Normative ethics is an endeavour which at its core tries to give an answer to the question: “Which actions ought to be performed?”. Many answers to this question have been suggested throughout history, some more appealing than others, but most of them seem to carry irreparable faults. We humans might not have a correct answer to this question, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t find reasonable or even self-evident conditions which a satisfying answer must fulfil. By establishing such requirements I believe that it will become quite clear that some classical and highly regarded moral theories are simply not up for the task of properly answering this crucial question. This reveals somewhat of a failure of moral philosophy.
The first issue I want to address is the range of the question. Some moral philosophers believe that the question is only about answering so called “moral questions”, i.e., which actions ought to be performed in tricky situations, when how we should act is especially unclear, in social situations, or when we have conflicting moral instincts and intuitions. Questions that are not considered of interest are for example: “Which clothes should I wear today?”, or “What should you serve for dinner to your children?”. I find this view unacceptable. The range of the question isn’t limited, especially not if the limit is arbitrary. The question needs to cover how one should act in all situations, simply because we want to answer the question. Otherwise we’re left without guidance and with uncertainty. This completeness criterion demands that the answer actually answers the question of which actions ought to be performed, in all situations.
The second issue I want to address are contradictions in the answer. The consistency criterion demands that the answer doesn’t contain any contradictions. The answer may not suggest that you should perform an action and at the same time not perform that same action, since this would constitute a contradiction. Such a contradiction would make it impossible to deduce which action should be performed in that particular situation, making the answer unsatisfying, to say the least. The contradiction even leads to worse consequences, since anything can be logically derived from a contradiction. Providing no guidance is, however, bad enough.
There is one additional issue I would like to highlight, an issue which rarely is mentioned or discussed. Commonly, normative ethics only concerns itself with human actions. The subspecies homo sapiens sapiens has understandably had a special place in philosophical discussions, but the question is not inherently only about one subspecies in the universe. The completeness criterion covers all situations in which somebody should perform an action, even if this “somebody” isn’t a human being. Human successors, alien life in other solar systems, and other species on Earth shouldn’t be arbitrarily excluded.
It seems like an impossible task for any moral theory based on virtue or deontology to ever be able to fulfil the criteria of completeness and consistency, begging the question that if these moral theories can’t seem to achieve the very basics of reasonable or even self-evident demands, are they really worthy of any consideration at all? The only type of moral theories that seem to be able to provide a satisfying answer are consequentialistic. This reveals a failure of moral philosophy. Mesmerized by the illusion of human superiority, moral philosophy has lost its sights of the fundamental questions that it should answer.