Normative Ethical Principles and Theories:
A Brief Overview

Descriptive theory explains how things are (e.g., this paper is white; most Americans eat meat; etc.), whereas normative or prescriptive theory tells us how things ought to be (people ought to be honest, etc.). Ethics is about what ought to be, not what is. We simply would not need to consider what we ought to do if we always did it as a matter of course. Since we are focusing on morality and ethics, we are concerned with what morally ought to be the case. All ethical theories use various normative ethical principles in assessing or justifying actions and behavior. To be practical and beneficial, ethical discourse must use understandings, procedures, and judgment criteria that all rational people who are concerned with morality and ethics must affirm. We need to understand that ethical principles must be the ground rules for our moral decision-making—they should not simply be factors we take into consideration.

Below are fundamental principles/concepts that pertain to different ethical theories. A word of caution, however, when justifying (e.g., defending, arguing for, etc.) your moral judgment or moral rule: Do not simply select two or three normative principles that are part of a normative theory. You must USE the theory, of which the principles are a part, to justify your position, not simply list principles. You must clearly explain how these ethical principles defend or justify your judgment or rule. Review your lecture notes from the ethics/ philosophy course and the books used in the class. Also, review very closely the Moral Reasoning Guidelines for the appropriate evaluation, discovery, and justification procedures.

A. Moral Vocabulary

Foundational values are those concepts or ideas which do not by themselves constitute any one theory but which should be considered as a prerequisite to most satisfactory normative theories. These values by themselves do not constitute a justification or defense of your position; that is done through the application of a normative ethical theory.

Rationality: All legitimate moral acts must be supportable by generally accepted reasons.

Least Harm: When you must choose between evils, choose the least evil.

Consistency: Moral reasons, including moral actions, if they are valid, are binding on all people at all times in all places given the same relevant circumstances.

Impartiality: This principle forbids us from treating one person different than another when there is not a good reason to do so. We set aside our personal interests.

Openness: When examining moral differences between ourselves and other individuals or cultures, we may discover that it is we, not they, who are morally wrong. We must be open to changing our view (Principle of Fallibility, L. Hinman).

Ethical principles or values are statements of human obligations or duties that are generally accepted and are the expression of normative ethical systems (see Kantian and Utilitarian ethics). The following is a list of commonly recognized definitions, ideas, values, and concepts. A value and a principle are very often interchangeable. For example, I may value "dignity" and have as one of the main operating principles in my life the goal to always treat others with the dignity I desire. The following is not meant to be a definitive list.

Ethics: the conscious reflection on our moral beliefs and attitudes though the use of normative ethical theories (L. Hinman).

Value: what we choose as worthwhile or believe to have merit, in a general or broad sense. Values should be freely and thoughtfully chosen.

Value System: the ways in which we organize, rank, prioritize, and make decisions based on our values.

Virtues: values turned into actions (Robert. Solomon).

Mores: the guidelines of a particular society. Mores are often relative to the needs of a particular society or culture (cultural relativism).

Moral Rule: a specific guideline for action that justifies our moral judgments and actions in our everyday lives. Moral rules tell us what we ought to do and are often established by tradition, religion, laws, etc.

Morality: the rules and guidelines, the mores, which an individual or a group has about what is right or wrong, good or evil.

Ethical Principle: they are part of a normative theory that justifies or defends moral rules and/or moral judgments. Ethical principles are not contingent upon cultural features such as tradition, religion, or law. For example, a Normative Ethical Principle such as the principle of utility (Utilitarian ethics) or the categorical imperative (Kantian ethics) is not subject to one's subjective viewpoints. Ethics justify or ground morality.

Normative Ethics: attempt to answer specific moral questions concerning what people should do or believe. The word "normative" refers to guidelines or norms and is often used interchangeably with the word "prescriptive." Normative ethical theories are Kantian ethics, Virtue ethics, Utilitarian ethics, and so on.

--Examples of Virtues or Values:

Autonomy: the duty to maximize the individual's right to make his or her own decisions.

Beneficence: the duty to do good both individually and for all.

Confidentiality: the duty to respect privacy of information and action.

