Normative Ethical Theories:
A Closer Examination

While metaethics is essential to ethics as a philosophical discipline, in courses on ethics (in particular, in courses whose audience is non-philosophers) normative ethical theories command the most attention. This attention is understandable, since the principal purpose that normative ethical theories serve is to articulate and advocate an ethical code, i.e., to provide justifiable and reliable principles to determine what is moral (and immoral) behavior. What are normative ethical theories?
   What theories are is a controversial philosophical issue. In the most basic sense, theories are abstract conceptual constructs that attempt to describe and explain certain phenomena. Normative ethical theories then represent systematic attempts to describe and explain moral or ethical phenomena.
   As theories, all normative ethical theories share certain conceptual and structural characteristics. To be precise, in normative ethical theories it is possible to isolate a tripartite structure that comprises a moral standard, general moral principles and particular moral principles and judgments.[1]
   Moral standards represent the most fundamental and general principles that underlie normative ethical theories. There is a crucial difference between moral standards and moral principles or moral judgments. A moral standard provides the criteria that generate moral principles and moral judgments, i.e., it specifies what characteristics all moral actions must possesses.[2] Consider the utilitarian moral standard: Actions are moral to the degree that their consequences produce the most happiness. This principle represents neither a general moral principle nor a specific moral judgment, rather it determines what characteristics these principles and judgment must possess.
   General moral principles are principles that focus on general action classes, i.e., that claim that all actions in a certain class are either moral or immoral. The principle 'It is immoral to act with the direct intention to kill a human being', is a general moral principle since is asserts that all actions that include such intentions are immoral.
   Particular moral principles and judgments represent the final level in normative ethical theories. These principles and judgment focus on more specific action classes or on specific actions. The statements, 'Rape is immoral' or 'Spousal abuse is immoral' represent particular moral principles, while the statement, 'Socrates' conviction and execution were immoral' represents a particular moral judgment. It is through these particular principles and judgments that moral theories devise their ethical codes.
   As Figure 1 indicates, the connection between these levels is such that the moral standards generate the general moral principles, which in turn generate the particular moral principles and judgments.


Figure 1. The Levels In Normative Moral Theories.

   The more radical and egoistic theories aside, most normative moral theories will generate quite similar general moral principles, particular moral principles and particular moral judgments. What distinguishes normative moral theories then are their moral standards.
   What determines the moral standards that underlie particular theories are their basic assumptions about ethics and ethical behavior. All theories (whether scientific or ethical) are built upon basic assumptions. These basic assumptions, while themselves seldom proven, nevertheless provide the conceptual foundations that, through logical analysis, theories build their explanations upon. In scientific theories these assumptions represent basic presuppositions about the material universe. In ethical theories the basic assumptions concern the moral domain, its nature, structure and applications.
   To be precise, what distinguishes moral standards that underlie moral theories, are the theories' basic assumptions as to:

  1. The specific element that is seen as the focus in an individual's or action's moral evaluation.
  2. The definitions given to concepts 'good' and 'right', and which concept is seen to be the more fundamental.
  3. Whether ethical knowledge has its origins in experience or in reason (or some combination).


Consider the moral judgment 'Socrates' conviction and execution were immoral'. What does this judgment allege? Does it claim that the individuals who were responsible in Socrates' conviction and execution were immoral? Does it claim that execution (or conviction) is immoral? Does it claim that it is the consequence, i.e., that Socrates' died, that is immoral? The answer to these questions represents a fundamental issue that separates normative moral theories.
nbsp;  To be precise, it is possible (and essential) to distinguish between these elements within a given moral judgment:.

