What are the major approaches to normative ethics? Which approach do you consider the most coherent or reasonable? Why?
Throughout the Western philosophical tradition, the question on how should one live can be approached in three different ways, namely, Matethics, Normative ethics and Applied normative ethics. However, this essay examines the major approaches to normative ethics – specifically, Utilitarianism, which emphasizes that one should act in a way the considers the happiness of the members of the community, Deontology Ethics which posits that one should act in a way that we treat others as an end, and not means towards an end; or rather, it is an approach to ethics that focuses on the rightness and wrongness of the action; and Virtue Ethics, which postulates that there is a particular virtue that is imbued in the individual that determines that individual’s actions and emotions. In addition, throughout this essay I will argue, despite Deontology Ethics and Utilitarianism offering substantial approaches to the way one should live and act, I believe Virtue Ethics is the most coherent and rational of the three ethical theories as we are all innate virtue ethicists, because it does not reject moral integrity, nor does Virtue Ethics reject the influence of emotions when articulating moral decisions.
Utilitarianism is an ethical doctrine of Normative Ethics that derives from the thought and work of Jeremy Bentham. In his short treatise, ‘On Utility’, Bentham postulates that man is confined to two sovereign masters, namely, pain and pleasure. Both of these masters “govern us in all we do, in all we say, and all we think.”[footnoteRef:1] Consequently, for Bentham, Utilitarianism is the ethical doctrine that posits that our actions are determined by its contribution to overall utility in maximising happiness or pleasure of the individual or the individuals involved. Therefore, when coming to a decision, the individual must consider the happiness of his/her own, as well as the happiness of others; and, the avoidance of pain. Thus, for Bentham, “utility is the principle that approves or disapproves of every action according to the tendency it appears to have increase or lessen…the happiness of the person or group whose interest is in question.”[footnoteRef:2] Therefore, for Bentham, pleasure and the avoidance of pain are the ends in which the legislator has in view. Thus, we are to promote pleasure and reduce pain when called upon to make a moral judgement. [1: Bentham, On the Principle of Utility, 1] [2: Ibid]
Although Utilitarianism presents a substantial approach to how should one act ethically and morally, in his short essay, ‘Against Utilitarianism’, Bernard Williams attempts to level two main criticisms against Utilitarianism – namely: Utilitarianism rejects the idea of conscience, and Utilitarianism fails as a moral theory because the circumstances do not occur in contemporary society. Throughout his short treatise, Williams argues t...