Prescriptive Vs Descriptive and Morality

People often say that there is no true universal morality...afterall, it's not written anywhere. You can't confirm it like physics. But trying to compare it to physics is the flaw. Physics is a descriptive set of laws. Morality is a prescriptive one.

There is nothing about morality, or any other prescriptive rules, that says that you should be able to observe morality (or other prescriptive rules) anywhere. The closest you can get to that is to have a set of basic moral rules and evaluate how more peripheral ones mesh with those.

Another hypothetical prescriptive rules set would be about how to maximize your profits in a particular enterprise. It is possible that in business there is one way or a few ways that reap maximum profits--more than any other method. If you accept this as true, then you must accept that there can be true, correct prescriptive rules.

The difference between this example and morality as that this example already has its value (money) defined, but morality is all about defining values, which makes it more complicated. It is much easier to figure out how to maximize a value than to figure out what we should value(because you don't have to understand the subjective qualities of emotion, for one thing), which is one reason why ethics are so hotly contested, and "How to run a bee farm in northern Oklahoma." is not (as well as the fact that most people don't care about bee farms :smile:).
 
1,899
0
Besides prescriptive and descriptive, there is also the explicit and implicit, deceptive and forthright, absolute and relative. If I publically publish something like "How to make anthrax for fun and profit" it is not simply a description unless I am a total fool unaware of world events. Likewise, I might intend something to be a prescriptive morality, only to discover that it merely describes the natural world. Thus, whether there is such a thing as an absolute distinction between the two is debatable.
 
1,469
0
Can there be a universal or absolute morality without bringing in religion reguardless of culture? Science or physics has nothing to do with it. This is pure philosophy. Is there a universal human right or wrong, morale or immorale governing our interaction with one another in a social or cultural context, in the way we use the earth and nature including animals?
Would such a code stem from objective or subjective views. Would it be marterialist or idealistic? If it were one or the other could we reach a consensus with the other side?
I have no idea. I've never really thought about it that much until these threads started popping up. I try to keep my personal bias out of the discussion and look at it from all sides. It seems the more we look at morales the bigger can of wiggly worms it becomes. Now we need to determine discriptive and prescriptive.

Difine prescriptive ,please, as used here.
 
1,469
0
I looked it up in an on line dictionary.

Discriptive morales would discripe how morale are ACTUALLY applied and used in real life.

Prescriptive morales would discribe what the morale code states and how morales SHOULD be applied and used.

Real world as compared to theoritical world. The example used was grammer. It seems to apply equally well here unless I'm missing something. Seems to me both terms work well with morality also and does not differentiate between physics as an example and codes of any kind. I believe there is prescriptive and descriptive aspects to all codes.
 

russ_watters

Mentor
17,952
4,449
Originally posted by Dissident Dan
There is nothing about morality, or any other prescriptive rules, that says that you should be able to observe morality (or other prescriptive rules) anywhere.
Well as I argued in my thread, you can observe whether or not morality (or politics, or economics for that matter) works in the same way as a science experiment. You can approach it scientifically.

The problem is simply a one of complexity. In a science experiment you can very precisely control the structure of the experiment in most cases. Clearly this is much tougher to do in morality or politics which is why there are so many different interpretations of the results of such experiments.

Perhaps though, you could give us your definition of the words. I am unclear on it and the dictionary didnt help much.
 
Last edited:
Descriptive talks about the way that things are, and prescriptive talks about the way that things should be--a command or request, I suppose.

Wu Li, about the antrhax thing, it seems that whether or not that is descriptive or prescriptive depends on how you word it, whether it's "you do this and then that," or "this and then that are done." The first is a command--prescriptive, and the second is a description. Of course, either one can be used for the same purpose, but this is digressing from the my purpose for the words "prescript" and "descript."

-------------

Russ, the only problem that I see with your method is that you must have values that you consider to be important in order to judge how well a code of behavior works, and deciding on values is a big part of morality.
 

russ_watters

Mentor
17,952
4,449
Originally posted by Dissident Dan
Russ, the only problem that I see with your method is that you must have values that you consider to be important in order to judge how well a code of behavior works, and deciding on values is a big part of morality.
My basic criteria was simply that the civilization doesn't destroy itself. Hitler's Germany for example was destroyed by Hitler's view of morality. I realize its still a pretty complex evaluation method, but I think it can work.

