Normative ethics is the study of ethical actions. It deals with ‘ethical dilemma’ and scrutinises a set of questions that arise while considering how one ought to act in a given situation. Normative ethics is also considered as prescriptive, rather than descriptive, because it guides us on how to act morally, rather than what morality is as ascertained in ‘descriptive ethics’. It is like a doctor prescribing a medicine to a patient suffering from a particular illness without actually explaining to him the cause of his illness or the chemical composition of the prescribed medicine.
Normative ethics can be divided further into four branches:
1. Virtue Ethics
4. Ethics of Care or Relational Ethics
1. Virtue Ethics
Virtue ethics was advocated by philosophers like Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. It focuses on the inherent character and ‘integrity’ of a person, rather than on specific actions. The objective of this approach is to be a good person. It means that if someone is virtuous or a good person, his actions will be ethical. For example, a hero in a movie is considered to be virtuous in whatever he does. Even if he lies, kills, or cheats, his actions are still perceived to be good since he does not do anything for his own sake but for the society. In Mahabharata, Lord Krishna followed some proscribed methods in the killing of Bhishma, Dronacharya, Karna and Duryodhan. Yet, his actions are not considered unethical because he was virtuous and his actions were aimed for the establishment of Dharma.
There is, however, no universal definition of virtue. Different philosophers have defined virtues differently.
Aristotle defined virtue as a desirable characteristic trait, such as courage, that lies between two extremes—heroism and cowardliness. Thus, a virtuous agent does not follow a single principle all the time and avoids all extremes. He tries to find a balance in ethical decision-making. He does not apply any specific ‘rules’ to take ethical decisions, but rather attempts to make decisions that are consistent with the pursuit of a particular kind of excellence, which entails exercising of sound moral judgement guided by virtues like courage, wisdom, temperance, fairness, integrity and consistency. According to Aristotle, ‘The virtue of man also will be the state of character which makes a man good and which makes him do his own work well.’ The aim is to perform the right action, with the right person, to the right extent, at the right time and in the right manner.
Most philosophers agree that a virtuous person must possess the four cardinal virtues. These virtues derive initially from Plato in The Republic (Book IV). These virtues were expanded later by philosophers like Cicero, Ambrose, Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas. These virtues are also recognised in the Bible, Old Testament, classical antiquity and in traditional Christian theology. These virtues are:
1. Prudence: It is the ability to discern the appropriate course of action to be taken in a given situation at the appropriate time.
2. Courage: It is the ability to confront fear, uncertainty and intimidation. It is also called fortitude, forbearance, strength, endurance.
3. Temperance: It means moderation in action, thought or feeling. It is also known as restraint, the practice of self-control, abstention, discretion, moderation or tempering the appetition.
4. Justice: Justice is fairness in the way that people are treated. It is often considered the most extensive and most important virtue. It also means righteousness, equitableness or moral rightness.
According to virtue ethics, we must focus on building our character by cultivating these virtues, which is possible only if we are doing the virtuous acts as a matter of habit and avoid doing any evil deeds. Aristotle summarised his philosophy of virtue as: Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.
Criticism of Virtue Ethics
The virtue ethics is criticised by modern philosophers for the following reasons:
1. Virtues are subjective and keep changing with time.
2. A virtuous woman in ancient times was someone quiet, servile and productive. However, this does not hold good today.
3. Action and consequence of the action is more important than the inherent quality of the person.
4. A true virtue is one that is universally applicable. However, most virtues have cultural and social bias.
5. Servility may be considered a female virtue but is not so for men. Hence, what is right for one gender isn’t considered right for another.
The word ‘deontology’ has Greek roots in the words deon (duty) + logos (reason). It means that an action is moral if it can be considered a duty with the reason that is universally acceptable. This theory proposes that the ethical position of an action should be judged based on rules. It is sometimes described as ‘duty-based’ or ‘obligation-based’ or ‘rule-based’ ethics, because a moral person must follow the ethical rules at all times. According to it, an action is more important than its consequences. This theory argues that decisions should be made considering one’s duties and rights without paying heed to the consequence arising out of that action.
Some deontological theories are:
(i) Categorical imperative: This theory was given by Immanuel Kant, which roots morality in humanity’s rational capacity and asserts certain inviolable moral laws. A categorical imperative denotes an absolute, unconditional requirement that must be obeyed in all circumstances and is justified as an end in itself. According to this theory, ‘one must act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law’. For example, one should always speak truth irrespective of the consequences. It means that even if the truth is bitter or may harm someone, it is always preferable to a lie that might lead to some benefits.
We shall learn more about categorical imperative in the chapter ‘Immanuel Kant’.