  1. The individual's motive, i.e., the reason that the individual does the action.
  2. The individual's intention, i.e., the mental determination to engage in a certain action or to realize certain ends.
  3. The individual's character.
  4. The action, i.e., what the individual does.
  5. The action's characteristics, i.e., it the action an obligation, permissible or impermissible.
  6. The action's consequences, i.e., what does happen once the individual does the action.
   Since there are no theories in which actions themselves are the sole focus in moral evaluations, the traditional choices have been to focus either on the individual's intention, the individual's motive, the action's consequences or the action's characteristics.    The reason that no theories focus on actions themselves is unproblematic. Consider the situations where James kills a burglar in self-defense and where Eric kills an innocent person and steals their car. In each situation the action is the same, i.e., one person causes someone else to die. Nevertheless, most normative moral theories consider James' action to be a moral response to the situation and Eric's action to be immoral. To be able to judge the same action to be moral in some situations and immoral in others then, it must be some element other than the action that the moral judgment focuses on. Otherwise since the action is the same the moral judgments must also be the same.    The question becomes then, whether the focus is on the individual's motive, the individual's intention, the action's characteristics or the action's consequences?    While there is a difference between the individual's motive and intention, it is a technical and subtle difference, and one that is problematic. As a pragmatic stratagem then, it will be advantageous to collapse the individual's intention and motive into one consideration. Figure 2 illustrates the elements that remain to be the focus in moral evaluations, as well as some possible interpretations within each element.

The Elements in Moral Evaluations

Figure 2. The Elements in Moral Evaluations.[3]


Moral principles and judgments use the concepts 'good' and 'right' (and their opposites) to describe certain actions. To be able to use these concepts requires that moral theories define what 'good' and 'right' mean. The definitions themselves are a metaethical issue. Nevertheless, the definitions and, in particular, the connection between the definitions, do have serious normative consequences.
   Perhaps the most serious consequence concerns the connection between the definitions (rather than the particular definitions themselves) and whether the concept 'good' or the concept 'right' is seen to be the more fundamental concept. The realization here is that is possible to define these concepts in relation to each other, i.e., it is possible to define what is good as what is right (x is good because x is right) or to define what is right as what is good (x is right because x is good).
   An illustration will demonstrate the difference between approaches. Consider the moral judgments:

  1. Being honest is (or produces some) good because being honest is the right action.
  2. Being honest is the right action because being honest is (or produces some) good.
The difference in focus in these judgments is dramatic. Judgment (1) considers 'right' to be the more fundamental concept and suggests that whatever is good, is good because it is right. Judgment (2), in contrast considers good to be the more fundamental concept and alleges that whatever is right, is right because it is (or produces some) good.    Those theories that consider 'good' to be the more fundamental concept will also isolate some particular good as the supreme good, while those theories that consider 'right' to be the more fundamental concept will designate certain actions as the right actions, i.e., as moral duties or obligations.
   Notice that there is a connection between the whether moral theories consider 'good' or 'right' to be the more fundamental concept and whether the focus in their moral evaluations is on consequences or intentions. In theories that consider 'good' to be the more basic concept, the purpose in moral action is to produce as much good as possible. What these theories will (and must) focus on to determine whether this condition has been met are consequences. It is the good that one's actions produce then, rather than one's intentions, that determines a situation's moral status. In these theories one's intentions have little or no relevance, all that matter are consequences.
   In theories that consider 'right' to be the more fundamental concept, the purpose in moral action is to do what is right, i.e., to observe one's moral duties. Since it is possible to do what is right and the consequences nevertheless be disastrous, these theories focus on one's intentions rather than on the consequences one's actions produce. So to determine whether one has done what is moral, these theories determine whether one's action was right (i.e., was an obligation, or at least permissible) and what one's intention was, rather than on what the consequences were. In these theories then, consequences have little or no relevance, all that matters are moral duties and intentions.


The final issue that separates normative moral theories concerns ethical knowledge. To be precise, it concerns where ethical knowledge is thought to arise, i.e., whether knowledge about ethics and ethical principles is due to experience, reason or some combination. While it is possible that ethical knowledge might have a non-empirical or non-rational source, theories that purpose such sources are rather rare and outside mainstream philosophical speculation.
   The philosophical and ethical issues that ethical knowledge raises is the focus in the article 'Rationalism and Empiricism: Some Notes on Epistemological Strategies and Their Implications in Ethics'.

