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Descriptive, Normative and Analytic Ethics

Categorizing Ethics & Morality

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The field of ethics is usually broken down into three different ways of thinking about ethics: descriptive, normative and analytic. It isn't unusual for disagreements in debates over ethics to arise because people are approaching the topic from a different one of these three categories. Thus, learning what they are and how to recognize them might save you some grief later.


Descriptive Ethics
The category of descriptive ethics is the easiest to understand - it simply involves describing how people behave and/or what sorts of moral standards they claim to follow. Descriptive ethics incorporates research from the fields of anthropology, psychology, sociology and history as part of the process of understanding what people do or have believed about moral norms.

Normative Ethics
The category of normative ethics involves creating or evaluating moral standards. Thus, it is an attempt to figure out what people should do or whether their current moral behavior is reasonable. Traditionally, most of the field of moral philosophy has involved normative ethics - there are few philosophers out there who haven't tried their hand at explaining what they think people should do and why.

Analytic Ethics (Metaethics)
The category of analytic ethics, also often referred to as metaethics, is perhaps the most difficult of the three to understand. In fact, some philosophers disagree as to whether or not it should be considered an independent pursuit, arguing that it should instead be included under Normative Ethics. Nevertheless, it is discussed independently often enough that it deserves its own discussion here.

Examples
Understanding the how the exact same ethical question can be and is addressed in descriptive, normative and analytic ethics can be difficult until you have had some practice, so here is a series of easy examples which will help make the differences more clear.

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