concepts section: copyright Robert Ellis 2009

Descriptive ethics

Descriptive ethics consists in moral philosophy that attempts only to describe or to analyse moral beliefs, without putting forward value claims. This is an approach to ethics that dominates moral philosophy in the analytic philosophical tradition (and is also often found in the continental tradition), as well as marking a more general common academic approach to ethics as found in religious studies, sociology or psychology. This approach is flawed and self-deluded, because it rests on the philosophical assumptions of the fact-value distinction. To have a descriptive ethics it must be possible to merely describe ethical beliefs and practices without putting forward value claims - but this is clearly not possible given that all "factual" claims are loaded with implied values, and that all value claims also imply facts.

This point is clear if ethical statements are examined, not in the decontextualised way common in analytic meta-ethics, but in their practical context. Even universally accepted factual statements (whether a posteriori or a priori) such as "Paris is the capital of France" and "2+2=4" cannot be asserted in any practical context without an implied assertion of the value of knowing these things also being made. If this is the case even with the most neutral-seeming factual statements, how much more value is loaded onto an apparently "neutral" statement about ethics such "Buddhists take nirvana to be the ultimate source of value". In making such a statement, the descriptive ethicist is implying the value of a separation from Buddhists, (either that of not being a Buddhist and looking at Buddhism from without, or at least one of taking a dispassionate view of Buddhism as though from without), and asserting that the speaker does not necessarily share the belief in nirvana as a source of value. It is also asserted as important to recognise this fact, probably as part of a set of facts about Buddhists.

By refusing any overt prescriptive line, descriptive ethicists delude themselves, and others, into the belief that they do not have a prescriptive line. Reading a whole paper or book by a descriptive ethicist in a given context can reveal a great deal more about the prescriptive line that is actually being taken. Unless the descriptiveness of the ethics is quite carefully circumscribed for a particular purpose, it is most likely that a descripive ethicist will effectively be putting forward relativism, the view that all moral views are of equal value. If no other prescriptions are ventured elsewhere, the descriptive ethicist effectively prescribes the default conventional ethics accepted by his/her group or society for him/herself, and the conventional ethics of other groups or societies for those living in them. Analysis of moral beliefs which appeals only to "our moral intuitions" further reinforces the conventional values of the author's society and sets them up as the norm. 

Relativism, whether implicit in descriptive ethics, or made explicit, is a metaphysical view that is no more justifiable through experience than the most dogmatic of religious or Platonic absolutes. One can no more attain prescriptive moral neutrality by refusing prescription than one can attain political neutrality by refusing to vote and condemning all parties, since our desires shape our actions as human beings, and whatever actions we take will express the partiality and the conditioned nature of those desires.

Descriptive ethics as an approach must also be condemned for encouraging the widespread confusion of objectivity with (unavoidably false) neutrality. Objectivity is found, not in the refusal of prescription, but in the justification with which we prescribe. Though there may be many practical situations where an avoidance of prescription is practically wise (such as in counselling), and scientific investigation often benefits from a suspension of judgement, this practical avoidance of prescription must be clearly distinguished from the philosophical approach of descriptive ethics applied universally, which is based on dogma.


Links to related discussion

Ethical coherentism (concept page)

Features of nihilism (from thesis)

Analytic philosophy (from thesis)

A Palace made of Sand

Learning from religion (a paper arguing against descriptive approaches to Religious Education)


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