De-scription versus Pre-scription - and other Ethical Confusions

Exponential advances in technology are vastly improving our lives. Sadly, at the same time, lack of progress in moral theory is undermining this bonanza – in fact threatening our very survival.

There are many reasons for ethics' stagnation - the following I consider prime suspects:

  • Lack of definition of the terms used.
  • Confusion caused by the deeply ingrained idea of 'duty ethics'.
  • The misconception that (prescriptive) morality cannot be approached rationally, scientifically.
  • The almost universal lack of distinction between descriptive and prescriptive ethics (what is vs. what is desirable).

This essay focuses the last issue; others are covered in more detail elsewhere.

Definition: Morality is a set of principles that characterize behavior as right or wrong – good or bad. Ethics is the study of morality.

  • Principles are generalized rules - they have a wider range of applicability.
  • Morality comprises a number of principles, that may or may not combine to form a system. In reality, moral codes range from being arbitrary collections of contradictory rules, to evolved social customs, to explicit comprehensive integrated philosophies.
  • 'Behavior' judged by a moral code may include thoughts and beliefs ('Don't covet your neighbor's wife').
  • Morality usually applies to human action, but is sometimes expanded to include organizations and (intelligent) machines.
  • Lastly, there is the crucial meta-ethical issue of what right and wrong are measured against – the meaning of 'good'.

(My definition encompasses many interpretations and approaches that I regard as highly unworkable or undesirable.)

The Good - There are two basic views:

  • Consequentialist/ Teleological - The belief that things can only be judged as good (or bad) in relation to some end, goal, or standard - e.g. 'greatest happiness for the greatest number', 'perpetuation of the human race', 'furthering evolution', 'individual flourishing'.
  • Deontological/ Duty ethics - Good with a capital 'G'. The belief that things can be good for no further reason or purpose - 'good in themselves', 'good for goodness' sake', 'because we should - we have a duty'. Naturally, as soon as a reason is offered of why we should have a duty to something or someone, then such morality is re-classified consequentialist.

Duty ethics undermines reason. It represents an age-old mechanism of social control – be it in the name of paternalism or tyranny. It leverages our infantile conditioning of 'because I say so'. Any rational or scientific discourse must ultimately specify some standard or goal by which the actual or projected effectiveness of a moral code can be judged. Addressing the questions 'Good for whom?' and 'Good to what end?' are cornerstones of moral theory.

Description versus Prescription - Before I comment on the possibility of 'ethics as a science', I need to introduce the core issue of this paper: the crucial difference between principles that describe or explain behavior, and those that guide or prescribe. Fields such as sociology and evolutionary ethics concern themselves with what is, while moral philosophy addresses what ought to be. (Naturally, to the extent that what ought to be depends on the nature of things, including what is possible – like identifying limits of human adaptability - prescriptive morality too concerns itself with is)

As mentioned before, what ought to be – what is desirable – really consists of two fundamentally different issues: Firstly, the meta-ethical point of what we regard as good – our standard or goal. Secondly, identifying or discovering the set of principles we should adopt if we want to optimize our chances of attaining our goal. The rules or principles can be as mindless as citing 'the will of some god', as simplistic as 'the golden rule', as complex as a utilitarian happiness calculus, or as integrated and comprehensive as an Objectivist morality.

I believe that much discourse on ethics is largely wasted because these distinctions are not made. Worse, debaters frequently talk past each other being totally unaware of the issues. Confusion reigns supreme as purpose, motivation, and methods of discovery (implicit or explicit) may differ substantially.

Ethics as Science - Over the centuries epistemology has discovered certain universal methods of optimizing the acquisition of reliable knowledge – any kind of knowledge. Ethical knowledge is no exception. The most fundamental method is the use of logic to integrate numerous empirical observations. Inductive premises and deductive conclusions can then further be validated through consistency testing, experiments, and further observations. Our system of knowledge aims to be coherent (integrated and non-contradictory) and to correspond with reality. This approach is also called rationality - with science representing a specialization.

