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Descriptive ethics

Descriptive ethics

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Descriptive ethics, also known as comparative ethics, is the study of people's beliefs about morality
Morality
Morality is the differentiation among intentions, decisions, and actions between those that are good and bad . A moral code is a system of morality and a moral is any one practice or teaching within a moral code...

. It contrasts with prescriptive or normative ethics
Normative ethics
Normative ethics is the study of ethical action. It is the branch of philosophical ethics that investigates the set of questions that arise when considering how one ought to act, morally speaking...

, which is the study of ethical theories that prescribe how people ought to act, and with meta-ethics
Meta-ethics
In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics. Ethical...

, 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
Empirical
The word empirical denotes information gained by means of observation or experimentation. Empirical data are data produced by an experiment or observation....

 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 ideal
Ideal (ethics)
An ideal is a principle or value that one actively pursues as a goal. Ideals are particularly important in ethics, as the order in which one places them tends to determine the degree to which one reveals them as real and sincere. It is the application, in ethics, of a universal...

s or what actions societies condemn or punish in law
Law
Law is a system of rules and guidelines which are enforced through social institutions to govern behavior, wherever possible. It shapes politics, economics and society in numerous ways and serves as a social mediator of relations between people. Contract law regulates everything from buying a bus...

 or politics
Politics
Politics is a process by which groups of people make collective decisions. The term is generally applied to the art or science of running governmental or state affairs, including behavior within civil governments, but also applies to institutions, fields, and special interest groups such as the...

.what ought to be noted is that culture is generational and not static. therefore a new generation will come with its own set of morals and that qualifies to be their ethics. descriptive ethics will hence try to oversee whether ethics still holds its place in a new generation

Because descriptive ethics involves empirical investigation, it is a field that is usually investigated by those working in the fields of evolutionary biology, psychology
Psychology
Psychology is the study of the mind and behavior. Its immediate goal is to understand individuals and groups by both establishing general principles and researching specific cases. For many, the ultimate goal of psychology is to benefit society...

, sociology
Sociology
Sociology is the study of society. It is a social science—a term with which it is sometimes synonymous—which uses various methods of empirical investigation and critical analysis to develop a body of knowledge about human social activity...

 or anthropology
Anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

. Information that comes from descriptive ethics is, however, also used in philosophical arguments.

Value theory
Value theory
Value theory encompasses a range of approaches to understanding how, why and to what degree people should value things; whether the thing is a person, idea, object, or anything else. This investigation began in ancient philosophy, where it is called axiology or ethics. Early philosophical...

 can be either normative or descriptive but is usually descriptive.

Lawrence Kohlberg: An example of descriptive ethics


Lawrence Kohlberg
Lawrence Kohlberg
Lawrence Kohlberg was a Jewish American psychologist born in Bronxville, New York, who served as a professor at the University of Chicago, as well as Harvard University. Having specialized in research on moral education and reasoning, he is best known for his theory of stages of moral development...

 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
Moral relativism
Moral relativism may be any of several descriptive, meta-ethical, or normative positions. Each of them is concerned with the differences in moral judgments across different people and cultures:...

 (a meta-ethical
Meta-ethics
In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics. Ethical...

 theory about the nature of right and wrong). Some argue that ethical diversity between individuals and human cultures supports the theory that right and wrong are not absolute but relative. Morality is seen as relative to culture (an aspect of cultural relativism
Cultural relativism
Cultural relativism is the principle that an individual human's beliefs and activities should be understood by others in terms of that individual's own culture. This principle was established as axiomatic in anthropological research by Franz Boas in the first few decades of the 20th century and...

); sometimes it is seen as relative to each individual. This is taken to support the thesis that morality is a social construct, and thus relative to its users and their values, instead of being woven into the fabric of the Universe , a position championed by Moral Absolutism
Moral absolutism
Moral absolutism is an ethical view that certain actions are absolutely right or wrong, regardless of other contexts such as their consequences or the intentions behind them. Thus stealing, for instance, might be considered to be always immoral, even if done to promote some other good , and even if...

 and Divine Command Theory
Divine command theory
Divine command theory is the meta-ethical view about the semantics or meaning of ethical sentences, which claims that ethical sentences express propositions, some of which are true, about the attitudes of God...

.

See also

  • List of ethics topics
  • Meta-ethics
    Meta-ethics
    In philosophy, meta-ethics is the branch of ethics that seeks to understand the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments. Meta-ethics is one of the three branches of ethics generally recognized by philosophers, the others being normative ethics and applied ethics. Ethical...

  • Moral reasoning
    Moral reasoning
    Moral reasoning is a study in psychology that overlaps with moral philosophy. It is also called moral development. Prominent contributors to theory include Lawrence Kohlberg and Elliot Turiel. The term is sometimes used in a different sense: reasoning under conditions of uncertainty, such as...

  • Lawrence Kohlberg
    Lawrence Kohlberg
    Lawrence Kohlberg was a Jewish American psychologist born in Bronxville, New York, who served as a professor at the University of Chicago, as well as Harvard University. Having specialized in research on moral education and reasoning, he is best known for his theory of stages of moral development...