Philosophy newbie here!

I was reading up on the very basics on ethics and the division to normative and descriptive struck me as odd.

From biological viewpoint the fundamental nature of this field seems much like upside-down mathematics: derivation from axioms vs discovery of axioms (=core values?) – "if you ask why long enough you arrive at 'just because'". Or alternatively, setting up (or describing) fundamental goals or valuation systems based on what satisfies the part of our brain that evolved to help us team up and survive as hunter-gatherers. Then building on top of that – describing derived goals or valuation systems on how to reach the axiomatic goals efficiently.

Is the nature of normative ethics the author prescribing their personal axioms (=descriptive ethics with n=1)? Does the field as a whole have a shared set of axioms and normative ethics argues over how to reach those efficiently? If so, is it to draw first level derivates from the descriptive side from sort of a popular vote and use those as a goal (with the sole axiom being to draw from descriptivism)? If so, to what extent are the conclusions universal versus a reflection of the author's time and society?

PS. This might be a stupid question in the sense that it's probably well covered in the literature, but was unable to find an answer with reasonable effort. Any recommended reading or general insights?


Welcome, Juho

Normative ethics is concerned with what we ought or ought not to do, what moral obligations we have, whether and on what conditions we should obey the law, whether and on what conditions abortion or euthanasia is morally permissible and so forth. It can operate at the level of moral principles or rules and moral values or hold (with ethical particularism) that there are no principles or rules but only moral considerations that are situation-specific.

There is no necessary connection between normative ethics and egocentricity in the sense that a normative ethicist is simply telling us what to do or not to do on the basis of 'personal axioms' or subjective preferences. Normative ethics often invokes a form of moral realism, i.e. the view that moral judgements can be true or false and that some not only can be but are known to be true. Whether any form of moral realism can be unheld is another, complex and disputed matter, but moral realism is integral to some theories of normative ethics. It may be that moral realism is incorrect (and morality is a product of evolution* or social conditioning) but if so, the case against it has to be made. It begs the question just to define or unqualifiedly characterise normative ethics as egocentric in your sense. (Just making a point, not criticising you.)

Descriptive ethics, by contrast, falls within the sociology or psychology of morals. It sets out to describe the moral life, indexed usually to a particular time or society, without being prescriptive - i.e. without the normative element of telling us what we ought or ought not to do, what moral obligations we have, &c. It presents a neutral picture what is held to be good or bad, right or wrong, in time or place.

Or at least it aims to do so. Some critics hold that there is no purely value-neutral vocabulary and that a descriptive ethicist reveals her values, including her moral values, in her (value-shot) descriptive account of the moral life - as well, some would add, in her selection of ethical data for description.

To the extent that value, including moral value, neutrality fails in descriptive ethics, the distinction between normative and descriptive ethics, however unintentionally, blurs. But in what they set out to do, they are different kinds of inquiry.


B. Rosen, Ethical Theory, London: Mayfield, 1993: 4-17.


*The Cambridge Handbook of Evolutionary Ethics, ed. M. Ruse & R.J. Richards, Cambridge: CUP, 2017.

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