Through the answers to the questions that all these issues which serve to separate normative ethical theories pose it is possible to these theories as either deontological, teleological or relativistic. The differences between these strategies in the focus in the sections that remain.


Deontological normative ethical theories focus on moral obligations and duties (i.e., what is right) rather than on an action's ends or consequences (i.e., what is good). These are duties that one must observe and represent actions that are either moral or immoral in themselves.[4]


Since the focus in deontological theories is on moral duties, the individual's intentions have a substantial role in moral evaluations. Thus, deontological evaluations require more than that individuals do their moral duties (i.e., what is right), such evaluations also require that individuals do these duties with the right intentions. Note the phrase 'right intentions', this is crucial since deontological theories are quite specific about what constitutes a correct or appropriate intention. While an intention might be laudable, this is inadequate to establish that the intention is also right.
   Since deontological evaluations consider the intention as well as the action, on a deontological analysis it is possible that while the action the individual does represents a moral obligation, the individual might have an inappropriate intention. In such cases, while the action is correct, the individual is either immoral or non-moral, i.e., the individual's character is either virtuous or non-virtuous.
   It is also possible to have the appropriate intention and act against one's moral duties. In such cases the action is incorrect and the individual is still either immoral or non-moral. On a deontological analysis then, it is never possible to do an incorrect action with the right intention.
   To avoid confusion it is essential to be clear that in deontological theories it is the individual who is either moral or immoral (i.e., has a virtuous or non-virtuous character), while the actions are either correct (in accordance with one's duties) or incorrect (against one's duties).
   On a deontological analysis then, moral individuals are those who act in accordance with their duties (i.e., do what is right) and do so with the right intention and who also avoid those actions that are immoral in themselves. What constitutes right actions and right intentions will differ between specific deontological theories.
   Notice that there is no concern with consequences here. So long as one does what is right and has the right intention, the consequences have no relevance to the individual's moral status or the action's correctness or incorrectness.    More than the denial that consequences matter, on deontological analyses other individuals' personal interests or happiness (and in some cases even one's own personal interests or happiness) have no relevance in moral considerations or evaluations. Each individual's own moral duties and status has precedence over all other considerations, in particular, the obligation to avoid actions that are immoral.


Since the focus in deontological theories is on moral obligations and duties, considerations about these obligations and duties are more important than considerations about moral value or goodness. Thus, the concept 'right' is more fundamental than the concept 'good'. Some deontological theories even argue that there is no specifiable connection between good and right and so concepts about moral value or goodness have little or no significance.[5] Where these concepts do have significance, moral values (what is good) are definable in reference to moral obligations (which some deontological theories consider to be themselves unanalyzable). Thus, an action's goodness or value (to the degree that these matter) depends upon the action's rightness.[6]    In the final analysis then, in deontological theories the statement 'x is right action' means 'x is done because it is a moral obligation', and 'z is moral' means 'z did what was right with the right intention'.


Deontological theories present the moral duties that comprise their ethical codes as formal rules that the moral individual must observe.[7] These rules represent moral constraints on human behavior. These constraints:
   1. Have a negative formulation. Deontological duties most often appear as prohibitions - 'Thou shalt not...' While it might seem that 'Do not lie' and 'Tell the truth' are equivalent, deontological theories argue that there is no equivalence between the negative and the positive formulations, even when each will result in the same consequences.[8] As an illustration consider a situation where a doctor determines a patient to have cancer and little time to live. Were the patient to request information about their condition, the deontological prohibition against lies requires that the doctor be honest about the patient's condition. In contrast, were the patient to request no information about their condition, the doctor has no moral obligation to provide the information.
   2. Have narrow scope and focus. Deontological constraints represent prohibitions against certain specific actions. Behavior that lies outside a rule's scope then is permissible.[9] This provides individuals with considerable 'free' space to operate within.
   3. Have a narrow direction. Deontological rules have narrow and specific connections to an individual's decisions and actions. The concern here is more than that a certain action happens or fails to happen, rather it is that the individual does or fails to do the action, i.e., what determines that a situation is moral or immoral is that someone commits a correct or incorrect act.[10] What matters then is what someone does, rather that what is done. So, while the action might be incorrect, that someone does the action is worse, since that individual is immoral.
   There is a difference then between an action that violates a deontological rule against intentional harm to others and an action that fails to prevent (even foreseeable) harm to others.[11] It is the intention here that is paramount. Where there is no direct intention to violate a moral rule then, there is also no moral blame - even where the consequences cause foreseeable harm.


