Difference between descriptive ethics and normative ethics

What is the difference between descriptive ethics and normative ethics? What role do values play in each of these two approaches to ethics? Provide examples to illustrate your points.

Descriptive ethics is founded on the belief that humans are ‘hard-wired’ to be selfish. That is, they are for the most part absorbed in fulfilling their own desires and goals. The capitalist economy is a good example of this instinct in humans, whereby, ‘greed is good’ is an accepted mantra for business corporations and individuals alike. Descriptive ethics promotes a ego-centric decision making model, whereby, an individual is morally entitled to pursue his own happiness through independent action. Cultural relativism is another term coupled to descriptive ethics. This school of thought contends that what is right or wrong is specific to the particular cultural milieu. Normative ethics, on the other hand, takes a more didactic approach to human action in that it prescribes ‘what’ is morally right through rational deliberation. While descriptive ethics merely documents what people believe to be morally right, normative ethics tries to ‘find out’ if there is merit in such beliefs. In this light, it is fair to claim that the normative ethical framework is more rigorous and rationalistic than the descriptive ethical framework. Normative ethics thus offers a better model for decision making.

In practice, what can be said for and against utilitarianism, or a results-based approach to ethics?

The utilitarian totem is ‘greatest happiness for the greatest number of people’. This objective for the evaluation of ethics is very appealing intuitively. It is also politically consistent with principles of democracy. But the issues with Utilitarianism crop up due to qualitative factors. For example, what exactly does ‘happiness’ mean? Moreover, are the values and conditions that create happiness universally the same? Even further, why should happiness or pleasure or utility be the arbiter of morality? Indeed, the purpose of moral inquiry is not so much happiness but justice. Under utilitarian ethics, the ends always justify the means. But to the extent that the means involve human action and assent, normative ethical evaluation comes into play. So, practical issues such as this have given Utilitarianism the tag of being an idealistic or utopian ethical system.

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