Normative ethics is, simply put, the study of ethical action. Normative ethics is a branch of philosophical ethics and aims to investigate the questions that arise if one considers how one is supposed to act, in terms of morality. Normative ethics examines the standards to determine the wrongness or rightness of an action and stays away from personal moral beliefs and the meaning of moral language. Normative ethics is often considered prescriptive, rather than descriptive.
In the past, traditional moral theories depended upon principles to determine whether certain actions are right or wrong. Classical theories that subscribed to such philosophies include Kantianism, some types of contractarianism and utilitarianism. These theories offered moral principles that were considered applicable to any situation involving a difficult moral decision.
As years passed and the 20th century rolled around, moral theories were no longer concerned with only right and wrong, but rather had a great interest in the various types of moral status. It was argued that a general moral label for an action could not simply state that the action was right or wrong. Instead, it was argued that a moral theory can only state whether an action tends towards rightness or wrongness, dependent upon some sort of moral duty. These arguments and the subsequent research and theory led to the development of the discipline of normative ethics.
Normative ethics is typically divided into two major sub-disciplines. These sub-disciplines are moral theory and applied ethics. Over the past few years, this divide has blurred greatly thanks to the intersections of the two sub-disciplines. Moral theorists are far more interested in applied problems now. At the same time, applied ethics are now far more philosophically informed. There was a time in the middle of the 20th century during which philosophers focused almost entirely on meta-physics, disregarding normative ethics. However in the 1970s a number of major works of normative theory were published and to this day the field continues to grow and flourish.