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). – Mauro ALLEGRANZA Mar 29 '18 at 6:14

The quick answer is that as you use, or refer to, the terms there is no difference between 'analytic' and 'descriptive'. But let me go a little deeper.


'Analytic' has a wide variety of meanings. Perhaps still the commonest in philosophy is 'true by virtue of the meaning of words' as in 'A bachelor is an unmarried man'. But this is not the sense relevant to your question.

What you term 'descriptive' ethics, philosophers would call 'meta-ethics'.

Background : we certainly do 'conceptual analysis' in philosophy and this matches the sense of 'analytic' in your second paragraph. Conceptual analysis is not normative. It does not prescribe what we should or shouldn't do or what attitudes we should take. Rather, concepts and theories are classified; questions are exposed as ill-conceived, problems as spurious, unexpected presuppositions brought to light, inconsistencies disclosed, or reducibility revealed (where one theory is reducible to another).


This scrutinising activity is what we would contrast with normative ethics but we would not call it 'descriptive ethics'. What we would normally contrast with normative ethics is what has come to be called 'meta-ethics' : ethics that 'stands apart' from normative ethics and conducts the kind of scrutinising activity I've described.

'Descriptive' ethics, as you characterise it, doesn't seem to me to have much to do with philosophy, or philosophical ethics, at all. It's moral sociology or moral psychology.

In sum, 'normative' appears to have (roughly) the same sense in jurisprudence and ethics. But what corresponds to analytic jurisprudence is meta-ethics and not (at least as you've defined it) descriptive ethics.

Hope this helps. Comment if you need further clarification.

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