Anyway, re: prescriptive vs descriptive. Is an hypothesis prescriptive? Its a description of how you THINK something works. Once verfied, then wouldn't it go from prescriptive to descriptive? I think morality (and politics) works the same way.

I always used to laugh at the idea that Political Science is a science, but I'm changing my mind. Its a science, just not as exact a science as physics.
 
Originally posted by russ_watters

Anyway, re: prescriptive vs descriptive. Is an hypothesis prescriptive? Its a description of how you THINK something works. Once verfied, then wouldn't it go from prescriptive to descriptive? I think morality (and politics) works the same way.
That doesn't sound like a prescription to me...just a potential description. Now, if you were direct someone to carry out the experiment to test the hypothesis, that would be prescripting.
 

Another God

Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
975
3
Originally posted by russ_watters
My basic criteria was simply that the civilization doesn't destroy itself.
Both Russ and I have come to this conclusion independently of each other.

My rational for accepting this criteria as the method of assesment comes down to accepting that Descriptive is an objective game, while prescriptive is a subjective game. As such, the only grounds on which we should attempt decide the purpose of Society, is subjective ones. In otherwords, what do we, the members of any given society, want?

Long story short (you should be able to nut it all out for yourself really, this isn't tricky), we want to stay alive, and have our society provide us with the means to keep us alive, and people to keep us company while we are alive. To achieve these ends, the society must stay in existence mustn't it?

And so, with that end in mind, what steps/rules/etc must be taken/set up to reach that end? Well, abstractly, its bloody hard to say, but if you take the empirical evidence from the last 10,000 years, use a little bit of inductive logic etc, you might be able to formulate a reaonable social structure.

And thus we can use a scientific approach to Ethics, resulting in a prescription.
 
1,899
0
Originally posted by Dissident Dan
Wu Li, about the antrhax thing, it seems that whether or not that is descriptive or prescriptive depends on how you word it, whether it's "you do this and then that," or "this and then that are done." The first is a command--prescriptive, and the second is a description. Of course, either one can be used for the same purpose, but this is digressing from the my purpose for the words "prescript" and "descript."
Possession is nine tenths of the law, while intent is the last tenth and the hardest to prove.

Am I being sincere or sarcastic? Is this question rhetorical? Only I can say for sure, and I could easily lie to myself much less you. Thus, whether something is prescriptive or descriptive cannot be determined using linguistic analysis alone, one must also study behavior. As it is, there is only one philosophy that correlates both, Functional Contextualism, and they don't have absolute frame of reference.

Thus, scientifically speaking, whether something is prescriptive or descriptive apparently depends upon our frame of reference. Is it mass or energy, space or time? The same relativism apparently applies to distinctions between the prescriptive and descriptive as well. The moral and amoral, etc. In the final analysis we must go with our feelings and experience.
 

Another God

Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
975
3
Originally posted by wuliheron
Thus, scientifically speaking, whether something is prescriptive or descriptive apparently depends upon our frame of reference. Is it mass or energy, space or time? The same relativism apparently applies to distinctions between the prescriptive and descriptive as well. The moral and amoral, etc. In the final analysis we must go with our feelings and experience.
I agree entirely that the status of a comment as descriptive or prescriptive lies entirely within the intent of the originator, but the purposes of Descriptive ethics and Prescriptive Ethics are entirely outside of such factors.

Descriptive Ethics has to do with how things are done, while prescriptive ethics has to do with how things should be done.

Do you contend that?
 
1,469
0
The way I understand it, and please correct me if I'm wrong is the prescriptive is the Law or Code, Thou Shalt's or Shall not's. Descriptive is how such codes are actually carried out in practice.

Rus and AG, I think we all agree about the "Prime Directive" of any society. There are secondary or corallary functions of a aociety that we could list and discuss priority and relavence forever. The question in my mind is given the scientific approach that Russ wants to take, how can we ever be sure that such a code would actually be the best possible code rather than just a successful code proven by the survival and success of that society? Could there be a code of morales or behavior that would be "better" or more successful? How could we measure such a thing to judge it by.
If we had super computers and a proven alogorithm, then we may be able to study such a problem and find the "best" solution. Reminds me of Asimov's Foundation Series and it's psycho-history. I think we have a ways to go yet.
 

russ_watters

Mentor
17,952
4,449
Originally posted by Dissident Dan
That doesn't sound like a prescription to me...just a potential description. Now, if you were direct someone to carry out the experiment to test the hypothesis, that would be prescripting.
Ok, thats fine - that makes morality descriptive (under my theory).
In otherwords, what do we, the members of any given society, want?
And didn't we agree that pretty much all people want pretty much the same things? So subjective becomes objective, doesn't it?
The question in my mind is given the scientific approach that Russ wants to take, how can we ever be sure that such a code would actually be the best possible code rather than just a successful code proven by the survival and success of that society?
Well, there is no such thing as perfect. THE absolute morality might very well be something approached asymptotically (sp?). The moral codes will keep getting better and better, getting closer and closer to The moral code, but never quite becoming perfect.
 
