Types of Normative Theory

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The basis for distinguishing the three types of normative theory lies in three universal features of human actions. This recourse to the features of actions should not be surprising, since the aim of normative theory is to guide action. Every human action involves (1) an agent who performs (2) some action that has (3) particular consequences. These three features may be set out as follows:

Agent Action Consequences

IfJones tells a lie to Smith that causes Smith to miss his train, then Jones is the agent, his telling a lie is the action, and Smith's missing the train is one of the consequences of the action. Difficulties arise, of course, in many cases in determining whether someone is an agent in a particular case (e.g., if Jones is insane when he shoots the president, is he really the agent of any action?); or the nature of the particular action performed (e.g., if Jones is cutting down a tree, believing reasonably that he is the only one in the forest, but Smith wanders by and the tree falls on him, causing his death, does a killing take place or merely a death?); or what the consequences of a particular action may be (e.g., if Jones tells Smith "Take the stuff," but Smith understands him to say "Take the snuff," with the consequence that he takes the snuff and due to a hitherto undiscovered allergy becomes ill, is his illness a consequence of Jones's action in saying "Take the stuff"?). These are difficult questions, of course, and they have been much discussed in contemporary action theory in philosophy. In the typical case of human action, however, agent, action, and consequences can be identified, and the typical case provides the basis for the widely shared taxonomy of normative theories.

Ethical or broadly evaluative judgments can also be classified using a taxonomy drawing on these features of human action. Some ethical judgments are primarily evaluations of agents, such as "Jones is a compassionate doctor" or "Smith is a conscientious nurse." In these cases the object evaluated is a particular person, and he or she is evaluated as a possible or actual agent of an action. Some other ethical judgments are primarily about actions in the narrow sense, such as "Jones has a duty to tell the patient the truth about the diagnosis" or "The direct killing of the innocent is always wrong." In these cases, the primary object of ethical evaluation is an action—the thing done or to be done. This action may be characterized either as required ("X must be done") or as permitted ("X would be right to do") or as forbidden ("A would be wrong to do"). More concrete characterizations of actions are also possible, such as "X was a vicious action" or "X was a heroic action." In all of the cases, however, the action is the primary object of evaluation.

A third class of ethical judgments is primarily about states of affairs or objects that are neither agents nor actions, such as "Health is more important than money" or "Human suffering is a terrible thing." Ethical judgments like these do not, directly at least, evaluate either agents or actions. However, the objects evaluated in them, may be, and frequently are, the possible consequences of actions. Thus, this last class of judgments can also be matched to one of the three basic features of human action.

Normative theories may have any of three basic structures, and the differences among these structures are determined by which of the three kinds of practical judgments is taken as basic by a particular theory. Virtue theories take judgments of agents or persons as most basic; deontological theories take judgments of actions as most basic; and consequentialist theories take judgments of the possible consequences of an action as more basic. The sense in which a theory takes a judgment of a certain kind as most basic will become clear in the discussion of each type of theory.

VIRTUE THEORIES. Normative theories that regard judgments of agents or of character as most basic are called virtue theories because of the central role played in them by the notion of a virtue. In the context of these theories, a virtue is understood as a state of a thing "in virtue of which" it performs well or appropriately. In this broad understanding of virtue not only human beings possess virtues but also certain inanimate objects—a virtue of a knife, for example, will be a sharp blade. Indeed, anything that can be said to have a function or role attached to it because of the kind of thing it is may be said to possess virtues, at least potentially.

A virtue theory takes judgments of character or of agents as basic in that it regards the fundamental task of normative theory as depicting an ideal of human character. The ethical task of each person, correspondingly, is to become a person who has certain dispositions to respond in a characteristic way to situations in the world. Differences among persons may be of quite different kinds. Some people are shorter or fatter than others, some more or less intelligent, some better or worse at particular tasks, and some more courageous, just, or honest than others. These differences can be classified in various ways: physical versus mental differences, differences in ability versus differences in performance, and so on. Those features of human beings on which virtue theories concentrate in depicting the ideal human being are states of character. Such theories typically issue in a list of virtues for human beings. These virtues are states of character that human beings must possess if they are to be successful as human beings.

