Explaining Some Terms Used in Normative Ethics

In online and offline discussions about normative ethics, terms like, “consequentialism,” “deontology,” “hedonism,” and “utilitarianism” get tossed around with little to no indication of what those words actually mean. In this post, I’m going to briefly discuss some terms, and do a bit of taxonomy. Hopefully I can clear up more confusion than I create.

A theory in normative ethics has two parts, an axiology and a deontology. An axiology is a theory of value. Axiologies can be monistic or pluralistic. If an axiology is monistic, it identifies value with one property, such as hedonism identifying pleasure (or happiness) as the only intrinsic value. If an axiology is pluralistic, it identifies value with multiple properties, such as a theory that holds both pleasure and friendship as intrinsically valuable. An axiology is relevant to normative ethics when the value being identified is morally relevant. So an axiology that identifies certain aesthetic properties as the only intrinsic values would be of no use to an ethical theory.

A deontology is a theory of rightness or the right. An example of a deontology is consequentialism. Consequentialism takes right actions to be those that produce a particular kind of effect. Combine consequentialism with hedonism and you get a theory that says an action is right iff its effect is pleasurable. In this case, the good informs the right, which means your substantive account of goodness informs what is the right course of action. Another kind of deontology is deontology, which is an unfortunate name, which obviously gives rise to terminological confusion. Deontology is a family of theories of rightness that identify permissible and impermissible actions. A typical example is an action is morally permissible iff it does not violate any person’s autonomy. This is another example of the good informing the right, where the good is autonomy of persons.

A third example of a deontology is social contract theory. Some versions do not employ any substantive conceptions of the good, but rather take permissible action to be that which a group of informed negotiators would agree to allow. Each negotiator could bring their own conception of the good to the table when informing their decisions, but ultimately what’s permissible is a function of their agreement, and not their theories of value.

These notions play out in such a way that combining them produces theories like hedonic act utilitarianism (HAU). HAU combines a hedonic axiology with a consequentialist deontology, and adds a principle of maximization and produces the view that an action is right iff it produces maximal pleasure or contributes to maximizing overall pleasure. Sometimes a theory can avoid an axiology entirely, such as a Kantian view that takes a permissible action to be such that it could be universalized without contradiction. Suffice it to say, these theories tend to get a bit complicated when you look under the hood.