The concept of normative ethics was invented early in the twentieth century to stand in contrast to the concept of metaethics. In ethical theories prior to the twentieth century, it is impossible to discern any sharp distinction between what have come to be called metaethics and normative ethics. In the first half of the twentieth century, however, this distinction began to structure ethics as an intellectual discipline and it continues to be influential at the end of the twentieth century even though crucial theoretical supports for it have disappeared.
Normative ethics was regarded as that branch of ethical inquiry that considered general ethical questions whose answers had some relatively direct bearing on practice. The answers had to be general rather than particular in order to distinguish normative ethics from casuistry; they had to have a bearing on practice in order to distinguish normative ethics from metaethics. Casuistry was understood in its classical sense as the study of particular cases, while metaethics was understood originally as the inquiry into the semantics of ethical language.
G. E. Moore's classic proposal for the structure of ethics distinguished three key questions: (1) What particular things are good? (2) What kinds of things are good? and (3) What is the meaning of "good"? The first question is the central question of casuistry, while the second question falls within normative ethics, and the third, within metaethics (although Moore used neither the term "metaethics" or "normative ethics" in his early work). Normative ethics as a field of inquiry, then, is positioned somewhat precariously between the detail of casuistry and the abstractness of metaethics.
The character of normative ethics was also strongly influenced in the first half of the twentieth century by the almost universal acceptance of the principle of moral neutrality. This principle, accepted by virtually all mainstream Anglo-American moral philosophers from the 1930s to the 1960s, asserted that the results of metaethical investigations were logically independent of normative ethics. When coupled with the original understanding of metaethics as an account of the meaning of key ethical terms, it implied that such semantic investigations were logically irrelevant to inquiries about how to live. Under the influence of this principle, normative ethics was largely abandoned by Anglo-American moral philosophers in favor of a single-minded pursuit of metaethical inquiry. And since the metaethical views most in favor during this period were various forms of noncognitivism (e.g., emotivism and prescriptivism), it was regularly asserted that normative ethics should be relegated to preachers, novelists, and other nonphilosophers. The widely accepted noncognitivist views held that there was no cognitive content to normative ethical judgments since these judgments were primarily expressions of attitudes (as emotivists held) or primarily expressions of prescriptions (as prescriptivists held). But if normative judgments had no cognitive content—if, that is, they were primarily the expression of noncognitive attitudes or imperatives—then it was unclear why moral philosophers should be concerned with examining them. Normative ethics was regarded as largely a matter of exhortation and was removed from the standard repertoire of strictly philosophical concerns.
This sharp distinction between metaethical and normative inquiry, however, together with the relegation of normative ethics to nonphilosophical inquiry, was too unstable to last. Philosophers increasingly recognized that the principle of moral neutrality was not a theoretically neutral presupposition of ethical inquiry but rather drew a considerable amount of its support from the prevailing noncognitivist view. When these noncognitivist views were severely challenged in the late 1950s and 1960s (by, among others, Philippa Foot, Kurt Baier, Stephen Toulmin, and Alan Gewirth), the sharp distinction between metaethics and normative ethics was blunted; this opened the way to a resurgence of interest in normative ethics, expressed by new attempts to reformulate and to defend classical ethical views. Although a complete historical explanation of the remarkably sudden return of philosophers in the 1960s and 1970s to the classical questions of normative theory will no doubt be extremely complex, the decline of noncognitivism and the concomitant rejection of a sharp distinction between normative ethics and metaethics surely contributed to it. Classical Kantian theory was developed in a creative and persuasive manner by John Rawls and his student, Thomas Nagel, along with Alan Donagan, Alan Gewirth, and others. Utilitarianism received new attention from, among others,
Richard Hare and his students Derek Parfit and Peter Singer. The classical Aristotelian/Thomist view was reformulated and defended by Elizabeth Anscombe, Peter Geach, Alasdair Maclntyre, and like-minded moral philosophers.
What was revived under the label "normative ethics," however, was not identical to what had previously been neglected by moral philosophers as normative ethics. The watershed in ethical theory in the 1960s changed not only the interests of moral philosophers but also changed their conception of their discipline. The task of metaethics was expanded from the narrow one of clarifying the semantics of ethical terms to a much broader investigation of the whole range of metaphysical, epistemological, and semantic questions associated with ethical inquiry. Metaethics came to be concerned not only with questions about the meaning of ethical terms and judgments, but also with metaphysical questions about the nature of ethical properties and episte-mological questions about how claims to ethical knowledge are to be appraised. Normative ethics in turn came to be understood as that pole of ethical theory that stood closest to practice. Whereas previously the distinction that most clearly structured ethical inquiry was the distinction between metaethics and normative ethics, the crucial distinction increasingly came to be that between ethical theory and applied ethics.
Ethical theory was distinguished from applied ethics by being both more general and more abstract, and also by being less driven by a concern that its results would have some immediate consequences for action or policy. Within ethical theory, however, elements coexisted that, according to earlier views, would have been sharply distinguished as metaethical and normative. Ethical theory inquired into the epistemological and metaphysical features of ethics as well as into the most general truths about how we should live. Also, the new conception of ethical theory held that these two kinds of inquiry were continuous; it was not possible to pursue either kind without attending to its implications for the other. Ethical theory had become a seamless web with areas of greater or less practical relevance, roughly corresponding to those areas earlier distinguished as the normative and the metaethical.
One consequence of these complex historical developments is that it has become much more difficult to give a precise characterization of normative ethics than it would have been at an earlier time. Nevertheless, certain common assumptions about the nature of normative ethics, as well as a widely shared taxonomy of the varieties of normative theory, have persisted through these developments in the concept of normative ethics. The common assumptions include the claim that the central task of normative ethics is to define and to defend an adequate theory for guiding conduct. The received taxonomy divides normative theories into three basic types: virtue theories, deontological theories, and consequentialist theories. The following section will examine these three types of normative theory with the aim of exploring their distinctive features.
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