Session Notes

What We Will Learn Today

  1. Explore the difference between metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics.
  2. Identify the major metaethical approaches.
  3. Identify the major normative ethical approaches.
  4. Examine the key representatives of each approach to normative ethics.
  5. Describe the nature of moral dilemmas.
  6. Explain how normative ethics might apply to a particular ethical dilemma.


If philosophy is about seeking to understand the good, the true, and the beautiful, ethics is the philosophical exploration of the good.

  1. Ethics involves practical reasoning about rights, duties, obligations, and moral decision-making.

There are three main subcategories of ethics.

  1. First, there is metaethics, which explores the concept of the good. It is more interested in knowing the good than practically doing the good.
  2. Second, normative ethics develops criteria for deciding what is right and wrong. It establishes principles by which we are able to make moral choices.
  3. Third, practical ethics addresses specific, practical problems, especially concerning ethical dilemmas in contemporary society.

While each of these lines of inquiry overlap with each other, these distinctions will be helpful when talking about ethical theories.

There are three basic approaches to metaethics

  1. Some hold to nihilism, the idea that since there is no inherent meaning to the universe (other than what we make of it), there are no moral truths.
  2. Others believe in ethical realism, the idea that there are moral truths that we can discover.
  3. Others believe in constructivism, the idea that we make up our own moral truths, either as individuals or communities.

There are three basic approaches to normative ethics

  1. First, there is deontology, which focuses on an individual’s moral duties and obligations to follow rules.
  2. Second, there is consequentialism, which focuses on the outcomes of an action.
  3. Third, there is virtue theory, which focuses on developing a certain kind of moral character in an individual, out of which moral decisions will naturally flow.

Deontological normative ethics emphasizes the importance of rigorously following ethical rules, based on rational duties.

Immanuel Kant is the most important representative of this perspective.

  1. Kant believed the consequences of a moral decision are not important; what matters is the motives of the individual and whether that individual has the integrity to abide by their duties.
  2. Once we understand our duties, we are never justified in failing to do our duty, even if the consequences are unpleasant.
  3. Kant believed that we can know what our duties are by following the Categorical Imperative.
  4. Kant articulated two famous formulations of the Categorical Imperative.
  5. The first is that we should “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law."
    1. For example, if everyone were to lie all the time, conversations would be meaningless. Thus, we should never lie. If everyone were to cheat on their exams, grades would have no meaning.
    2. The point here isn’t that these are unfortunate consequences, but rather that they would produce an incomprehensible or absurd state of affairs.
    3. To go against duty is thus to be irrational.
    4. The second formulation of the Categorical imperative is that we should “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
  6. Thus, Kant believes that our primary duty is to act in a way that benefits others, rather than harms them for our own selfish desires.

Unlike deontology, consequentialism is a normative ethic that judges an act to be right or wrong based on the consequences of that act.

  1. Stuart Mill called his particular consequentialist ethic “utilitarianism”
  2. Utilitarianism focuses on the consequences of happiness and suffering.
  3. Mill defined his view as the idea this way, “Utilitarianism: actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness.”
  4. Like deontology, consequentialism is concerned with establishing a way to make moral decisions, but unlike deontology, it isn’t focused on rules or establishing principles through reason. Instead, consequentialism is empirical in that one can make decisions by collecting broad evidence concerning the levels of happiness and suffering that an action would likely cause.

The third major approach to normative ethics is virtue ethics, which is the view that we should be concerned with developing a virtuous character in an individual, which will naturally lead to good actions.

  1. Virtue theorists do not focus on the nature of the good itself, they do not emphasize rules of behavior, and they aren’t primarily concerned with the consequences of an action. Instead, they focus on the nature of the person doing the action.
  2. The list of virtues differs somewhat from philosopher to philosopher. Nonetheless, most would agree that virtues of love, humility, courage, and honesty are desirable.

Most virtue theory derives from the work of Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics.

  1. Aristotle believed that the good life involved fulfilling one’s purpose with excellence.
  2. He defined the virtues as the middle point between moral excess and moral deficiency. That is, if a courageous person is one who neither has a deficiency of bravery (which we call cowardice) or an excess of bravery (which we call recklessness).
  3. There’s been a recent revival of virtue ethics through the work of the Roman Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. His book, Beyond Virtue, has influenced philosophers in a wide variety of philosophical sub-disciplines.
  4. Normative ethical theories tend to focus on helping people solve ethical dilemmas. A true moral dilemma occurs when, in a given circumstance, each possible course of action will cause one to violate a moral principle. That is it forces a person to choose between competing values.
  5. Matthew 23:23: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.”
  6. Personalism isn’t about the glory of the person who seeks virtue; virtue is what drives vocation

Luther taught, God doesn’t need your good works, your neighbor does.

  1. The implication is that as we seek to be courageous, humble, loving, faithful, hopeful followers of Jesus, this isn’t to earn our salvation or to pay God back for what he has done for us. Rather, it is an expression of our status as new creations in Christ, informed by the new logic of the Gospel.

In this lecture we learned

  1. That metaethics focuses on the nature of the good. Normative ethics focuses on methods for making ethical decisions. Applied ethics focuses on ethical responses to specific situations.
  2. The major normative ethical theories are consequentialism, deontology and virtue theory.
  3. John Stuart Mill is a famous consequentialist, Immanuel Kant is a famous deontologist, and Aristotle and Alasdair MacIntyre are associated with virtue theory.
  4. Ethical dilemmas occur when, in a given circumstance, each possible course of action would cause one to violate a moral principle.
  5. The answer one gives to an ethical question can vary widely, depending on one’s normative ethical approach.
  6. Virtue theory is arguably best suited to a grace-centered theology, since it focuses attention on service to neighbor in vocation.

Further reading:

  1. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals
  2. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism
  3. Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue
  4. Gilbert Meilaender, Faith & Faithfulness: Basic Themes in Christian Ethics