Typically, a virtue theory has three goals:

1. to develop and to defend some conception of the ideal person

2. to develop and to defend some list of virtues necessary for being a person of that type

3. to defend some view of how persons can come to possess the appropriate virtues.

Virtually all ancient moral philosophers developed normative ethical theories of this sort. The ethical theories of Plato and Aristotle, in particular, provide models of this kind of normative ethical theory. As a consequence, the particular disputes that occurred among ancient philosophers centered on questions that one would expect to arise within a virtue perspective. What are human virtues? How are they acquired? Are they essentially states of knowledge? Can one know that a certain trait of character is a virtue without possessing it? Is it possible to have one, or a few, of the virtues without possessing all of them? Are all human virtues of the same type or are there fundamentally different kinds? Are human virtues a matter of nature or of convention? And, most important of all, what is the correct list of moral virtues? Much of the discussion of ethics in ancient Greece centered on a particular short list of virtues—justice, temperance, courage, and wisdom—that came to be called the cardinal virtues. After the introduction of Christianity into Europe, these four virtues were joined by faith, hope, and charity—the so-called Christian virtues—to form the seven virtues; these, together with the seven deadly vices, dominated medieval thinking about ethics.

One can also see how questions of human character are basic according to virtue theories by seeing how questions about (1) which actions one ought to perform and (2) which consequences one ought to bring about are subordinated to questions of human character. For a virtue theory the question "Which actions ought one to perform?" receives the response "Those actions that would be performed by a perfectly virtuous agent." Similarly, those states of affairs one is required to bring about in the world as a consequence of one's actions are those states of affairs valued by a perfectly virtuous person. Of course, particular actions may also be required by one's particular virtues. For example, someone who possesses the virtue of honesty may be required by the virtue itself to tell the truth in certain cases. Or someone may be required to pursue certain consequences by certain virtues. For example, an agent who has the virtue of benevolence may be required to pursue the happiness or well-being of others. But these requirements are derivative from the virtues, and the fundamental ethical question thus remains a question about the correct set of virtues for human beings.

DEONTOLOGICAL THEORIES. Deontological normative theories take moral judgments of action as basic, and they regard the fundamental ethical task for persons as one of doing the right thing—or, perhaps more commonly, of avoiding doing the wrong thing. While virtue theories guide action by producing a picture of ideal human character and a list of virtues constitutive of that character, deontological theories characteristically guide action with a set of moral principles or moral rules. These rules may refer to particular circumstances and have the following form:

Actions of type T are never (always) to be performed in circumstance C.

Or, they may be absolute in that they forbid certain actions in all circumstances and have the following form:

Actions of type T' are never to be performed.

The essential task of a deontological theory, then, is twofold:

1. to formulate and to defend a particular set of moral rules

2. to develop and to defend some method of determining what to do when the relevant moral rules come into conflict.

One must qualify, however, the claim that deontological theories make rules fundamental in ethics. What is fundamental, in fact, are actions themselves and their moral properties. This emphasis on actions can take either of two forms: A normative theory may guide action by requiring agents to perform certain kinds of action that can be specified by a rule or other general action guide. Alternatively, one might regard normative theories as requiring particular actions that in their "particularity" elude specification by a rule. This difference has led some moral philosophers to distinguish two forms of deontological normative theories: rule deontological theories, which guide action in the first manner, and act deontological theories, which guide action in the second. Virtually all influential deontological theories, however, have taken a rule form and, for this reason, this discussion will continue to emphasize the cen-trality of rules.

