descriptive ethics



Descriptive ethics deals with what people actually believe (or made to believe) to be right or wrong, and accordingly holds up the human actions acceptable or not acceptable or punishable under a custom or law.

  • However, customs and laws keep changing from time to time and from society to society. The societies have structured their moral principles as per changing time and have expected people to behave accordingly.
  • Descriptive ethics is also called as comparative ethics because it compares the ethics or past and present; ethics of one society and other.
  • It also takes inputs from other disciplines such as anthropology, psychology, sociology and history to explain the moral right or wrong.


  • Prescriptive Ethics is the study of ethical theories that prescribe how people ought to act. It examines standards for the rightness and wrongness of actions.
  • Prescriptive ethics is also known as normative ethics. Normative ethics suggests punishment when a person deviates from the path of ideals.
  • Aristotle’s virtue ethics, Immanuel Kant’s deontological ethics, J S Mill’s Consequentialism {Utilitarianism) and the Bhagwat Gita’s Nishkam Karma yoga are some of the theories in Normative Ethics.
  • The Golden Rule is a classic example of a normative principle: “We should do to others what we would want others to do to us”.

Descriptive Ethics Vs Prescriptive Ethics

Descriptive and prescriptive ethics can be distinguished in the following manner

Descriptive Ethics Prescriptive Ethics


·       It is comparative in nature and describes what kind of moral beliefs exits in the society

·       This ethics focuses on people’s belief about morality.

·       It Describes and compares between objectives of different ethical theories.

·       It deals with ethical questions like what do people think is right.

·       Ex: Abortion is treated as unethical in some societies etc.

·       It is normative in nature which means it argues that what one ought to do and what one ought not to do etc.

·       It is concerned with the criteria of what is right or wrong.

·       It includes the formulation of moral rules based on which human actions should be based on.

·       It deals with ethical questions like how should people act? What is the correct action? etc.

·       Ex: One should not lie, one should not resort to corrupt practices in service etc.