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Descriptive, Moral, and Normative Statements

The difference between descriptive, normative, and moral statements and a brief account of moral arguments
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We’ve been talking about domains that call upon our critical thinking skills in distinctive ways. In the previous two weeks, we talked about science and law. This week, we turn to morality. We said at the outset that we aim to give you the skills to ensure that you adopted true beliefs and rejected false ones. Obviously, some of the most important decisions we make about which beliefs to adopt, to reject, or to revise concern moral beliefs. Now, we are not going to try to convince you which moral beliefs you should adopt. Our aim here, as elsewhere, is to give you the tools to make those assessments for yourself.
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We start by saying something about what moral arguments are and how moral statements fit into them. Here are a couple of definitions to start with. A moral argument is an argument that includes at least one moral statement. A moral statement is a claim that something is morally good or bad, morally right or wrong, or has some other moral quality, such as being just, admirable, or blameworthy. It’s important to distinguish between moral statements and descriptive statements. The Earth orbits the Sun, for instance, is a descriptive statement. It just describes a relation between the Sun and the Earth. It doesn’t say anything about whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. Now, some descriptive statements describe moral states of affairs.
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Some people think abortion is wrong. That statement describes something that is good or bad, right or wrong. But the statement itself doesn’t take a stand on whether those things are good or bad. People on either side of the abortion debate could make that statement about the different views about abortion. It doesn’t say what people ought to believe. One last distinction, not all statements that attribute value to a thing or state of affairs are moral statements. Suppose someone says, Fargo was a better movie than No Country for Old Men. That’s not a descriptive statement. He’s not just describing. He’s saying something about the relative goodness and badness of the movies. But note that it’s not a moral statement either.
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People who say that sort of thing are probably saying that the characters and the plot in Fargo were more engaging than those in No Country for Old Men. They needn’t be saying anything about the comparative moral qualities of the two movies. Statements like that one about Fargo and No Country for Old Men are normative statements. They give an evaluation, saying that something is good or bad, better or worse, relative to some standard or alternative. Are moral statements normative statements? Well, yes. Moral statements express an evaluation. But not all normative statements are moral statements. It depends upon whether the standard against which something is being assessed or evaluated is a moral standard.
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A descriptive statement gives an account of how the world is without saying whether that’s good or bad. A normative statement expresses an evaluation, saying that something is good or bad, better or worse, relative to some standard or alternative. A moral statement is a claim that something is morally good or bad, right and wrong, or has some other moral quality, such as being just, admirable, or blameworthy. All moral statements are normative statements. But not all normative statements are moral statements. A moral argument is an argument that includes at least one moral statement. We’ll make use of these distinctions and definitions in the next clip on the is-ought problem.
We’ve been talking about domains that call upon our critical thinking skills in distinctive ways. In the previous two weeks, we talked about science and law. This week, we turn to morality. We said at the outset that we aim to give you the skills to ensure that you adopted true beliefs and rejected false ones. Obviously, some of the most important decisions we make about which beliefs to adopt, to reject, or to revise concern moral beliefs. Now, we are not going to try to convince you which moral beliefs you should adopt. Our aim here, as elsewhere, is to give you the tools to make those assessments for yourself. So, this week, we aim to help you to:
  • Identify the uniqueness of moral reasoning.
  • Become aware of the Is-Ought problem.
  • Explain Relativism – Subjectivism, Reflective Equilibrium and the Naturalist Fallacy.

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Logical and Critical Thinking

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