Descriptive ethics

Descriptive ethics

Descriptive ethics, also known as comparative ethics, is the study of people's beliefs about morality. It contrasts with prescriptive or normative ethics, which is the study of ethical theories that prescribe how people ought to act, and with meta-ethics, which is the study of what ethical terms and theories actually refer to. The following examples of questions that might be considered in each field illustrate the differences between the fields:
Descriptive ethics: What do people think is right?
Normative (prescriptive) ethics: How should people act?
Applied ethics: How do we take moral knowledge and put it into practice?
Meta-ethics: What does 'right' even mean?

What are descriptive ethics?

Descriptive ethics is a form of empirical research into the attitudes of individuals or groups of people. Those working on descriptive ethics aim to uncover people's beliefs about such things as values, which actions are right and wrong, and which characteristics of moral agents are virtuous. Research into descriptive ethics may also investigate people's ethical ideals or what actions societies condemn or punish in law or politics.

Because descriptive ethics involves empirical investigation, it is a field that is usually investigated by those working in the fields of evolutionary biology, psychology, sociology or anthropology. Information that comes from descriptive ethics is, however, also used in philosophical arguments.

Value theory can be either normative or descriptive but is usually descriptive.

Lawrence Kohlberg: An example of descriptive ethics

Lawrence Kohlberg is one example of a psychologist working on descriptive ethics. In one study, for example, Kohlberg questioned a group of boys about what would be a right or wrong action for a man facing a moral dilemma: should he steal a drug to save his wife, or refrain from theft even though that would lead to his wife's death Kohlberg's concern was not which choice the boys made, but the moral reasoning that lay behind their decisions. After carrying out a number of related studies, Kohlberg devised a theory about the development of human moral reasoning that was intended to reflect the moral reasoning actually carried out by the participants in his research. Kohlberg's research can be classed as descriptive ethics to the extent that he describes human beings' actual moral development. If, in contrast, he had aimed to describe how humans ought to develop morally, his theory would have involved prescriptive ethics.

Descriptive ethics and moral relativism

Descriptive ethics is often used in arguments that are intended to support moral relativism (a meta-ethical theory about the nature of right and wrong). Such arguments can take several forms, but tend to resemble the following:
Premise 1: Europeans believe it is wrong to put old people out in the cold to die.
Premise 2: The Inuit believe that it is sometimes right to put old people out in the cold to die.
Premise 3: People in different cultures have different attitudes towards right and wrong.
Conclusion: What is right or wrong is determined by the culture you are living in.

This argument results from a confusion about the nature of descriptive and prescriptive ethics. The premises all refer to descriptive ethics; they refer to people's beliefs about what they believe is right to do. The conclusion refers to prescriptive or normative ethics; what people ought to do.(Edward Westermarck, Ethical Relativity)


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