Just as a virtue theory subordinates judgments of actions and consequences in a characteristic way, a deontological theory subordinates judgments of character and consequence. The state of character ethically most important in a deontological view is conscientiousness—that state of character that disposes persons to follow rules punctiliously, whatever the temptations may be to make an exception in a particular case. Conscientiousness does not have value in itself, but it has value derivatively because it is the most important state of character for ensuring that persons follow rules and, hence, that they do what is right. In a similar way, the consequences of actions that deontologists are most concerned with are the consequences of particular rule-followings. Not all of an agent's practical life, however, need be reduced to rule-following. An agent may have certain personal ideals or particular projects that exist apart from moral rules. These personal ideals or personal projects may be pursued, according to the deontologist, but their pursuit is permitted only if it does not violate the moral rules. Moral rules define the limits of practical pursuits and projects. They are the moral framework within which nonmoral matters can go on. And this is the sense in which moral rules with their emphasis on judgments of actions are basic, according to the deontological view.

Just as virtue theory has its historical roots in the moral philosophy of ancient Greece, deontological theories have affinities with legalistic modes of thought characteristic of Judaic and later Roman thought. The Decalogue (Ten Commandments), although it functions in a religious context, provides a model of a set of rules of conduct that are basic in much the same way rules function in a deontological theory. One is required to follow the rules in the Decalogue because they are the commandments of God, and reasons can be given why it is appropriate to do what God tells one to do. When a deontological theory is deployed in a secular context, however, this reason for rule-following is necessarily absent. Nor can deontologists require that rules be followed because doing so is necessary to become persons of a certain sort or because doing so is necessary to bring about certain consequences. If they took the first route, their view would become a virtue theory; if they took the second route it would become a consequentialist theory. For a view to be genuinely deontological, it must claim that an agent's fundamental ethical task is to perform certain actions and that the value of this task cannot be dependent on the value of either virtues or consequences.

The most profound attempt to defend this view was anticipated in ancient moral philosophy by the Stoics and was developed in its most persuasive form by the modern German philosopher Immanuel Kant. The Stoics claimed that moral rules are expressions in the human realm of laws of nature and that rational creatures are required to follow these rules because, as creatures, they are parts of nature and, as such, obligated to bring their action in line with natural forces. Human beings differ from other objects of nature by possessing both freedom and reason. Since they are free, they may act against nature; since they have reason, however, they can understand natural laws and choose to bring their action in line with such forces. Kant's view agrees with the Stoic view in broad outline, but he develops the notions of freedom and reason far beyond the Stoic view. Kant's ultimate answer to questions about how we discover the correct set of moral rules is that only by following the dictates of reason can we be genuinely free.

CONSEQUENTIALIST THEORIES. Consequentialist normative theories take judgments of the value of the consequences of actions as most basic. According to these theories, one's crucial ethical task is to act so that one will bring about as much as possible of whatever the theory designates as most valuable. If a particular consequentialist theory designates, for example, that pleasure is the only thing valuable in itself, then one should act so as to bring about as much pleasure as possible. The goals of a consequentialist theory itself are threefold:

1. to specify and to defend some thing or list of things that are good in themselves

2. to provide some technique for measuring and comparing quantities of these intrinsically good things

3. to defend some practical policy for those cases where one is unable to determine which of a number of alternative actions will maximize the good thing or things.

Like deontological theories, consequentialist theories can be divided into act and rule varieties. Act consequentialism requires agents to perform the particular action that in a particular situation is most likely to maximize good consequences. Rule consequentialism requires agents to follow those moral rules the observance of which will maximize good consequences. The difference between these two forms of consequentialism, however, is not as straightforward as it may at first seem. It is particularly difficult to precisely characterize rule consequentialism. Is the agent supposed to follow those rules that, if followed by everyone, would maximize good consequences, or rather those rules that will maximize goodness, regardless of how other agents act? There are a number of similar difficulties in characterizing rule consequentialism, and these difficulties have led some moral philosophers to deny that there is a genuine distinction here at all. They have argued, indeed, that when any form of rule consequentialism is rigorously characterized it will be found to degenerate into a form ofact consequentialism.

