Approaches to the Study of Morality

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  • 0:35 Study of Morality
  • 1:12 Descriptive vs.…
  • 3:43 Metaethics and Applied Ethics
  • 6:11 Lesson Summary
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Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Morality is an immense topic, so how do we begin to study it? In this lesson, explore four standard approaches to the study of morality, and test your understanding with a brief quiz.

The Study of Morality

Be healthy. That's a good rule to follow. But how do I know whether or not I'm being healthy? Well, I can talk to a physician, I can research healthy behaviors and lifestyle choices, or maybe I can observe the actions of healthy people. So, now I'm healthier, but not every important decision is as straightforward as being healthy. Try this one: be good. That's a bit harder. What is good? What is bad? This topic is much more controversial than health but just as important, so people put a lot of effort into defining good and bad, right and wrong. A system of inherent right and wrong is called morality. There are dozens of moral systems used around the world, so how do we sort them all out? Luckily, there are a few basic approaches to studying morality to get us going.

Descriptive vs Normative Ethics

So, you want to study morality. One of the best places to start getting a grasp on different theories of right and wrong is with the distinction between normative ethics and descriptive ethics. Normative ethics is the study of how people ought to act. Now, I know that sounds obvious; isn't that what all philosophers study? No. Normative ethics does not, for example, examine the ways that people actually act, or why people believe in certain moral principles. A study of normative ethics simply holds that some things are right and some things are wrong. So, when studying normative ethics, you'll be asking questions like 'What actions are morally good, and what actions are bad?', 'When, if ever, do people deserve rewards or punishments?' and most importantly, 'How should someone morally act in a certain scenario?' Obviously, there are many ways to answer each of these, so there are many types of normative ethics. But defining what exactly you're studying is helpful.

The opposite of normative ethics is descriptive ethics, or the study of why people behave in certain ways, what their moral beliefs are, and how they developed these beliefs. In short, in descriptive ethics you are not making moral judgments, and you're not claiming that people should act a certain way; you are simply observing how they act. Basically, descriptive ethics is all about describing. This is a much more scientific branch of ethics, using tools from psychology, communication, anthropology, sociology and even human anatomy and biology. So, descriptive ethics asks questions like 'What does this group believe about morality?', 'How does that influence their behavior?' or 'Why do different people have different moral beliefs?' While normative ethics often holds that some morals are universally objectively true, descriptive ethics observes that there are too many different moral systems for there to be a single universal morality.

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