Normative vs.

descriptive ethics
DEFINITION: Distinction between moral philosophies that tell people what they should do (normative ethics) and moral philosophies that merely describe what people already believe they should do (descriptive ethics). TYPE OF ETHICS: Theory of ethics SIGNIFICANCE: Descriptive ethical statements are generally taken to be judgments of fact which may be shown to be true or false. Normative ethical statements are much more difficult to prove, and for some moral philosophers, are statements of value which are neither true nor false. Normative ethics deals with the formulation of ethical codes of behavior and moral models of evaluative decision making. Normative ethics prescribes moral principles defining the good, the right, duty, obligation, law, and justice. A normative approach assumes the universality of its ethical principles and attempts 1048

to justify them on a rational basis. Christian ethics is a classic example of normative ethics. The following are normative moral utterances: “All promises ought to be kept.” “Killing another human being is wrong.” “Capital punishment is just because it deters crime.” “A father has a duty to provide physical support for his children.”Inall these examples, the common element is the prescription of a certain course of action or its evaluation. The most famous example of normative ethics is found in the Ten Commandments. DESCRIPTIVE ETHICS Descriptive ethics is ethics shorn free of prescriptive or evaluative elements. Descriptive ethics deals with the meanings of moral utterances, the relationships between them and moral actors, and the nature of moral argumentation. Descriptive ethics may take a sociological, psychological, ethnographic, or philosophic approach. A sociological analysis of ethics may concern itself with the relationship between moral behavior and social coercion. Psychology may deal with the relationships between moral behavior 

G. Naturalism holds that an object isvalued as good because it is desirable.” “virtue. Instead. Truth. Moore.” and “vice.” “right. therefore.” “justice. 1996. Hume relegated moral norms to the subjective domain. 1049 . Thomas Hobbes treated ethics as a descriptive science of the aversions and appetites of the human organism. ethical judgments are entirely subjective. only positing technological goals. A Treatise of Human Nature. it means that it is either pleasant or useful. distinguished between good and bad pleasures. thoroughly modernized and secularized ethics and philosophy. E. scientific claims involve arguments. in this view. normative ethics seems to have been made obsolete by Hume’s distinction—norms cannot be derived from facts. ed. One famous advocate of naturalism was David Hume. Ethical judgments only express the attitudes of speakers. is any object of human desire and appetite. Malden. 1980. New York: Cambridge University Press. Hume. This fallacy involves defining good in terms of something else.” One of the most formidable challenges to naturalism came from G. E. moral judgments are really judgments of taste. Mass. Karl-Otto. For Moore. As a result. Naturalistic analysis claims that the good and the right are determined by human appetites. Utilitarianism in the hands of Jeremy Bentham maintained a vulgar view that overvalued the quantitative aspects of pleasure. Dancy. if Apel is correct. London: V. Towards a Transformation of Philosophy. 2003. good was an indefinable quality. in contexts of communication in which certain ethical norms are. Candelaria FURTHER READING Apel. science is not value free and there cannot ever be a purely descriptive ethics. Hedonism equates good and evil with pleasure and pain. and Logic. DESCRIPTIVE ETHICS ism. Jonathan. Hobbes’s descriptive approach is made possible by his mechanistic view of the universe and human nature. Involvement in argumentation implies ethical claims such as truthfulness and sincerity. In fact. according to Hobbes. Reprint. In A Treatise of Human Nature and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. who. As Karl-Otto Apel points out. Whenever an object is judged to be good. science has claimed to be value free. Moore’s critique of naturalism is known as the naturalistic fallacy. ed. they only convey sentiments of approbation or approval. which holds that ethical judgments are only expressions of personal feelings of approval or distaste. their sense and pragmatic context.” One form of naturalism is emotivism. Language. Ayer. more than any other philosopher. The good. Michael R. Ethnography may study the relationships between ethical beliefs and culture and tradition.Ethics and the different stages of human growth and development. John Stuart Mill. presupposed. Normativity. Human behavior. The scientific grounding of ethics is impossible. Thus. 1936. London: Penguin. Rev. The proposition “X is good” means “I desire X. NATURALISM The descriptive approach that finds a natural cause for moral behavior is known as naturalism. Whatever produces pleasure is equivalent to the good. in Utilitarian NORMATIVE VS. Introduction by Ben Rogers. Science deals only with facts. but one can only ask with Apel: What about the criteria for and desirability of technological goals? Can science really free itself from ethics? As Apel claims. Gollancz. Arguments occur in speech situations. there can be no real ethical disagreements. Other persons are recognized as genuine subjects of communication. 2000. Translated by Glyn Adey and David Frisby. such as pleasure. 2001. In effect. London: Everyman. is motivated by aversion to fear and want and appetites for security and gain. “I would rather be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied. Philosophical analysis will tend to concern itself with the semantic meaning of moral utterances. Moore. in fact.” Hume concludes that ethical terms are not qualities of a special moral sense or predicates of ethical objects. an “ought” statement cannot be derived from an “is” statement. Intellectual and cultural pleasures are superior to mere physical pleasures. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. Principia Ethica. J. Since Hume and Max Weber. Hedonism is another form of naturalism. Morality is purely subjective. from the point of view of modern science. A. Hume attempts to answer the metaethical questions of the meanings of ethical terms such as “good. As Mill put it. This could lead to subjectivism and ethical relativism.: Blackwell. Thus. David. modern science will accept objectivity only in the mathematical and empirical sciences— not in morality.

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