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Descriptive Ethics

What are our ethical values?

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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.

Anthropologists and sociologists can provide us with all sorts of information about how societies past and present have structured moral standards and how they have expected people to behave. Psychologists can study how a person's conscience develops and how that person goes about actually making moral choices in real or hypothetical situations. Descriptive ethics also studies the codes of conduct created by professional organizations to regulate the conduct of members.

Descriptive ethics is sometimes referred to as comparative ethics because so much activity can involve comparing ethical systems: comparing the ethics of the past to the present, comparing the ethics of one society to another and comparing the ethics which people claim to follow with the actual rules of conduct which do describe their actions.

Strictly speaking, then, descriptive ethics is not entirely a field within philosophy - rather, it is more a specialty which involves many different fields within the social sciences. It is not designed to provide guidance to people in making moral decisions, nor is it designed to evaluate the reasonableness of moral norms. Nevertheless, actual work in moral philosophy cannot proceed very far without the knowledge gained from descriptive ethics.


In short, descriptive ethics asks these two questions:

1. What do people claim as their moral norms?
2. How do people actually behave when it comes to moral problems?


Here are some examples of statements from Descriptive Ethics:

1. Most Americans think that racism is wrong.
2. Among certain cultures, there is no stigma attached to homosexuality.
3. Stanley Milgram's study found a great discrepancy between what people claimed and what they actually did.

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