Normative ethics is the attempt to provide a general theory that tells us how we ought to live. Unlike metaethics, normative ethics does not attempt to tell us what moral properties are, and unlike applied ethics, it does not attempt to tell us what specific things have those properties. Normative ethics just seeks to tell us how we can find out what things have what moral properties, to provide a framework for ethics.
For any act, there are three things that might be thought to be morally interesting: first, there is the agent, the person performing the act; second, there is the act itself; third, there are the consequences of the act. There are three types of normative ethical theory–virtue, deontological, and consequentialist–each emphasising one of these elements.
This first normative ethical theory, virtue theory, concentrates on the moral character of the agent. According to virtue theory, we ought to possess certain character traits–courage, generosity, compassion, etc.–and these ought to be manifest in our actions. We therefore ought to act in ways that exhibit the virtues, even if that means doing what might generally be seen as bad or bringing about undesirable consequences.
Normative theories of the second type, deontological theories, concentrate on the act being performed. According to deontological theories, certain types of act are intrinsically good or bad, i.e. good or bad in themselves. These acts ought or ought not to be performed, irrespective of the consequences.
The third approach to normative ethics is consequentialism. Consequentialist theories hold that we ought always to act in the way that brings about the best consequences. It doesn’t matter what those acts are; the end justifies the means. All that matters for ethics is making the world a better place.
To give an example, then, suppose that a man bravely intervenes to prevent a youth from being assaulted.
The virtue theorist will be most interested in the bravery that the man exhibits; this suggests that he has a good character.
The deontologist will be more interested in what the man did; he stood up for someone in need of protection, and that kind of behaviour is intrinsically good.
The consequentialist will care only about the consequences of the man’s actions; what he did was good, according to the consequentialist, because he prevented the youth from suffering injury.