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Humanities LibreTexts

1.10: Morality

  • Page ID
    92514
  • Morality is about what is right or wrong, what should or should not be done, and what rights or duties we might have. As such morality is normative and not purely descriptive. Descriptive statements describe facts without any value judgments. John hit Billy is a purely descriptive claim about a physical action. No value judgment is involved since the statement says nothing as to whether what is described is good or bad. But if we say it was wrong for John to hit Billy, then we have made a value judgment. Similarly, the following claims are all normative claims:

    • We should not torture babies for fun.
    • Age discrimination is wrong.

    Notice that descriptive claims about moral beliefs in themselves are not normative. The statement Peter thinks that abortion is wrong is a descriptive statement about one of Peters beliefs.There is not judgment of whether Peter is right or wrong so this is not a normative claim.

    Given that descriptive statements do not involve any moral judgments, we should be careful of arguments that rely on purely descriptive assumptions to derive a normative conclusion. One argument we discussed earlier is that it is wrong to create animals with human DNA because it is unnatural. But what counts as unnatural is unclear. If it is a matter of whether something occurs in the environment without human intervention, then the claim that something is or is not natural is a descriptive claim. This by itself has no normative consequences. To derive the conclusion that cloning is wrong, we need a normative assumption like unnatural things are wrong. But of course, such an assumption is questionable if not false.

    Similarly, many people often argue it is OK to kill animals and eat meat, because animals eat each other anyway, or that evolution is a matter of survival of the fittest. Again these arguments jump from purely descriptive claims to normative conclusions. Just because something happened quite a lot does not mean that it should be done. Some animals kill the weak and the old, or sometimes even eat their own offspring, but this does not mean we should do the same thing.To infer a normative claim, you need to make assumptions about values or about what is right and wrong. It is a mistake to try to derive normative claims solely on the basis of descriptive claims. Such a mistake is known as the naturalistic fallacy.

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