If Philosophy

Normative Ethics: What Can We Do and What Should We Do?

Agents are individuals who can choose between courses of action. When she stands before such a choice, she might wonder what she is to do.

This question of course isn’t very specific. It might depend on what she’s setting out to do, right? I mean, if she wants to bake a cake then she might need to crack a few eggs. And if she wants to overthrow a despot, perhaps she might… need to crack a few eggs. But in the latter of these examples, there is a component that we probably find lacking in the first. We can call this the ethical component. It somehow seems to require us to ask yet another question of ourselves. I mean something like the following.

Okay, so this is the goal I have in mind, and I can accomplish it by doing this and that. That’s all good and well. But… Should I do this and that?

This question can be answered in a number of ways. The “should” part is usually tied to some kind of normative or ethical theory. There are many of these theories around but they can usually be grouped somewhat neatly into families of theory. Let’s turn to look at a few of them.


Consequentialism is the view that only the value of the consequences – or the effects – of an action matters when trying to determine if it is right or wrong morally. A famous version of consequentialism is that we should maximise the total amount of happiness in the world. This view is called act utilitarianism. Act utilitarianism claims that an action is right if and only if, and because, it maximises the total amount of well-being in the world. Any action that does not maximise the total amount of well-being is therefore wrong on this view.

Okay, so act utilitarianism puts a lot of emphasis on each individual action that is to be performed (or not to be performed). That might seem quite demanding. There is little room to treat those near and dear to us better than strangers we may or may not ever have met. Perhaps that’s not too bad though. Why shouldn’t we care about others equally? Happiness is happiness regardless of who experiences it, after all.[1] But then again, if a person’s organs could be harvested to save five other people, and if we presume their happiness over the course of their five lifetimes would be greater than could be achieved in the unwilling donor’s one lifetime… Why shouldn’t we do it? Perhaps because actions of this sort tend to undermine the trust between people.

Instead, we might focus on types of action. There’s another version of utilitarianism that, much like act utilitarianism, states that we ought to maximise well-being. This second version of utilitarianism puts an emphasis on rules, rather than individual actions directly, however. Instead of saying that an action is right if and only if, and because, it maximises well-being, it instead roughly says that an action is right if and only if, and because, it is prescribed by a rule that maximises well-being. Now our actions might seem more dependable and less prone to undermine the trust between people. However, act utilitarians might question this focus on rules. If more good can be promoted by breaking a rule, shouldn’t we? And like so the theorising continues.


Deontology is a view that, contrary to consequentialism, does not solely consider the effects or consequences of actions when determining what is right and wrong. Deontological theories often focus on what we have duties to do (or refrain from doing). So, say that harvesting the organs of some unwilling person maximises the amount of well-being in the world. Should we do it? A deontologist might answer no, since other things than the effects of doing so matters. The person whose organs are to be harvested might deserve to have her rights respected, or deserve to be treated as an end in herself. That last bit basically means that she is not only to be treated as an instrument for something else. Duties, on this view, put us and others under certain specific constraints that we ought to accept. Much in the way that if someone promises to do something, she is obligated to fulfil that promise. Some duties, according to deontologists, hold categorically, however. That is to say, the duties hold even if no one has expressed a desire or intent to act in accordance with them.

Depending on what duties are involved, and how they are ranked vis-à-vis each other, we may get more or less intuitive sets of duties that we ought to follow. If they conflict, however, it is not always easy to say what ought to be done. The classical example goes something like this. Imagine that we have a duty not to lie, but also a duty to be protective of others. Then some aggressive individual with the intent to murder a person comes up to us and asks us where this person is who just ran by us. What should we do? Lie? Protect the person? The weights or importance of the duties would have to tell us, but if they are on a par with each other the matter can’t easily be settled. This is therefore a challenge that the deontologist might have to face.

Another similar view is that we might focus on people’s rights. Rights typically come alongside duties. Say that a person who stands to have her organs harvested to save five others (rightfully) complains. What explains that her complaint is legitimate? That might be her right not to be harmed. The corollary duty, here, is that no one harms her. The nature of these rights, their force, whom they apply to are questions that deserve to be discussed. And people still do.

Virtue Ethics

Okay, so consequentialists focus on the effects of actions, and deontologists on what duties or rights there are. Virtue ethicists in their turn focus on the character traits of the one who stands to perform an action or to refrain from doing so. Rather than focusing on right-making principles for each and every instance of action, it looks to the character traits that are part of a good person throughout her whole life; or simply a good life. Is the action kind (assuming kindness is a virtue)? Is it brave (assuming braveness is a virtue)? There are a multitude of virtues a person might have, to varying extents. The focus for the virtue ethicists is basically the one obtained by going from the question “what is right?” to something like the question “what is a good life?” and here varying answers are possible to provide.

However, a person’s character traits are arguably not wholly within her control. Upbringing might have some part to play, or perhaps education, or perhaps we have varied predispositions toward acting in certain ways. So, it seems as though a person can be blamed for not being virtuous despite, perhaps, working equally as hard to be virtuous as someone who had a more fortunate history. Is this factor of luck to be removed or to be kept? Here the discussion between the different families of theory might well continue for some time.


Agents, as stipulated, are individuals who can realise some course of action or another. In some cases they might face the question not only of what they can do, but of what they should do. This question can take on a moral character. To answer whether she should or shouldn’t do whatever it is she is considering, we look to normative or ethical theories. I suggested that there are roughly three families of such theories. Consequentialists argue that actions are to be evaluated in terms of their effects. Deontologists, in turn, argue that actions are to be evaluated through the conformity to a set of duties or rights. Finally, virtue ethicists turn the question from “should I do this?” into “is this part of a good life?” and discussions keep going on both within each family of theory, as well as between them.

[1] Bentham allegedly once said that “every man is to count for one, nobody for more than one”.

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