For consequentialists, the distinction between instru-mentally good things and intrinsically good things is also of special importance. Instrumentally good things are good only insofar as they play some role in bringing about intrinsically good things. If, in a particular case, something that is ordinarily instrumentally good does not stand in the appropriate relation to an intrinsically good object, then its goodness evaporates. Its goodness is merely dependent. Intrinsically good things, on the contrary, are good not because of any relation in which they may stand to other things. Their goodness is independent because it is constituted by the kind of thing the good thing is. Thus, a particular consequentialist theory may hold that only pleasure is intrinsically good, but that other things, including types of action and states of character, are instrumentally good. The virtue of honesty, for example, might be regarded as instrumentally good by such a theory since honesty is likely to contribute to maximizing human happiness. Even if honesty is typically instrumentally good, however, situations may arise in which one could maximize pleasure by acting deviously rather than honestly. In such cases, a consequentialist theory (complications about rule versions of the theory aside) would hold that one should perform the devious action. According to this view, there is nothing about honesty in itself that is good.

Consequentialist theories find their fullest expression in modern thought, especially in the thought of the British utilitarians Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Henry Sidgwick. Drawing on earlier work in the British empiricist tradition, the classic utilitarians claimed that the only intrinsically good thing is human happiness, which they understood as constituted by pleasure and the absence of pain. The utilitarian maxim, "Act always in such a way as to promote the greatest happiness to the greatest number," has been the paradigmatic consequentialist moral principle and has inspired many more recent consequentialists.

There was much disagreement among classical utilitarians, however, about the details of their view. Can pleasures be distinguished qualitatively as well as quantitatively? What role should rules and virtues play within the practical thought of a utilitarian? How can the flavor of the absolute prohibitions associated with justice and the inviolability of the person be preserved within a utilitarian framework? These questions, along with other similar ones, were answered differently by different utilitarians. They were at one, however, in aspiring to formulate and defend a particular version of consequentialism.

The distinction above between the instrumentally and intrinsically good makes it possible to specify more clearly what a consequentialist theory is and to overcome certain difficulties of definition that may creep in. If a consequentialist theory is characterized as one that specifies some object, state of affairs, or property that should be maximized, one might ask whether the object or state of affairs referred to in this definition might be either a state of character or the performance of certain actions. If so, then the distinctions between a consequentialist theory, on the one hand, and a deontological theory or a virtue theory, on the other, seems to be in jeopardy. If the intrinsically valuable things specified by a consequentialist theory can include actions or states of character, then virtue theories and deontological theories would seem to be mere species of consequentialism, distinguished from other forms of consequentialism by the type of thing they specify as intrinsically valuable. Virtue theories would be consequentialist theories that specify states of character as intrinsically valuable; deontological theories would be consequentialist theories that specify the performance of certain actions as valuable. If deontological and virtue theories are merely varieties of consequentialism, however, there are not three basic structures but rather one basic structure with a number of varieties.

One might deal with this difficulty by defining a consequentialist theory as one that specifies what is intrinsically good but includes neither states of affairs nor actions, but this seems arbitrary. In addition, although this solution no longer allows that deontological theories and virtue theories are varieties of consequentialism, it does not make it possible to understand how these three types of theory exhibit different structures. One can see that there are different structures here, however, by looking more closely at the differences among these theories. Suppose that a particular consequentialist theory specifies certain virtues as the only intrinsically valuable things. Suppose, more specifically, that a particular consequentialist theory, C, specifies that the virtue of justice is the only intrinsically valuable thing. One can also suppose that a virtue theory, V, specifies the good for human beings such that it is constituted solely by the virtue of justice. Are these two theories practically equivalent? If virtue theories are a mere variety of consequentialism, they should be. If they are not, then virtue theories are not a mere variety of consequentialist theory.

