Elements of an Ethics Textbook (2): Normative Ethics

Was the United States justified in dropping an atomic bomb on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945 on August 6 and 9, respectively? Some have argued that it ensured a more immediate ending to hostilities and thus led to a lower number of deaths than would have hypothetically resulted had WWII been allowed to continue by conventional means. Others hold that the deployment of such a terrible weapon against Japanese civilians, even if their government is at war with the nation in question, is immoral in principle and therefore deserving of the most categorical moral censure. Unfortunately, the intervening decades have indicated that questions of this sort, if not always of this magnitude, will be with us for a long time to come. Aside from the perennial sources of human conflict, the Coronavirus pandemic has revealed just how interconnected human society has become on a global scale. For this reason, the ability to articulate and communicate about moral issues has never been more imperative.

Normative ethics refers to the aspect of ethics that concerns itself with formulating theories of ethics. A theory of ethics is meant to articulate what is good to do and bad to do. By the same token, it is meant to serve as a guide to determine what we ought to do, for the reason that it is good, and what we ought not to do, for the reason that it is bad. Normative ethics, which establishes norms, is often contrasted with other aspects of the study of ethics. Among these other aspects of ethics are applied ethics, which both evaluates normative ethics against the standard of application to concrete scenarios and evaluates concrete scenarios in the light of normative ethical theories, metaethics, which concerns the reality of moral claims, and value theory, which concerns the nature of the Good. I have included separate sections on applied ethics (broadly construed), and metaethics but I have not included a separate section on value theory other than Plato’s “Parable of the Cave” because value theory is implicit in any normative ethical claim as its basis (i.e. it would be senseless to assert that someone ought to do something for the reason that it is bad). 
Returning to the subject of normative ethics: consider the dilemma posed in the first paragraph. Someone who argued that the nuclear bombings were morally justified would be appealing to a theory of normative ethics to assert this, as equally would a person who argued that it was not. In the first case, a person might argue on the basis of expected consequences and propose that deploying nuclear weapons mitigated a hypothetical death toll that would have been higher had the hostilities been permitted to drag on. This would be an example of a consequentialist or teleological approach to normative ethics, of which the most common example is Utilitarianism. Someone who maintained, by contrast, that it was a mistake to deploy nuclear weapons might argue on a consequentialist basis as well. In this case, the argument would concern contrasting hypotheses as to the counterfactual result of not having deployed the bombs. Even if the two parties came to agreement over their conjectures, they might nevertheless be inclined to argue over the method of calculus whereby the consequences of an action are evaluated. I will refrain from giving more examples here because the complexities are infinite and, as a result, so are the potentials for dispute. On the other hand, but in respect to the same issue, someone might argue against the bombing on a different normative basis altogether: perhaps it violates a principle that it is always wrong to sacrifice innocent life, or because it violates a divine command. An argument of this sort would not appeal to a consequentialist standard of normative ethics, but rather a deontological, or “duty-based” one. In each of the following five parts, a given theory of normative ethics has been presented, beginning with consequentialist Utilitarianism and following with deontology. I have chosen a selection from a key text written by an advocate and representative figure of each theory to begin each section. I have followed each of these keynote selections with further selection that are pertinent to the theme, which serve either to rebut or to expand on the initial selection.

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