Descriptive ethics  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

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 relativism

Observations by descriptive ethics are often used as arguments for moral relativism (a meta-ethical theory about the nature of right and wrong). Observers often note the moral and ethical diversity between individuals and human cultures, and point to this diversity as supporting the theory that right and wrong are not absolute but relative. Most commonly, morality is seen as relative to culture (an aspect of cultural relativism); sometimes it is seen as relative to each individual. This, combined with the observation that it has not, throughout human history, been possible to find consensus on a single moral code, is often taken to support the thesis that morality is a social construct, and thus relative to its users and their beliefs and values, instead of being woven into the fabric of the Universe.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Descriptive ethics" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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