Normative Ethics

Normative Ethics

In the short story, The German Refugee, the narrator and a German refugee, Oscar, develop a unique friendship. The narrator, a poor senior in college, tutors immigrants in the English language to make some extra money due to the poor economy after the Great Depression. His student Oscar is much like his other students, an educated refugee, however Oscar is quite a challenge for the tutor. Oscar came to America as a lecturer. However, “the thought of giving the lecture in English just about paralyzed him (Malamud 440).” Oscar had left his wife and was troubled with depression from his life changes. As they performed the English lessons, step by step a friendship emerged, and even though Oscar had given up on the lessons, the narrator still visited Oscar trying to help him right his lecture.

Eventually, Oscar began to confide in the young American, and told him he had once tried to commit suicide during his first week in America. The narrator shows kindness and compassion, still trying to help Oscar write and translate his lecture. However, they never get past the first page. Instead of writing the lecture on every visit, the two both sit in silence in the heat of his apartment. “It was sticky, hot July and the heat didn’t help at all (Malamud 442).” The narrator then decides to buy a second hand fan for Oscar. An action that however minute is the right action to perform. Although the fan only last a week, the narrator’s action of kindness is good, by three normative ethicist, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and John Stewart Mills, this small action performed can be shown to be the right action.

The moral normative theory, Subjectivism, from Hume’s philosophy examines the moral pleasure the narrator receives by doing this action. Subjectivism states that an action is the right action for an agent if and only if the agent when performing this action gains moral pleasure from it, or as Hume would say, “An action, or sentiment or character, is virtuous or vicious; why? because its view causes a pleasure or uneasiness of a particular kind… The very feeling constitutes our praise or admiration (Hume 44).” To understand this normative status, the definition of moral pleasure must be described. Moral pleasure is not the same as mere pleasurable feelings. However, it is the feeling of morally wrong or morally right within each person. This is what makes subjectivism subjective, different for different people. Thus, an action is not necessarily wrong just because the action may seem morally wrong to some one else. Second in Subjectivism, Hume is concerned with actions, but the definition of the kind of actions is important. Hume does not mean all actions. He divides actions into three categories: actions that are morally right, actions that are morally wrong, and actions that are morally neutral. These divisions are also subjective to each individual, because each individual will evaluate each action differently. Lying in a particular instance may be morally neutral to one person. It may be morally wrong to another, and it may be morally right to yet another person.

To apply Hume’s Subjectivism to the short story, the action must be defined. For this normative theory and all the theories, the action is buying the second hand fan and giving it to Oscar. It is easily seen that this action brought moral pleasure to the narrator. He has done a simple selflishless act for the depressed immigrant. Thus by the definition of subjectivism, the action was the right action to have performed.

The second moral normative theory is the Categorical Imperative by the philosopher Kant. The categorical imperative has three formulations, but for determining whether the narrator performed the right action, I will use the first formulation. “Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the same time will that it should become a universal law (Kant 38).” In a more scientific wording, the first formulation of the categorical imperative states that an action is morally right if and only if the generalized maxim of the action could be willed to be a universal law of nature.

This definition requires many terms to be more clearly defined. First, the word maxim is “a subjective principle of volition” or in other words how an individual is going to act in a their situation (Kant 17). Maxims are usually stated; whenever I am tired, I shall sleep. However for the purpose of the Categorical Imperative, maxims must be generalized applying to all. So whenever I am tired, I shall sleep, becomes whenever anyone is tired, he or she shall sleep. The maxims are used by Kant to describe how an individual acts in their situation, and the generalized maxims are used show how all people should act in the situation. Next, the word imperative means a command. However, there are two types of imperatives. The hypothetical imperative like if you want an A on your paper, then work for hours writing it. Then, the categorical imperatives that state do something. The hypothetical is subjective, different for different people, and changes over time. For instance, not everyone has to work for hours to get an A, and over time maybe there will be no more grades. Categorical imperatives are necessary and universal. Categorical imperatives like keep your promises will always exist for all time making them necessary, and apply to everyone making them universal. Next, the concept of willing must be elaborated on. Willing something means to think of something in such a way that thinking it makes it the case, or thinking it brings that state of affairs about. In the categorical imperative the agent is willing the generalized maxim and there are two conditions that the maxim must have for the person to be able to will it. These to principles of willings are that they must be consistent (both internally consistent and with all other willings), and the willings must be rational (what a rational agent would will). Finally, the last statement in the first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, a universal law of nature is defined as a universal statement about how everything must be. For a universal law of nature to be true, it must meet the two conditions of willing.