Equality: the duty to view all people as moral equals.

Finality: the duty to take action that may override the demands of law, religion, and social customs.

Justice: the duty to treat all fairly, distributing the risks and benefits equally.

Nonmaleficence: the duty to cause no harm, both individually and for all.

Understanding/Tolerance: the duty to understand and to accept other viewpoints if reason dictates doing so is warranted.

Publicity: the duty to take actions based on ethical standards that must be known and recognized by all who are involved.

Respect for persons: the duty to honor others, their rights, and their responsibilities. Showing respect others implies that we do not treat them as a mere means to our end.

Universality: the duty to take actions that hold for everyone, regardless of time, place, or people involved. This concept is similar to the Categorical Imperative.

Veracity: the duty to tell the truth.

B. Overview of Normative Ethical Principles For Selected Theories.

KANTIAN ETHICS. These are principles that form the basis for Kant's non- consequentialist theory. DO NOT simply attempt to apply each principle without a good understanding of Kantian ethics. The principles must be used within the context of the theory and must be grounded in the readings from the course. These are listed as only a guideline.

Categorical Imperative: Act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it would become a universal law of nature.

Principle of Ends: Act so that you treat people never as a mere means to an end, but always as an end in themselves.

Principle of Autonomy: Every rational being is able to regard herself or himself as a maker of universal law, and everyone who is ideally rational will legislate exactly the same universal principles.

UTILITARIAN ETHICS. These are principles that form the basis for most utilitarian theories. DO NOT simply attempt to apply each principle without a good understanding of Utilitarian ethics. The principles must be used within the context of the theory and be grounded in the readings from the course. These are listed as only a guideline.

Principle of Utility: that principle which approves or disapproves of every action according to whether it increases or diminishes the amount of happiness of the party whose interest is in question.
a. Act Utilitarianism: An act is right if and only if it results in as much good as any available alternative. One cannot be both an act and a rule utilitarian at the same time; thus, using them both in your paper would be contradictory.

b. Rule Utilitarianism: An act is right if and only if it is required by a rule that is itself a member of a set of rules, the acceptance of which would lead to greater good for society than any available alternative. One cannot be both an act and a rule utilitarian at the same time; thus, using them both in your paper would be contradictory.

Harm Principle: Society is justified in coercing the behavior of an individual in order to prevent her or him from injuring others; it is not justified in coercing her or him simply because the behavior is deemed immoral or harmful to herself or himself.

Principles of Consequences: In assessing consequences, the only thing that matters is the amount of happiness/good or unhappiness/bad that is caused or not caused. The right or good actions are those that produce the greatest amount of good over bad in the long-term.

CONTRACT ETHICS. Morality consists in a set of rules (implicit or explicit), governing how people are to treat one another, which rational people will agree to accept, for their mutual benefit, on the condition that others follow those rules as well. Contract principles form the basis for many social contract theories. Some of these principles will work with either a consequentialist or nonconsequentialist theory. If they are appropriate, you may use them as additional support in your paper. If you do use them, be sure they are consistent with other normative or prescriptive principles you use. Modern contract theories are based on the work of John Rawls, so if you use this approach, be sure you are familiar with his thought. The principles must be used within the context of the theory and be grounded in the readings from the course. These are listed as only a guideline.

Principle of Liberty: Each person has an equal right to the most extensive scheme of equal basic liberties compatible with a similar scheme of liberties for all.

Principle of Opportunity: There must be meaningful equality of opportunity in the competition among individuals for those positions in society that bring greater economic and social rewards.

Principle of Distributive Justice: Basic goods should be distributed so that the least advantaged members of society are benefited.

Principle of Justice: Each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. The rights secured by justice are not subject to political bargaining or to the calculus of social interests.

Principle of Need: Each person is guaranteed the primary social goods that are necessary to meet the normal costs of satisfying one's basic needs in the society in which one lives, assuming there are sufficient social and economic resources in his society to maintain the guaranteed minimum.

Moral Reasoning Strategy
Exploring Values, Rules, and Principles

Ethical Analysis
Business Ethics

Updated 15 July 2002