DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L135-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 2001
Retrieved April 21, 2021, from

2. Normativity in ethics

We may begin with the normative area par excellence: ethics. Ethics is least controversially concerned with what a person ought to do, with norms of action and states tied to agency, such as desire, intention, choice and so on. But ethics is not wholly a practical area. In addition to what to do, we also face issues of how to feel and be. Virtuous character, for example, involves affect no less than dispositions to choice and action (see Virtue ethics; Virtues and vices). And members of a moral community concern themselves as much with what attitudes to take towards each other as with appropriate action.

Issues of normativity arise in ethics in at least three different ways. First, in the analysis of ethical concepts and categories, issues arise concerning the distinctive kinds of normativity that different ethical concepts and categories have (see Analytic ethics). At the level of conceptual analysis, for example, we can ask what it means to say of a given action that it is morally wrong. Or, at a more metaphysical level, we can ask what it is for an action to be morally wrong, what being wrong consists in. On one popular view, morality is normative for action by its very nature, so that to say that an action is wrong is to imply that one ought not to do it. This view is, however, denied by those who accept a view mentioned in passing earlier, namely, that something can violate moral norms or reasons and still be something there is good reason to do or even no good reason not to do. According to the first view, moral reasons are necessarily reasons for acting, so that if it is false that there is good reason to do something, then it cannot be the case that one morally ought to do it. On the second view, this can be the case. What, then, does the second view say about the normativity of morality? There are various possibilities. One kind of moral scepticism simply denies that morality has any genuine normativity. Moral norms are then identified by non-normative criteria, say, sociologically. But it may be that morality is indeed normative, only not for action as the first view supposes. It may be, as Mill proposed, that the concept of moral wrong is tied to the appropriateness of certain sanctions and ‘sanctioning emotions’ such as blame, guilt, indignation and so on (Gibbard 1990; Mill [1861] 1991; Skorupski 2000) (see Rectification and remainders). On this view, morality’s normativity directly concerns not the acts that are said to be right or wrong, but certain reactive emotions and their natural expressions. If this is right, an action could be wrong (and so something one morally ought not to do) without being something one (categorically) ought not to do. Its being morally wrong would consist in its being something that warrants blame and guilt, and that might be true even if there were reason to do it.

Another example. What is the distinctive normativity of claims of virtue and vice? On one view, sometimes attributed to Aristotle, it concerns the relation of dispositions to human flourishing, to a life that most benefits the person who leads it (see Eudaimonia; Welfare). On another, it concerns a trait being one we ought to esteem or disesteem. The first view raises a further analytical question: namely, what is the normativity of welfare or a person’s good? Sometimes it is assumed that it simply follows from the fact that something will benefit a person that they have a reason to seek it. On this view, a person’s good is analytically normative for their own desires and actions. A problem with the view, however, is that it does not seem to be incoherent to deny that one’s own good gives one reasons. People who loathe themselves, for example, do not seem to be guilty of conceptual confusion when they assert that, as they are loathsome, they have no reason to pursue their own good. Another possibility is that personal welfare is indeed normative, but not necessarily for persons themselves, but only for those who care for them, whether that be they themselves or others (Darwall 1997).

In fact, there are many different normative notions with which ethics has traditionally been concerned that are distinguishable analytically. Listing those we have mentioned so far (along with some controversial claims about their respective normativity), we have: the morally wrong (what one ought to blame, lacking adequate excuse), the virtuous or estimable (what one ought to esteem) and a person’s good or welfare (what one ought to desire for them for their own sake). In addition, there are (for starters): the choiceworthy (what there is reason to choose or do), the personally desirable or valuable (what it makes sense to value from one’s own point of view), the impersonally desirable or valuable (what one ought to want from no perspective in particular), the morally desirable (what one should want from the moral point of view), the morally estimable (as distinguished from both the morally desirable and the estimable more generally), that which has dignity (what one ought to respect) and the important or significant (that which one ought to care about). There are also other goods, such as aesthetic value, that are relevant to ethics as forms of value, even if they concern other philosophical areas also (see Aesthetics).

Citing this article:
Darwall, Stephen. Normativity in ethics. Normativity, 2001, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L135-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2021 Routledge.

Related Articles