In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Normative Ethics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks and Anthologies
  • Reference Works and Other Resources
  • Feminist Ethics
  • Anti-Theory

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Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Philosophy Normative Ethics
Alan Thomas
  • LAST REVIEWED: 01 December 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396577-0082


Normative ethics is the branch of philosophy that theorizes the content of our moral judgments or, as a limiting case, denies that any such theories are possible (the position of the so-called anti-theorists). While meta-ethics focuses on foundational issues concerning the semantics of moral utterance and how our moral views fit more broadly into a general conception of reality, normative ethics focuses on the major theoretical approaches to the content of moral reflection. It is shaped by the historical inheritance of the tradition of moral philosophy in the West in its focus on deontology, consequentialism, and virtue ethics as the major forms of normative ethical theory. These standard theories have been more recently complemented by the new field of feminist ethics, and innovations in ethical theory have added hybrid theory and contractualism to the list. All of these views continue to be the subject of intense debate and further refinement.

General Overviews

Given the range and diversity of the field, there is no single article that can comprehensively survey normative ethics. This suggests two alternative routes into the subject. Because of the role played by history in contemporary normative ethics, one route to an overview of the subject is via a historical study such as MacIntyre 1998. It is a strength, not a weakness, of this recently republished classic that the author has a very engaged point of view on his subject matter. More up to date and more comprehensive is the three-volume study consisting of Irwin 2007, Irwin 2008, and Irwin 2009. Alternatively, the second route into the subject draws on individual entries in the main reference overviews of moral philosophy. Comprehensive and very helpful recent reference overviews are Singer 1991, LaFollette 2001, Copp 2007, and Skorupski 2010. These reference overviews are divided fairly evenly between meta-ethical and normative topics.

  • Copp, David, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195325911.001.0001

    Part 2 contains eight entries on normative ethics, including one on a topic not well represented elsewhere, namely, chapter 20, “Particularism and Antitheory,” by Mark Lance and Margaret Little.

  • Irwin, Terence. The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study. Vol. 1, From Socrates to the Reformation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

    This is the first volume of a trilogy that is the outstanding recent multivolume history ethical thought by classical scholar Terence Irwin.

  • Irwin, Terence. The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study. Vol. 2, From Suarez to Rousseau. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.

    The continuation of Irwin’s narrative through the early modern period.

  • Irwin, Terence. The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study. Vol. 3, From Kant to Rawls. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    Irwin’s trilogy concludes with a volume that extends up to the moral philosophy of Rawls. It includes three chapters that are thematic overviews of trends in recent moral philosophy.

  • LaFollette, Hugh. The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2001.

    Entries on “Act-Utilitarianism” by R. G. Frey, “Rule-Consequentialism” by Brad Hooker, essays on “Deontology” by Frances Myrna Kamm, Thomas E. Hill Jr., Geoffrey Sayre-McCord, David McNaughton, and L. W. Sumner. An entry on “Virtue Ethics” by Michael Slote.

  • MacIntyre, Alasdair. A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the Twentieth Century. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 1998.

    A second edition of a book from 1966 that is the best concise, single-volume history of ethics.

  • Singer, Peter, ed. A Companion to Ethics. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.

    Contains entries on “Kantian Ethics” by Onora O’Neill, “Contemporary Deontology” by Nancy Ann Davis, “Consequentialism” by Philip Pettit, and “Virtue Theory” by Greg Pence.

  • Skorupski, John, ed. The Routledge Companion to Ethics. London: Routledge, 2010.

    Part 4, entitled “Perspectives in Ethics,” contains entries on “Consequentialism” by Brad Hooker, “Contemporary Kantian Ethics” by Andrews Reath, “Virtue Ethics” by Michael Slote, and “Contractualism” by Rahul Kumar.

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