(ii) Gandhian ethics: Mahatma Gandhi believed in the righteousness of action. He did not justify the noble ends by following evil means. He categorically said, ‘For me it is enough to know the means. Means and end are convertible terms in my philosophy of life… We have always control over the means but not over the end…I feel that our progress towards the goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means…They say, “means are after all means.” I would say, “means are after all everything.” As the means so the end.’
He believed in the principle of truth and non-violence. For him, these principles were non-negotiable and immutable. He called his religion a ‘religion of truth’ and transformed the concept from ‘God is Truth’ to ‘Truth is God’. He believed that being truthful is to be close to God. He also said, ‘I am devoted to nothing but truth and I owe no discipline to anybody but truth.’
(iii) Nishkam karma: The principle of ‘selfless action’ or Nishkam karma was taught by Lord Krishna in his discourse to Arjuna. Lord Krishna said:
You have a right to perform your prescribed duties, but you are not entitled to the fruits of your actions. You should never consider yourself to be the cause of the results of your activities, nor be attached to inaction. You must be steadfast in the performance of your duty abandoning attachment to success and failure. Such equanimity is called Yog (Integrity). You must seek refuge in divine knowledge and insight and discard reward-seeking actions that are certainly inferior to works performed with the intellect established in Divine knowledge. Miserly are those who seek to enjoy the fruits of their works. One who prudently practices work without attachment can get rid of both good and bad reactions in this life itself.
The concept of Nishkam karma emphasises on the performance of one’s duty rather than working for the result of the action. If your actions are good, the fruits of your actions will be naturally noble.
The ethics of consequentialism is also called ‘teleology’. The word ‘teleology’ comes from Greek telos (end) and logos (reason). This principle states that the final outcome or consequence of an action decides the ethical value of an action. If the outcome of an action is good, it is ethical and if it is bad, it is unethical. For example, if in a certain situation, speaking lies may spread more happiness and positive outcome, then it shall be treated as the right action.
This principle sometimes comes in conflict with the principle of Deontology, which stipulates that the righteousness of an action is the only important thing and the consequences resulting from that action are immaterial for determining the ethical value of an action. Consequentialist theories include:
• Utilitarianism: An action is right if it maximises happiness for the greatest number of people.
• Welfarism: An action is right if it leads to state welfare through order, material wealth and population growth.
• Egoism: An action is right if it maximises good for the self.
• Altruism: An action is right, when it promotes someone else’s welfare, even at the cost to one’s own happiness.
4. Ethics of Care or Relational Ethics
Relational ethics or ‘ethics of care’ is defined as an ‘action ethic’ that is placed within the interpersonal relationships. The action ethic includes engagement, mutual respect, embodiment and interdependent environment.
Relational ethics was founded by feminist theorists, notably Carol Gilligan. She argued that morality arises out of the experiences of empathy and compassion. It emphasised on the importance of interdependence and relationships in achieving ethical goals. According to this principle, ethics is about how we should live together in a family, in a society or in a state.
Traditional, the human society has been dominated by men and almost all great philosophers had been men. Hence, the popular philosophy is predominantly a ‘masculine philosophy’, which ignores the views on morality of half of the population of the world—that is, women. In masculine philosophy, there is more emphasis on power and on rigid moral rules like rights and duties. However, women practice a different type of morality, which can be called ‘feminine morality’.
According to this view, women traditionally have had a nurturing role, raising children and overseeing domestic life. These tasks required less adherence to rules and involved more spontaneous and creative actions. Hence, the basis of morality would spontaneously be caring for others as would be appropriate in each unique circumstance. On this model, the agent becomes part of the situation and acts with care within that context. This stands in sharp contrast to the male-modelled morality, where the agent is a mechanical actor who performs his required duty but can remain distant from and unaffected by the situation. A care-based approach to morality, as it is sometimes called, is offered by feminist ethicists as either a replacement for or a supplement to traditional male-modelled moral systems.
However, it would be incorrect to associate the ethics of care to female philosophers alone. It was preached by Jesus Christ 2,000 years ago when he asked people to follow non-violence and learn to forgive others. He had emphatically stated:
You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. But I say to you, do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
We don’t handle the errors of our family members, the way society deals with an individual. If a child commits some error, a mother may sometimes punish the child or forgive him, or she might sometimes even punish herself by refusing to talk to him or take food. Her ultimate purpose in adopting either of these courses is to reform the child and to make him realise his mistake. Such non-violent actions are much more useful in transforming a person than going for heartless punishments following the rule of law.
Hence, according to this philosophy, we must deal with every person with kindness and compassion. Our actions should be such that they reform the person rather than transform him to a criminal and a delinquent. This type of morality has been practiced by women within the family system since time immemorial. If this can be expanded to the societal level, we can perhaps create a better society with much more love, compassion and morality.