Ethics: Descriptive, Normative, and Analytic

Which Choice is Right?
Which Choice is Right?. Mmdi/Stone/Getty

The field of ethics is usually broken down into three different ways of thinking about ethics: descriptive, normative and analytic. It isn't unusual for disagreements in debates over ethics to arise because people are approaching the topic from a different one of these three categories. Thus, learning what they are and how to recognize them might save you some grief later.


Descriptive Ethics
The category of descriptive ethics is the easiest to understand - it simply involves describing how people behave and/or what sorts of moral standards they claim to follow.

Descriptive ethics incorporates research from the fields of anthropology, psychology, sociology and history as part of the process of understanding what people do or have believed about moral norms.

Normative Ethics
The category of normative ethics involves creating or evaluating moral standards. Thus, it is an attempt to figure out what people should do or whether their current moral behavior is reasonable. Traditionally, most of the field of moral philosophy has involved normative ethics - there are few philosophers out there who haven't tried their hand at explaining what they think people should do and why.

The category of analytic ethics, also often referred to as metaethics, is perhaps the most difficult of the three to understand. In fact, some philosophers disagree as to whether or not it should be considered an independent pursuit, arguing that it should instead be included under Normative Ethics.

Nevertheless, it is discussed independently often enough that it deserves its own discussion here.  

Here are a couple of examples which should help make the difference between descriptive, normative and analytic ethics even clearer.

1. Descriptive: Different societies have different moral standards.

2. Normative: This action is wrong in this society, but it is right in another.

3. Analytic: Morality is relative.

All of these statements are about ethical relativism, the idea that moral standards different from person to person or from society to society. In descriptive ethics, it is simply observed that different societies have different standards - this is a true and factual statement which offers no judgments or conclusions.

In normative ethics, a conclusion is drawn from the observation made above, namely that some action is wrong in one society and is right in another. This is a normative claim because it goes beyond simply observing that this action is treated as wrong in one place and treated as right in another.

In analytic ethics, an even broader conclusion is drawn from the above, namely that the very nature of morality is that it is relative. This position argues that there are no moral standards independent of our social groups, and hence whatever a social group decides is right is right and whatever it decides is wrong is wrong - there is nothing "above" the group to which we can appeal in order to challenge those standards.

1. Descriptive: People tend to make decisions which bring pleasure or avoid pain.

2. Normative: The moral decision is that which enhances wellbeing and limits suffering.
3. Analytic: Morality is simply a system for helping humans stay happy and alive.

All of these statements refer to the moral philosophy commonly known as utilitarianism. The first, from descriptive ethics, simply makes the observation that when it comes to making moral choices, people have a tendency to go with whatever option makes them feel better or, at the very least, they avoid whichever option causes them problems or pain. This observation may or may not be true, but it does not attempt to derive any conclusions as to how people should behave.

The second statement, from normative ethics, does attempt to derive a normative conclusion - namely, that the most moral choices are those which tend to enhance our well-being, or at the very least limit our pain and suffering.

This represents an attempt to create a moral standard, and as such, must be treated differently from the observation made previously.

The third statement, from analytic ethics, draws yet a further conclusion based upon the previous two and is the very nature of morality itself. Instead of arguing, as in the previous example, that morals are all relative, this one makes a claim about the purpose of morals - namely, that moral exist simply to keep us happy and alive.