Normative Ethics Theories of Right Conduct

Normative ethics is that area of moral philosophy that tries to identify the fundamental principles of morality. Though there are many moral rules, philosophers have long sought to try to unify them by reference to one ultimate moral standard. Normative ethics investigates whether this is possible and, if so, tries to identify the basic moral rule(s) that will do the needed unifying work. Traditional normative ethical theories include utilitarianism, which counsels us to maximize overall happiness in our actions; Kantianism, which requires us to embrace principles that demand fairness and consistency; and contractarianism, which sees the moral rules as those that would be agreed upon by a group of people who are much smarter and more rational than we are, assigned the task of selecting principles to govern their lives together. Natural law theorists see morality as a matter of fulfilling our human nature; virtue ethicists invite us to place character at the heart of morality and view moral action as the sort of conduct that virtuous people would undertake. The twentieth century saw the invention of a pluralistic view, known as the “theory of prima facie duties,” that asserts the existence of a variety of moral rules, each independent of the other, each fundamental, and none possessed of absolute strength. It also saw the development of feminist philosophy, including increasingly sophisticated applications in ethics. This part contains representative essays of each of these major normative ethical views.

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