall utility, that is, its contribution to happiness or pleasure as summed up among all persons. The more happiness or pleasure for the more people, the better. It is consequentialist because the moral worth of an action is determined by its outcome, and that the ends justify the means. This theory, thus, is in opposition to deontological ethical theory that regards some acts or types of acts as right or wrong independently of their consequences.

Utilitarianism, in normative ethics, is a tradition stemming from the late 18th and 19th century’s English philosophers and economists- Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. Jeremy Bentham advocates cross or Quantitative Utilitarianism while J.S. Mill advocates Refined or Qualitative Utilitarianism’

Jeremy Bentham’s Gross or Quantitative Utilitarianism

Bentham argues for weighing pleasures and pains in our actions. An action is right if it produces pleasure. An action is wrong if it produces pain. The worth of an action consists in its utility to produce pleasure and to avoid pain. Bentham believes that all pleasures are alike. Pleasures do not have qualitative differences. Pleasures have only quantitative differences i.e. they are more or they are less. Bentham argues that the quantity of pleasure remaining the same, pushpin (a game) is as good as poetry (i.e., there is no qualitative difference between the two).

Bentham argues that each man desires his own happiness. Each man’s happiness is good for him. Therefore general happiness is good for all- Bentham asserts that by nature man is egoistic and selfish. Man can be altruistic on[y when, by being altruistic he satisfies his own desire too’ Here Bentham suggests the moral standard of “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.” The moral standard is not the greatest happiness of one individual but it is happiness of maximum number of people.

Mill’s Refined or Qualitative Utilitarianism

The Refined or Qualitative Utilitarianism can be summarized as follows:-The moral criterion is Utility or the greatest happiness principle. Actions are right, if they promote happiness. Happiness means pleasure and the absence of pain. Actions are wrong if they produce unhappiness. Unhappiness is pain and the privation of pleasure. Pleasure and freedom from pain are the only desirable ends. All other things like virtue, health, love of honor, wealth, power are desired because they promote happiness.

Mill holds that qualitative distinction among pleasures is as real as quantitative distinction. Intellectual pleasures are better than sensuous pleasures. Mill believes that we ought to seek satisfaction of higher capacities.

Mill argues that each man desires his own happiness. Each person’s happiness is good to that person. Therefore the general happiness is good to ‘all’ persons. So, general happiness is good to ‘each’ person. I n this way, Mill explains transition from egoism to altruism. Mill advocates that, “The moral end ought to be greatest happiness of the greatest number.”

Kantian Ethical Theory

Kantianism (or Kantian ethical theory) is deontological, revolving entirely around “duty” rather than emotional feelings or end goals. The core concept is “duty”, or what one ought to do in certain situations. Kantianism states that truly moral or ethical acts are not based on self-interest or the greatest utility, but on a sense of “duty” and a sense of what is right and fair on a wider level (despite the possible consequences for the individual and their usefulness for others). Kantian theories are based on the work of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804).

Kant believes that moral law arises from pure will. It arises from free and rational will which is self-determined and self-legislative. A person is free when he is bound by his own will and not by the will of others. Kant regards the moral law imposed by practical reason as ‘Categorical Imperative’. Categorical Imperative is the internal law imposed by conscience upon itself. In other words, a categorical imperative denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that exerts its authority in all circumstances, both required and justified as an end in itself.

Kant argued against utilitarianism and other moral philosophy of his day, because for example an utilitarian would say that murder is OK if it does maximize good for the greatest number of people; and he who is preoccupied with maximizing the positive outcome for himself would see murder as OK, or irrelevant. Therefore, Kant argued, these moral systems cannot persuade moral action or be regarded as basis for moral judgments because they are based on subjective considerations. A deontological moral system was his alternative, a system based on the demands of the categorical imperative.

As an example of these categorical imperatives or duties, the philosopher W.D. Ross built upon Kant’s theory and listed a few basic “duties”- One should:

  • Tell the truth;
  • Right the wrongs that one has done to others;
  • Act justly;
  • Help others in respect to virtue, intelligence, and happiness;
  • Improve oneself with respect to virtue and intelligence;
  • Give thanks; and
  • Avoid injury to others.

In Kant’s words; “Act so as to treat others as ends and not merely as means”.


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