The following paper will focus on four main theories of normative ethics (utilitarianism, Aristotelian Virtue Ethics Theory,) and how I would explain this to a patient; thus, some of it will be written in the second person. I will also provide examples and touch on whether I find one theory to be more important than the others.
One of the most popular theories of normative ethics is utilitarianism. Simply stated, this theory argues that what is right and wrong can be determine by utilizing a “cost-benefit” analysis. In other words, when you are making a decision, you need to look at all of the consequences of that decision (good and bad) and then weigh them to see whether the decision is leads to happiness (absence of pain) or unhappiness (pain). The actions that bring about the happiness for the most amount of people are those that are believed to be the most ethical. For example, if you knew that several of your friends cheated on a test, then you would have to weigh the consequences of that decision (e.g., losing friends, possible retaliation by angry friends, bringing fairness to others who did not cheats, etc.) and then conclude with the one that brings about the most happiness for most people. You may decide, in fact, that sacrificing your own friendships or relationships with your classmates outweighs all of the good you would do for so many people that studied for the test. In other words, all of the people that would receive a fair chance at the test and the happiness it would bring them (knowing justice was served) would outweigh all of the bad that would come out of losing your friends and the trouble that they may get in.

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Another normative ethics theory is referred to as the categorical imperative, which states that people should act in a way that they believe everyone else should act. There are four steps that a person would follow in order to find out of an action is permissible (or ethical): 1) Formulate a motivational principle or “maxim” (i.e., reason) for why you want to do something; 2) Turn this maxim into a universal law (i.e., applying it to all people); 3) Evaluate whether this maxim could even be a universal law of nature (i.e., is it reasonable and rational that someone could use such a reason to justify such an action); and 4) If step 3 passes, would most people follow this maxim in this circumstance? For example, you might believe that stealing is wrong when it is out of greed, which would then mean that you believe this would apply to everyone.

On the other hand, you may believe that stealing food is permissible if it is out of survival needs, which would also mean you find it permissible for everyone else. Then you can ask yourself whether most people could use such as reasoning for stealing food, and if the answer is yeas, then you just ask yourself whether most people would steal food in order to survive. If the reasonable and logical answer were yes, then this action would be considered ethical.

A somewhat different theory is the Aristotelian Virtue Ethics Theory, which postulates that people should act in a way that promotes their own happiness (i.e., that this is the ultimate goal when making decisions). Aristotle also added that people should do things and behave in ways that leads to their ultimate happiness. He rejected rules and instead, believed that people should acquire an intuitive understanding of morality and learn to be virtuous (i.e., ultimate happiness). Finally, he believed in the “middle ground” or “golden mean” rule when it came to actions. For example, if you saw a house burning and knew there were people inside then Aristotle would reject the extreme actions that you could take in this case. Running inside and trying to rescue the people in the house, while risking your own life (especially if a family depends on you), would be considered overly fearless and even reckless. On the other hand, walking away and doing nothing would also be unethical. A middle ground in this could involve calling 911 and staying there until help arrived.

A final normative ethics theory is called Stoic Virtue Ethics, which states that when people have “true” moral thoughts and beliefs, they will also have appropriate (i.e., ethical) emotions and actions. In other words, morals thoughts and beliefs directly lead to ethical behavior. Virtue, according to this theory, is considered to be the ultimate value and is defined in terms of having “true evaluative beliefs.” This means that you have to appropriately evaluate each belief, which will then leads to the appropriate action. If the emotions that you are feeling are caused by “rational beliefs,” then you can conclude that the actions are morally acceptable. For example, you may have trouble deciding on whether you should tell a friend’s souse that your friend is cheating on her. On the one hand, he swore you to secrecy because it could lead to a breakup of his marriage and family. On the other hand, you believe cheating to be morally wrong and also that he may be putting his wife in harm’s way. You evaluate your thoughts feel empathy for his wife and family and almost anger at your friend. You evaluate these emotions and decide that they are based on rational thoughts (i.e., it is reasonable to feel this way about such a satiation). Consequently, you decide to tell your friends promise because it is morally the right thing to do.

It is difficult to judge one theory more important than another in a general sense. Instead, I think it is more appropriate to look at the circumstances before choosing a theory to apply when making a decision (because some are better suited towards certain situations than others). Also, people may lean towards certain theories based on their upbringings, which may include religious beliefs, political beliefs, and cultural values. All of the theories are subject to scrutiny and by no way full proof. As such, I would recommend employing more than when trying to make a decision to see if “all the roads lead to the same place.”

  • Gray, J. W. (2010). Ethical realism. WordPress. Retrieved from