1,469
0
Rus, given our agreement that the, our morale/ethics codes are in fact evolving right along with human society, then yest hopfully they will approach the absolute or perfect code. My point or question is that we can never really know what the perfect code(s) or how close we are approaching it if at all, can we, without defining that perfection?
 

russ_watters

Mentor
17,952
4,449
Originally posted by Royce
My point or question is that we can never really know what the perfect code(s) or how close we are approaching it if at all, can we, without defining that perfection?
I think we can know how close we are because the closer we get, the slower it changes and the closer together different peopel's/society's moralities get.
 

Another God

Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
975
3
Originally posted by russ_watters
I think we can know how close we are because the closer we get, the slower it changes and the closer together different peopel's/society's moralities get.
I think you are looking at it all wrong russ. You are looking at it as if it is all on one great big sliding scale. As if the morality faced by an individual is the same as the morality faced by a tribe of 50 people is the same as the morality faced by a global community. Do you really think the moral prescriptions are identical for all of these cases?

What I believe is more likely, is that morality 'adapts' just like organisms do for evolution. Given any environment, there is a selective pressure to adopt particular characteristics which are similar to the characteristics already within a society. In this way, societies will over time enter 'Local Maxima', changing their characteristics as the local maxima changes in light of the changing environment (technologically, politically). Sometimes a society may find itself in the 'Global Maxima' of the fitness terrain: Having adopted the characteristics of the best possible set up, given the current environment.

But don't worry, things will change soon enough again, and it will have to adapt once again.

The biggest problem I see though, is that our environment is HURTLING forward, changing every bloody year. How often to societies undergo reformation? Very bloody rarely. So no society is anywhere near its local maxima, let alone anywhere near the global maxima....
 
1,469
0
rus, Good point. You may be right. As the world becomes more and more a global community ours morals are forced to evolve for our individual society to survive within AG's global community. With minor local variations the changing social, political and economic environment will apply the pressure of natural selection on every culture to adapt or die, moving us closer and closer to a common optimal morale and ethical code. Flexablity and adaptability has always been essential for survival. If and when a truly global community arises it will still have to remain flexable and adaptable. For this reason I think our morals will remain dynamic.
To become static is to die.
 

Another God

Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
975
3
Originally posted by Royce
To become static is to die.
Unless you expect our technology to stop advancing, and the universe to run to a halt completely, then I agree completely.

As long as the environment changes (and it will), we need to adapt ourselves to it.
 

russ_watters

Mentor
17,952
4,449
Originally posted by Another God
I think you are looking at it all wrong russ. You are looking at it as if it is all on one great big sliding scale. As if the morality faced by an individual is the same as the morality faced by a tribe of 50 people is the same as the morality faced by a global community. Do you really think the moral prescriptions are identical for all of these cases?
AG, you asked before:
In otherwords, what do we, the members of any given society, want?
...and I responded:
And didn't we agree that pretty much all people want pretty much the same things?
Didn't we? At the most basic, primal level, people want the same things. Human nature almost by definition is universal. That is my basis for the conclusion that morality derived from human nature is universal.
 

Another God

Staff Emeritus
Gold Member
975
3
But that only leads to a universal foundation for morality. Not a universal guide to the complete run down of morality. Just because we all, deep down, want the same stuff, doesn't mean that above that we all want the same rules.

Just because I don't want to die, and Christians don't want to die, doesn't mean that christians and I are on a united front against Euthanasia, Abortion and Embryonic Stem Cell research. In fact, the opposite is true.
 

The Physics Forums Way

We Value Quality
• Topics based on mainstream science
• Proper English grammar and spelling
We Value Civility
• Positive and compassionate attitudes
• Patience while debating
We Value Productivity
• Disciplined to remain on-topic
• Recognition of own weaknesses
• Solo and co-op problem solving
Top