One can see that these two theories are not practically equivalent by considering the practical requirements each imposes on an agent. C requires that an agent act in such a way that he or she will maximize the number of just persons. Since consequentialist theories require that agents maximize whatever is intrinsically valuable, and since the only intrinsically valuable thing according to C is the virtue of justice, agents are required by this theory to maximize justice. V, however, need not have this consequence. What V requires of an agent is that he or she develop those virtues that are constitutive of being a good human being. V requires, then, merely that an agent develop justice. There is nothing in V itself that requires an agent to try to bring about justness in others. A virtue theory more complicated than V may include a virtue—perhaps benevolence—that requires agents to promote the well-being of others as well as themselves.

But this requirement to maximize the number of people who possess virtues is not a requirement derived from the nature of a virtue theory itself. It can be derived only from some particular virtue that may—or may not—be a component of a particular virtue theory.

One can arrive at this same point by considering an agent who finds herself in a situation where she can maximize the number of just persons only by becoming herself unjust. In order to make others just, she must become unjust. One example of such a case might be a politician who believes that the best way to make the citizens of her country just is to acquire political power and to exercise it in ways that only she can succeed in doing. Also, suppose she knows that only by renouncing justice herself, by being prepared to act unjustly, can she acquire political power. Thus it is only by becoming unjust that she can most efficiently make others just.

What do C and V have to say to this agent? It is clear that C would approve the renunciation of justice on her part if that would maximize the number of persons who possess justice. The loss of this particular agent's own justice to the sum of justice in the world is more than offset by the gain in the number of persons who are just. The sacrifice is worth it. But what would V require? It is equally clear that V does not require the agent to sacrifice her own justice. Virtue theories hold that an agent's own character plays a special role in his or her practical thinking that it does not play in a consequentialist theory. A virtue theory gives agents reasons to act because it is supposed that each person wants to be a flourishing and fulfilled human being. An agent's own life and character then will have a certain primacy according to a virtue theory. Virtues are not just intrinsically valuable things that should be inculcated in as many agents as possible. They are states of character that each agent must acquire in order to succeed as a human being. Thus, V will not necessarily require that this agent become unjust even if this would maximize the amount of justice in the world.

Similar conclusions follow with regard to a comparison between consequentialist theories and deontological theories. Consider a particular consequentialist teleological theory, C', that specifies that the only intrinsically valuable things are acts of truth-telling, and a particular deontological theory, D, that specifies that the only moral rule is one that enjoins truth-telling in all cases. Are these two theories practically equivalent? Again it is useful to consider a case in which maximizing a particular good requires the renunciation of it by an agent. Suppose that an agent finds himself in a situation in which he can most efficiently produce the maximum ratio of truth-tellings to lyings by himself telling a lie. Perhaps he has discovered that, by telling others that whenever they tell a lie their life is shortened by three weeks, he can most efficiently promote truth-telling. But he also knows that this is a lie. What should he do?

It seems clear that C' would require him to act in whatever way will maximize the number of truth-tellings, and, if this requires him to lie, so be it. Although his lie may be intrinsically bad, its badness will be more than outweighed by the intrinsically good states of affairs it brings about. The person who accepts D, however, believes that there is a moral rule enjoining everyone always to tell the truth. This rule gives him a reason to act, because he is committed to doing the right thing. He is not committed primarily to bringing about as many right or dutiful actions as possible; rather, he is committed to doing the right thing. Just as a virtue theory holds that an agent stands in a more intimate relation to his own character than he does to the characters of other persons, a deontological theory holds that an agent stands in a more intimate relation to his own actions than he does to the actions of others. The action of an agent who follows a moral rule will have a different moral significance for a deontologist than the action of an agent who brings it about that someone else follows a moral rule. For a deontologist, it is not as important that there be rule-followings as that he or she follow moral rules. D need not then require, or even permit, that the agent tell a lie if this is necessary to maximize truth-telling, and hence C' and D, like C and V, are not practically equivalent. If they are not practically equivalent, however, then deontological normative theories, like virtue theories, are not mere varieties of consequentialism.

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