Monday, December 7, 2009

Characteristics of an Ethical Sentence

The Descriptive VS the Normative

Normative: A normative statement, or question, or theory, concerns how things should be, how they ought to be, rather than how they actually are (a.k.a. evaluative prescriptive)


The opposite of “normative” is:

Descriptive: A descriptive statement, or question, or theory, concerns how things actually are, not how they ought to be (a.k.a.factual)


Ethical Sentence or Normative Statement:

We need to define an ethical sentence, also called a normative statement. An ethical sentence is one that is used to make either a positive or a negative (moral) evaluation of something. Ethical sentences use words such as ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’, ‘moral’, ‘immoral’, and so on. Here are some examples:

  • ‘Rashad is a good person.’
  • ‘People should not steal.’
  • ‘The Simpson verdict was unjust.’
  • ‘Honesty is a virtue.’
  • ‘One ought not to break the law.’


In contrast, a non-ethical sentence would be a sentence that does not serve to (morally) evaluate something. Examples would include:

· ‘Rashad is a tall person.’

· ‘Someone took the stereo out of my car.’

· ‘Simpson was acquitted at his trial.’

· ‘Many people are dishonest.’

· ‘I dislike it when people break the law.’


M1: A sentence expresses a moral judgment if and only if it contains a value term.

Ethics (morality) is normative (and not just descriptive). That is

· Moral judgments express norms.

· They do not just describe reality.

· They tell us what is right and wrong.

· What we ought to do

· What is permissible

· What is forbidden

· And so on….


To evaluate this principle, let us assume that such terms as right, wrong, obligatory, required, ought to, good, bad, wicked, virtuous, and so on are all value terms.(Notice, some of them are used to evaluate or prescribe actions; others to evaluate situations and outcomes; others to evaluate humans and their character. The evaluation of actions, situation, and humans are three main areas of ethical inquiry.)


M1 allows us to distinguish moral judgments from purely descriptive claims:

Moral judgments vs. “pure description”

Moral Judgments

Express norms and Evaluations

“Pure” Descriptions

Abortion is always wrong.

Abortions are frequent.

Everyone ought to love his neighbors.

Everybody loves somebody sometime.

Under certain circumstances, suicide is right.

Kevorkian assists people in their suicides.


Unfortunately, M1 does not allow us to distinguish moral evaluations (and judgments used to express them), from other norms.


Moral Judgment vs. other Norms:

Moral Norms

Other Norms

Abortion is always wrong.

I put in the timing gears all wrong.

Everyone ought to love his neighbors.

You ought to use more fertilizer.

Under certain circumstances, suicide is all right (morally permissible).

Under certain circumstances, suicide is legal (legally permissible).

Torturing babies is bad.

The acting was good but the lighting was bad.


M2: A sentence expresses a moral judgment if and only if it is about some moral issue.

M2 allows us to distinguish some moral norms from many norms that are not moral norms. E.g.: the following judgments do not express moral norms:

1. When rebuilding my engine, I put in the timing gears all wrong.

2. If you want larger yields, you ought to use more fertilizer.

3. He turned right at the corner.

4. The acting was good, but the lighting was bad.


Unfortunately, many judgments that are about moral issues are not in fact moral judgments. Here are some examples:

1. Abortion is illegal in some places.

2. Suicide occurs more frequently during economic depressions.

3. People sometimes request euthanasia for themselves.

4. Vigorous sexual activity can be good exercise.


M3: A sentence expresses a (valid) moral standard if

1. This standard concern behavior of serious consequence to human welfare;

2. It is especially important (overriding);

3. It is supported by good reasons.

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