Deontological ethics stresses that reason, intuition or moral sense reveals what is right, i.e., what is right is obvious and undeniable. This knowledge presents to us rules that are moral obligations, i.e., that represent actions a that are in themselves moral or immoral. (See Rationalism and Empiricism.)


Teleological normative ethical theories focus on moral value or goodness rather than on moral duties or obligations. These theories argue that an action's consequences (what is good) rather than on moral obligations (what is right), and appeal to human nature and experience to determine what the good is.


Since the focus in teleological theories is on what is good, the sole consideration in moral evaluations is the consequences that the individual's actions produce. The individual's motives or intentions have no relevance to the action's moral correctness or incorrectness. This also means that it is the action's moral status that concerns teleological evaluations, rather than the individual's moral status. So long as the action produces the proper consequences, the individual's intentions are superfluous. What determines the proper consequences, i.e., the good, differs between teleological theories.
   The focus on consequences can be problematic, so it is essential to be clear about what this entails. The fundamental problem is that our actions' consequences are, in almost all cases, outside our immediate and direct control. (This is what leads deontological theories to consider consequences to have no relevance in moral evaluations and so focus on intention.) While this is undeniable, it is false that individual's have no control over their actions' consequences. Through experience (our own as well as others) it is possible to foresee that certain consequences are more probable than others. Thus, in teleological evaluations the foreseeable consequences that one's actions might produce are as much a consideration as the actual consequences. This means that it is impossible to escape moral blame in cases where one's action is one that in most cases results in improper consequences, but where one happens to avoid the usual consequences. As an illustration consider a person who fires at, but fails to murder an innocent person on the street. Were the actual consequences the sole con-sideration, a teleological analysis might have to consider the individual's action to be unproblematic. Teleological theories argue, however, that the usual (and foreseeable) consequence in these cases is that the innocent person comes to harm, perhaps even dies. Thus, the action is immoral, even though in this particular case there were no direct adverse consequences.


In teleological theories, since the focus is on what is good, considerations about moral value and goodness are more important than considerations about moral obligations and duties, i.e., the concept 'good' is seen as more fundamental than the concept 'right'. Concepts about obligations or duties then, are definable in reference to concepts that concern value. Thus, in teleological theories an action's rightness depends upon the action's goodness (or value).[12]
   The concern with moral value over moral duties means that teleological theories have tendencies to advance one intrinsic good as the moral standard, e.g., in utilitarianism the ultimate good is happiness or pleasure. Teleological moral evaluations measure the consequences that actions produce against this standard. Those that promote the standard, i.e., that produce the maximum appropriate good in the circumstances, are moral actions. Those that fail to promote the good (or promote the opposite) are seen as immoral actions.
   In the final analysis then, in teleological theories the statement 'x is a moral action' means 'x might produce at least as good consequences as all other possible actions'.[13]
   The requirement that moral behavior requires that one promote a particular moral value means that, in contrast to deontological theories, in teleological theories there is a direct obligation to consider other individual's interests and happiness in addition to one's own. Teleological theories base the insistence that all individuals receive equal and impartial considerations in our moral actions on the fundamental principle that all individual's are equal and so have an equal right to their own interests and happiness.


