What is the best way to live? This is the question at the heart of normative theory, a discipline with roots stretching back to ancient times and concerned with thinking about the world not only as it is but also as we might think it ought to be. Given that this question bears upon us not just as individuals but also collectively, it is one that has been the concern of political philosophers. Normative thinking typically invokes principles with respect to how we should conduct and organize ourselves; as such, it seeks to provide ‘norms’ that prescribe appropriate ways of acting individually and collectively. It has generally been held that if they are to be persuasive, norms of this kind need to be based upon an appeal to some ‘ultimate’ conceptions that are beyond question and which supply nonnegotiable standards for judgement. Historically, these ultimate appeals have taken different forms — to a natural cosmic order, to the will of God, to the essentials of human nature. In this chapter, we shall mainly be concerned with how normative theory has developed in the modern period, where answers to the question of ‘the best way to live’ have been mediated by a concern with free choice, and where, as we shall see, some have wanted to doubt that the substantive principles by which we might think we ought to live are really ultimate or objective.
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