Almost everyone would agree that this is essentially the correct way to deal with descriptive ethics. However, many (if not most!) people allege that prescriptive ethics is different - that there are some transcendent, non-rational means of knowing right from wrong, or that for some (unspecified) reason logic does not apply. Suffice to say that I vehemently disagree with this view.

Even (or especially) the most value-laden and potentially subjective area of ethics – meta-ethics - requires reason. I do not know of any conclusive argument that demonstrates the existence of a single, ultimate interpretation of good which applies to everyone. It seems to be a tricky, unresolved debate whether long-term happiness, flourishing, or overall health/ well-being (what I call Optimal Living) are the most meaningful goals for a personal morality. However, rationality can certainly help us clarify these issues. It can identify harmful, unworkable or contradictory goals – and especially those that are firmly entrenched in society (such as blind obedience to some cause).

All ethical fields must be based on what is. They must take specific facts of a reality as a starting point. Descriptive ethics may go beyond that to formulate general theories of human conduct – what motivate us, and why we behave the way we do. These theories may be based on genetic, environmental/ social, or mental/ abstract factors. Most theories claim to have predictive power.

A rational prescriptive ethic – as opposed to an arbitrary set of commands – comprises the marriage of a specific meta-ethical goal with a system of behavioral principles aimed at achieving it (- or at least getting close to it). Such systems are inherently predictive.

Choice - While it may be argued (unsuccessfully, I contend) that descriptive ethics does not require humans to have freedom of choice, prescriptive ethics, on the other hand, directly implies an ability to choose actions. It makes no sense to talk about 'should do'' if there are no option open to us. In order to speculate about what is best for us we need to either accept the reality of volition, some more limited freedom to choose, or at the very least, assume that the 'illusion of freewill' is utterly pervasive (I take compatibilism to offer the most coherent position).

A rejection of choice manifests itself in the fact that most (descriptive) moral theories fall in the nature/ nurture camp – our genes and/ or our environment 'made us do it'. Only a few philosophers have elevated the debate to include the cognitive dimension: deliberate individual choice of value and behavior. While much of what we do can be explained at the lower level, a more comprehensive account must be formulated at a higher level of abstraction - such as values, thoughts, choices, etc. It is strange that while most researchers are happy with environmental explanations, they reject cognitive ones – even though both ultimately reduce to material causes.

(BTW, it is debatable whether 'evolutionary ethics' shouldn't be considered an oxymoron. Ethics, as a branch of philosophy, has traditionally concerned itself with 'ought', in clear contradiction to the choice-less determinism of evolution.)

Scope - Moral inquiry cover both group as well as individual behavior. While the former is important and serves as a foundation to politics & law, the latter is really the more fundamental issue: societies are made up of individuals. Descriptive ethics often relies heavily on statistics to describe morality, however, no explanation is complete without taking individual thought and action into account.

Prescriptive ethics on the other hand, totally relies on being able to influence the individual – it is the individual who has to change in order for any shared goal to be attained. In addition, if human flourishing is the goal of an ethic, then how can we possibly determine what will make for a society of happy or successful humans, if we don't address achieving this in the individual? It is unfortunate that many people mistakenly believe that there is a necessary dichotomy between what is good for the individual and what is good for the group (again, see my essay).

In addition to defining the personal vs. group focus, there are two other important dimension to scope: Firstly, how general or specific a given description or prescription is – whether it is at the level of principles, virtues, and character traits, or at the level of specific rules, situational deliberation, and utilitarian calculus. Secondly, there is selection of a time-horizon - addressing short-term vs. long-term consequences, costs and benefits.

Summary - Any constructive exploration of morality - be it human, organizational, or machine – has to be explicit about the following: Definition of all important terms. Whether it is descriptive or prescriptive. What means of knowledge acquisition is employed (reason/ scientific method, or feeling/ intuition, etc.). On prescriptive ethics discussions, both the standard of good (goal) needs to be defined, and the issue of choice/ freewill must be addressed. In addition, individual vs. group focus, and the moral principles' level of generality and time-horizon should be made explicit.

Peter Voss, 25 Jul 00