As in deontological theories, teleological theories also recognize that there are moral duties, the difference is that in teleological theories what determines these duties is that their observance produces the maximum possible good in the circumstances in question. In contrast to deontological duties, teleological duties:    1. Have a positive formulation. While deontological duties have a negative formulation, as a rule teleological duties have a positive formulation. Since the purpose in moral behavior is to produce as much good as possible, teleological theories dismiss the deontological suggestion that there is a difference between, e.g., 'Do not lie' and 'Tell the truth'. The failure to tell the truth can have the same disastrous consequences as a direct lie. Thus, teleological theories consider 'Do not lie' to be inadequate as a moral rule since it fails to promote the maximum good.    2. Have an wide scope and focus. Their positive formulation also means that teleological rules have a wider scope. These rules require positive actions and so leave the individual with less 'free' space to act in.    3. Have a wide direction. In contrast to deontological rules where the concern is that an individual does or fails to do some action, the concern in teleological rules that the action occurs (because it will promote the good) or fails to occur (because it fails to promote the good). Thus, teleological rules place more serious and extensive demands on behavior. The mere failure to do what is immoral then is inadequate as a guide to moral behavior, to be moral one must do what is moral as well as avoid what is immoral.


Since an action's consequences are an empirical matter, teleological theories argue that experience, rather than reason, determines what is good. Reason role in teleological theories is more as a means to manipulate knowledge than as knowledge's source. (See Rationalism and Empiricism)


Relativistic normative ethical theories is a rather indeterminate classification that includes theories that have dramatic differences and that represent radical approaches to ethics. Despite their differences these theories do share a common doctrine - moral relativism. Moral relativism is the philosophical position that there is no absolute or universal good or right and so there are no absolute or universal moral principles.
   At the extreme there are relativistic theories that more-or-less argue that moral behavior is impossible. Other relativistic theories acknowledge that moral behavior is possible, albeit relative to particular situations or circumstances. What situations or circumstances varies between relativistic theories.
   Ethical egoism argues that moral behavior is relative to the individual, i.e., what is moral to one individual might be immoral to other individuals. What is moral then, is what the individual believes to be moral.
   Cultural relativism, in contrast, argues that moral behavior is relative to cultures, i.e., what is moral in one culture might be immoral in other cultures. What is moral then, is what each culture believes to be moral.
   The common realization in all these theories is that the situational focus (whether it be personal, local, social, national, religious or cultural) means that there is no universal or absolute good or right and so no universal or absolute moral principles that can decide between the differences that exist between moral perspectives. In some sense then, all moral claims are true. As a consequence relativistic theories argue that there is no rational or empirical procedure available to settle moral disputes.
   As challenges to the more traditional theories that argue that there are universal (and perhaps even absolute) moral principles, relativistic theories pose some serious philosophical and ethical problems - problems that traditional theories must be able to resolve.

  1. The focus is on moral duties (what is right) rather than on an action's consequences (what is good).
  2. Considerations about moral duties are more important than considerations about moral value.
  3. Since the focus is on moral duties, the individual's intentions have a substantial role in a situation's moral evaluation and consequences that arise through the individual's actions have no relevance.
  4. There is no one specifiable relation between good and right.
  5. Concepts about moral value (i.e., what is good) are definable in reference to concepts about moral duties (i.e., what is right).
  6. The right is prior to the good.
  7. An action's goodness (or value) depends upon the action's rightness.
  8. It is the individual's moral status that is important.
  9. The statement 'x is a moral individual' means 'x did what was right with the right intention'.
  10. Deontological ethics stresses that reason, intuition or moral sense reveals what is right.
  11. There are some acts that are moral or immoral in themselves.
  12. Moral duties have a negative formulation.
  13. Other's personal interests or happiness have no relevance in one's moral considerations or evaluations, one's own moral duties have precedence over all other considerations.
  14. To do what is moral (i.e., right) requires that one observe one's moral duties, possess the right intentions and avoid those actions that are immoral in themselves.
  1. The focus is on an action's consequences (what is good) rather than on moral duties (what is right).
  2. Considerations about moral value are more important than considerations about moral duties.
  3. Since the focus is on moral value, the consequences that an individual's actions produce have a substantial role in a situation's moral evaluation and the individual's intentions have no relevance.
  4. There is a specifiable relation between good and right.
  5. Concepts about moral duties (i.e., what is right) are definable in reference to concepts about moral value (i.e., what is good).
  6. The good is prior to the right.
  7. An action's rightness depends upon the action's goodness (or value).
  8. It is the action's moral status that is important.
  9. The statement 'x is a moral action' means 'x produces at least as good consequences as all other possible actions'.
  10. Teleological theories argue that experience, rather than reason, reveals what is good.
  11. There are no actions that are moral or immoral in themselves.
  12. Moral duties have a positive formulation.
  13. One must give equal and impartial consideration to other's interests and happiness, as well as one's own, in all moral considerations and evaluations.
  14. To do what is moral (i.e., good) requires that one acts so as to maximize the happiness that one's action produce.


