From: A Brief Introduction to Law in Canada (2017). p. 6 Bottom. Publisher uploaded chapter 1.

  We can define morality as a system ofvalues or principles concerning what is right or wrong with respect to human behaviour. Morality can be viewed from two perspectives: descriptive or normative.
  When we consider morality from a descriptive perspective, we are simply observing what a particular community believes to be right or wrong. We are offering no judgments or endorsements of these beliefs. We are describing things as they are.
  When we approach a moral system from a normative perspective, we believe it to have an objective truth, or to set an ideal standard. We accept it and are invested in it. A moral code viewed in this light tells us how we should behave. Conduct that offends the code is considered immoral.

p. 11 Bottom.

Jurisprudence—the philosophy or science of law—and the theories that compose it are our concern in this section. There are many theoretical approaches to the law, and there is some overlap with justice theories. A common way of classifying theories of law is to divide them into two main categories: analytic and normative. Analytic theories are concerned with what the law is, while normative theories are concerned with what the law ought to be. The two are not mutually exclusive. There are hybrid theories—such as feminist legal theory—and other theories, such as legal realism, that seem to challenge or subvert the dis- tinction between analytic and normative.
  Analytic jurisprudence generally concerns critical, explanatory, and value-free assess- ments of the law. It may involve, for example, examining the internal logic of a system of rules. Sometimes the investigations are more empirical in nature—that is, concerned with experience or observation rather than with theory. The common thread between analytic theories of law is that they do not involve value judgments. They are concerned with what law is, not what it ought to be.

In the context of philosophy (and not writing), how does 'descriptive' differ from 'analytic'? I can't spot any distinction from the overhead quotes, which ostensibly uses them both to signify 'critical, explanatory, and value-free assess- ments'.

  • See Is–ought problem as articulated by Hume and regarding the distinction "about what ought to be, based on statements about what is. Hume found that there seems to be a significant difference between positive statements (about what is) and prescriptive or normative statements (about what ought to be)". In the context above, "analytic" is used in the sense of descriptive (vs normative). Mar 29 '18 at 6:14

To describe a society's morality, or the actually existing moralities of a range of societies, has nothing directly to do with philosophy at all. It belongs to the sociology of morals or moral sociology. To describe a morality is not to do moral philosophy or ethics.*

Philosophy engages with morality in roughly two ways : analytic (or meta-ethical) and normative

For instance, analytic philosophy examines the sense or meaning, or the conditions for application, of a concept or the conditions on which a sentence or proposition can be true or false. (Not whether a particular sentence or proposition actually is true or false.) Take this as a rough indication. Analytic philosophy, at least according to its own lights, is non-valuational. If an analysis of 'freedom' is something like : 'S is free to do or to refrain from doing X just in case that S is not prevented from doing or refraining from doing X by external impediments (S is under someone's physical control) or by internal psychological factors (S suffers from some addictive condition)', there is no implication that freedom is a good thing always, sometimes or never. The analytic philosopher tells us, or tries to, what freedom is; its normative status is irrelevant to his or her analytic inquiry.

In contrast when a philosopher recommends or defends freedom as a social value or as a part of the good life then s/he is doing normative ethics.

In much the same way, I take it, when jurisprudence examines the nature of law - say, the logical form which a rule has or even must have if it is to count as a law or its connection if any with the idea of sovereignty - we have cases of analytic jurisprudence. The analytic jurisprudentialist is telling us what law is, or might be, not whether it is a good thing.

Normative jurisprudence by contrast considers among many other matters whether law is a valuable social institution and undertakes its defence.

On these lines 'analytic' and 'normative' have exactly matching uses in law and philosophy. Keep 'descriptive' sociology out of the picture and your problem should disappear.

* The only use I might be able to find for 'descriptive philosophy' is a certain approach to the *history of philosophy' where the aim is to ascertain and state as clearly and exactly as possible what a philosopher meant but without any commitment to its validity or fruitfulness.


Description is part of analysis. For instance, we know that the UK uses 'common law' and that Saudi Arabia uses 'sharia law,' but those two terms are meaningless unless we give a descriptive account of each. These accounts cover the basic tenets, principles, and ideals of each system, without value judgement; generally they reach for universals and avoid getting involved with pragmatic implementations of interpretations.

Once description is done, we begin analysis: looking for internal consistencies and inconsistencies within each description; examining different interpretations, intuitions, and pragmatics of the systems; comparing the systems for commonalities and differences.

At the end of analysis we begin the normative process, weighing and deliberating what we analyzed in order to accept, reject, or alter various components of the systems.

The conceptual problem, of course, is that most people are steeped within a given system, and deal with that system normatively without any of the philosophical process of description or analysis. Someone raised under sharia might very well believe it is the correct system and the UK system is flawed; someone raise under common law might very well thing believe the reverse. That is why value-free description and analysis is so important to the philosophical approach. We must step outside our preconceptions and develop a normative view, not merely embrace the normative view handed to us by society.

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