Now that the Categorical Imperative has been completely defined it can be used to evaluate the action, buying a second hand fan for Oscar. The first a maxim must be formulated from the action. In this case the maxim is when ever the narrator feels the need to cheer up his friend Oscar and his apartment is very hot, he should buy a second hand fan for Oscar. Then, the maxim must be generalized. The generalized maxim is whenever anyone feels the need to cheer up his or her friend and his or her friend’s apartment is very hot, he or she should buy a second hand fan for his or her friend. This generalized maxim must then be willed, meeting the two conditions on willing. It is consistent, but to prove the maximums consistency, it is best to look at why it is not inconsistent. If it is inconsistent it contradicts with its self like if it had been whenever anyone is down I will make him or her feel worse about his or her self in order to realize it was not so bad before. It would be obviously inconsistent, but there is no obvious contradiction like such in the narrator’s maxim. The second part of consistency is that the willing must be consistent with all other willings. This maxim is consistent with all other willings because the narrator only wills to help not harm Oscar. Second, the maxim is rational for a rational agent would will. Giving a simple gift to his sad and hot friend to cheer him up has no irrational consequences and only benefits the nariator. So the action is the morally right action to perform by Kant’s first formulation of the Categorical Imperative, because the generalized maxim of the action can be willed to be a universal law of nature.

The last moral normative theory is Utilitarianism by John Stewart Mill. Utilitarianism is teleological moral normative theory because it deals with the amount of pleasure or pain that occurs after the action is performed. As Mill states, “Actions are right in portion as they tend to promote happiness; wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness (Mill, 7).” Utilitarianism in other words is that an action is morally right if and only if it maximizes utility. In Utilitarianism, Mill is mainly concerned with the amount of happiness, “By happiness is intended pleasure and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain and the privation of pleasures a consequence of an action (Mill 7).” By the amount of pleasure he means the total amount of pleasure of everyone that is effected by each action. He uses the term hedonic value of an action if the action is performed to describe the amount of pleasure that occurs from this action, and the term doloric value of an action if the action is performed to describe the amount of pain that occurs from this action. Hedonic values are represent by a positive number, and a negative number represents doloric values. The utility of an action is defined, as the total amount of pleasure an action would produce if performed plus the total amount of pain an action would produce if performed. With the utility, the person wants the maximized utility. In utilitarianism a person must consider all actions. Thus, there is always an alternative action. Action two, that is an alternative of action one, meaning action two is another act that the agent who could perform action one could perform at the same time as action one instead of action one. Basically, there is more than one action in utilitarianism and the person must choose the action that when the pleasure and pain is added together has the greatest numerical value.

For example the action of buying the second hand fan for Oscar can best be shown in this chart.?The hedonic value for buying the fan for Oscar is about a 45. “He sat in the breeze for hours each day until after a week, shortly after the Soviet-Nazi nonaggression pact was signed, the motor gave out.” Though the fan only lasted a week during this time the fan was used by Oscar, the narrator felt pleasure for unselfishly giving, and the hedonic value of pleasure for each person was about 20. However, that is not the only hedonic value for buying this fan. The person he bought it from gains some happiness with a value at 5. Though, with this action also comes a doloric value of -5, because the motor gave out after only a week. Oscar probably missed the fan when it was gone. So the total utility of this action is a positive 40. Although the narrator could of chosen another action. He could of chosen to do nothing. In this instance the hedonic value would be 0. Though th!

e doloric value might be -10 from the guilt the narrator may have felt knowing the heat Oscar had to endear. The total utility of the second action is negative 10. Utilitarianism requires that in order to determine the right action a person must calculate all possible actions. However for this paper, these two actions give a good example of utility and by these two examples, even though these are not all the possibilities that exists, then the narrator has performed the maximized utility,the right action.

The narrator has by all three normative theories performed a right action. By Hume’s subjectivism, the narrator performed the right action because it brought him moral pleasure. By Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative, the narrator performed the right action because it formed a willable generalized maxim for the Universal law of nature. Then finally by John Stewarts Mill’s Utilitarianism, the narrator performed the right action because it maximized the utility.


Hume, David. Moral and Political Philosophy. Aiken Henry. New York: Hapner Press, 1948.

Kant, Immanuel. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals, Second ed. White beck, Lewis. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Malamud, Bernard. The German Refugee. The Best American Short Stories, ed John Updike, Hajhtan: Mifflin Company, 1999.

Mill, John Stewart. Utilitarianism. Sher, George. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1979.