Ethical theories represent the attempt to systematize ethical knowledge in the same manner that scientific theories attempt to systematize empirical knowledge. The more comprehensive ethical theories will include both metaethical and normative components and should provide answers to certain crucial questions. These questions also provide the means to determine whether particular theories are deontological, teleological or relativistic. One ought to treat theories that fail to provide answers to the questions with some scepticism.


  1. What does 'right' mean?
  2. What does 'moral' mean?
  3. How are ethical statements justifiable?


  1. What is the ultimate good or moral value?
  2. What is the fundamental moral principle?
  3. What, in general, determines that an individual/action is moral?
  4. What, in particular, determines that an action is moral?
  5. What, in particular, determines that an individual is moral?
  6. What purpose does ethics serve?
  7. How do human beings acquire moral knowledge?
  8. Why should human beings be moral?


As with ethical arguments, it is also essential to be able to evaluate ethical theories themselves. There are three critical tests all moral theories must be able to pass:
   1. Is It Consistent? As with scientific theories in general, it is essential that moral theories be consistent. So, consider the various concepts, principles, assumptions and arguments that underlie the various theories. Are there inconsistencies or contradictions within or between these elements? Remember, inconsistencies can sometimes be subtle, so it is essential to examine moral theories with care.
   2. What is Its Practical Value? Moral theories have little practical value unless the theories provide justifiable and reliable moral principles to govern behavior. This moral code consists in the particular moral principles and judgments that the moral standard and the general moral principles generate. Moral theories must also provide some means or procedure to resolve moral dilemmas. The theories can fail to provide such procedures either because, (1) crucial terms within the theories are so ambiguous their implications are uncertain, (2) there are no guidelines to arbitrate between conflicts in the moral directions the theories themselves generate, or (3) the theories require information that might be unobtainable.
   3. What is Its Justification? Since no logical demon-stration that moral theories or principles are correct is possible, it is essential to determine what reasons there are to accept them. To what other standards (or beings) do the theories or principles appeal to as justification. Are these appeals themselves justifiable?


  1. C.E. Harris, Applying Moral Theories, 3rd Edition (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1997). John Stuart Mill discusses a quite similar tripartite structure in Utilitarianism.
  2. Harris, 61-62.
  3. Lawrence M. Hinman, Ethics: A Pluralistic Approach to Moral Theory, 2nd Edition (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1998), 63. With additions.
  4. Milton D. Hunnex, Chronological and Thematic Charts of Philosophies and Philosophers (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1986), 25.
  5. Nancy Davis, 'Contemporary Deontology'. Peter Singer (editor), A Companion To Ethics ( Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1993), 206.
  6. Hunnex, 25.
  7. Hunnex, 25.
  8. Davis, 208.
  9. Davis, 208.
  10. Davis, 208.
  11. Davis, 208.
  12. Hunnex, 24.
  13. Hunnex, 24.
  14. Harris, 63-66.