Robert Nozick provided an argument against Utilitarianism called Experience Machine. The argument involves only the "Is" part: "We have reason not to plug into the experience machine." But this makes us think that people ought not to plug into the experience machine.

Same applies to other ethical theories:

  • A virtuous human still may be wrong, therefore it's incorrect to rely only on virtues. So, we ought not to rely only on virtues.
  • People strive for pleasure, therefore it's not only reason that drives people. Thus, morality is not measured only by duties. And we ought not to do it.
  • It's impossible to predict consequences without some rules. Therefore consequentialism with no rules is wrong. And we ought to use some rules.

This can be expanded further, but I have no intention doing that. What I am asking is, is it really the case that the theory which has advantages (more objective) on descriptive part has advantages on normative part? Is it a good idea to use a more complete descriptive ethics as a foundation for normative ethics?


People use some kind of universal laws. Such laws like "do not murder", "do not steal", "do not rape", etc. These laws exist, because actions listed there can't be consensual (it is not stealing if you give a consent for someone to take your property). Therefore, we assume that consent is the basic principle when we act towards people. But surely, we should somehow punish guilty people, therefore consent is only required for acting towards innocent people. So, I formulate universal law of consent (of virtuous people): "Do not act towards innocent person without their consent".

How to decide if people give consent, if we acting towards person and what person is innocent is taken from intuitive people notions. Like, if your actions are not oriented towards people and their property, it's not covered with this law.

I placed "of virtuous people" because someone may point out crimes happen. But crimes are committed by non-virtuous people or either they are not really crimes (you may think someone who is beating another person is bad but rethink it when you acknowledge the person he is beating was offender).

Note, that all I say is "Is" part. Even my universal law, it's just a possible explanation what happens in society, like Relativity is possible explanation what happens in physics.

The principle is to show people facts about how decisions are made in society and let them themselves decide what they are ought to do. Like when you say in the game "This move will make you lose" and they themselves decide that they should make another move.

  • What do you mean with "wrong on the descriptive part" ? Assume that we have the norm "Do not kill"; but many killings happen. Thus, we have to conclude that the norm is wrong ? I think that "norms" do not works like "laws" of natural science, where an hypothetical law allowing wrong predictions must be discarded because contradicted by facts. May 14, 2018 at 14:20
  • @MauroALLEGRANZA, although many killings happen, very few people agree it is right to kill innocent human. Therefore, I don't see how is this wrong: it's much more right than the opposite.
    – rus9384
    May 14, 2018 at 14:23
  • Perfet. Thus, again what do you mean with "wrong on the descriptive part" ? Do you mean Descriptive ethics : "the study of people's beliefs about morality" ? May 14, 2018 at 14:26
  • 1
    Look at Greene's analysis of recent findings in moral psychology: "Moral philosophers, from Plato on down, have relied on their intuitive sense of right and wrong... The relevance of science, then, is that it can tell us how our moral intuitions work and where they come from.... Understanding the source of my moral intuitions shifts the balance... in a more Singerian, consequentialist direction. As a result of understanding the psychological facts, I’m less complacent about my all-too-human tendency to ignore distant suffering".
    – Conifold
    May 16, 2018 at 21:13
  • 1
    You may also find interesting Wildman et al. survey of the recent work in moral psychology that covers broader range of topics
    – Conifold
    May 16, 2018 at 23:45

2 Answers 2


I think descriptive and normative ethics are inseparably interactive, mutually elucidatory.

Take the idea of positive discrimination. This was not an idea generated within normative ethics. It arose from the struggle by and on behalf of disadvantaged groups, usually minorities. Groups which had been historically disadvantaged should have extra advantages now as compensation; that was an idea that emerged from ground-level, non-philosophical argument.

Its role in descriptive ethics was taken up, systematised and refined in normative ethics, where also moral objections came to light. (If I belong to a historically privileged group, I have no responsibility for past injustices to any group. It was all before my time. Yet if I am in competition for a job with a member of a historically disadvantaged group, I as an individual am discriminated against under positive discrimination.) Systematised and refined, and explored for objections, in normative ethics the concept of positive discrimination gradually modulated in descriptive ethics. So here a transfer from descriptive ethics to normative ethics and back to descriptive ethics, and there will doubtless be a return of the concept to normative ethics as its ground-level use changes.

