Justifying Normative Theories

The question of how, if at all, one can rationally choose among these three normative theories is a question taken up under the topic of moral epistemology. It is important to note here, however, that these normative theories emerge in Western thought as components in comprehensive philosophical theories developed by Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Mill, and other major philosophers. They are embedded in rich and complex worldviews in ways that make it difficult to discuss them in isolation from their theoretical and historical settings.

The tendency within contemporary ethical theory is to discuss the merits of these views in purely ethical terms and to ignore to a large extent their larger theoretical settings. Thus, consequentialism is frequently attacked because it is alleged to countenance the judicial punishment of the innocent if that is required for achieving some good end. In arguments like this one, the alleged ethical implications of a normative theory are appealed to in order to evaluate the theory. Similarly, deontologists may be criticized for holding that certain actions are morally forbidden even if performing them in a particular case might prevent an enormous tragedy. It is now a matter of record that these arguments have been unsuccessful in producing agreement within normative ethics. Nevertheless, the same slightly tired arguments continue to be made.

The lesson from the history of these views would seem to be, however, that if any of them is to be adequately defended, or successfully criticized, its theoretical setting must be taken into account. Each of these theories has complex relations with particular philosophical accounts of rationality, explanation, nature, intention, the law, the passions, and other topics of central philosophical interest. A more adequate account of them, if possible here, would have to take these theoretical entanglements into account. Certainly any serious attempt to choose rationally among them would have to locate them in this larger theoretical setting.

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