Equally the idea of duty was around long before Kant. It was a thriving concept within descriptive ethics. But it took Kant to refine the concept by connecting it with rationality in his normative ethics, and detaching it from consequences : duty is never specified by the results that follow from it. Kant's revised concept fed back into descriptive ethics, though without enjoying universal consensus. But Kant theorised and refined this everyday moral concept in ways that are still powerfully influential.

From the other side, descriptive ethics can disturb the equilibrium of normative ethics by presenting cases, examples from real life, that a particular normative theory or whole family of such theories cannot deal with - at least as they stand. Tom Sorrell calls such cases 'moral anomalies'; and they include in recent times moral claims, problems and questions raised by feminism, by recent developments in advanced capitalism, and by global environmental issues. Normative ethics is trying, or struggling, to assimilate such matters and to respond coherently and cogently to them.


Tom Sorrell, Anomaly in Moral Theory, Published by Somerset, New Jersey, U.S.A.: Blackwell Pub (2000) ISBN 10: 0631218343 ISBN 13: 9780631218340


Finding an ethical theory that rationally satisfies the competing demands of materialism and humans' sense of right and wrong has always been challenging. Attempts to do so include Utilitarianism, Nihilism (according to my understanding of Nietzsche's "will to power"), just-do-gooderism, environmental normative ethics, successism, and many other thoughts (well-explored in the literature or otherwise).

Would the ethics which are wrong on the descriptive part be wrong on normative part?

Another way of putting this might be, "how can I be obligated to do something that doesn't make any sense?" This is a good question, and one that I don't think is well-answered by folks who deny the rationality and evidence-basis for religion.

Normative ethics can be described objectively by finishing the "ought" clause. For example: you ought to put in all the rebar specified by the engineer, if you want the concrete to withstand an earthquake; you ought to finish your vegetables, if you don't want to get constipated; you ought to write a thank-you note, if you want your friend to know he or she is appreciated. You ought to do the right thing, if you don't want to be punished for doing the wrong thing.

If you can't finish the "ought" clause, then that's objectively a problem either with the "ought" or with your worldview.

I think that the Christian basis for ethics is rationally satisfying on all grounds, both on its similarities with other systems (which are many) and on its peculiarities. The strongest peculiarity of Christian ethics is the perception that ethics are judged by a person who is both unmovably perfect and impossibly generous.

The personal nature of the judge is a clear defeater for objections to normative ethics such as "if X is okay for people in Exampleistan, how could X be wrong for people in Counterexampleia?" A personal judge knows that doing X is either wrong or not based on the invisible conception of X in a person's moral thinking, not just based on what appears on some normative text which suffers every kind of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

  • Well, I agree it's challenging task. But I see in everyday life most people referring to common sense, take virtues, participants, actions, reasons, abilities, situation, consequences and laws into account. There are quite many problems with Christian ethics and first of them is to believe they really are given by God. I prefer to believe in Common Sense.
    – rus9384
    May 14, 2018 at 15:59
  • Other people have reversed that objection and said that the sticky nature of ethics is one reason to believe that God cannot not exist. The trouble with subjective ethics, without a universal personal judge, is the possibility of corruption, either by a person's weaknesses or by his or her faults. May 14, 2018 at 16:03
  • Well, I propose that ethics (all the things I listed people take into account) is the result of evolution. And evolution clearly is not over. All that movement from what people were at the start and in what direction they have moved led me to the thought that the purpose is harmonic society (and many people would admit it). But I don't see any formal ethics that can be used in order to bring us closer to such society. Instead, they are ethics which only can be used in such society or cannot be used at all.
    – rus9384
    May 14, 2018 at 16:09
  • Do you think that the Golden Rule ("do unto others as you would have them do to you") is good? Let's define "a good rule" as a rule that will benefit any society proportionally to its use, no matter how many people are practicing it or how well or how much they practice it. May 14, 2018 at 16:15
  • "Do not act towards innocent person without their consent" seems to be "a good rule". Anyway, your definition of "good rule" is a good one. A more proper term here is not good, but helpful (in the sense of biology, evolution and survival). There are other rules, ones involving innocent people and others involving guilty people.
    – rus9384
    May 14, 2018 at 16:22

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