Descriptive Ethics and Lawrence Kohlberg's Moral Reasoning

By Sudheer Kumar K|Updated : November 4th, 2020

Descriptive Ethics is one of the branches of Ethics. Though Ethics is majorly concerned about Normative Ethics, It is important to understand the levels of moral reasoning, which is helpful for a better understanding and also writing UPSC IAS Ethics answers.

Descriptive Ethics

  • It is also called comparative ethics because it incorporates research from the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history.
  • It is the study of people’s views about moral beliefs.
  • In other words, it analyses ‘what do people think is right?’
  • Thus, the study of descriptive ethics involves describing people’s moral values and standards as well as their behaviour.
  • It is a form of empirical research into the attitudes of individuals or groups of people.
  • The empirical studies show that all societies have moral standards and rules, which advocate or forbid certain kinds of action. Also, these rules are supported by sanctions to ensure their enforcement.
  • Since it is comparative ethics, it studies the similarities and differences between the moral practices and beliefs of different societies and evaluates the development of the standards behind these practices.
  • The studies observe that every society has its own well-established set of social norms for telling truth, keeping promises, property rights, sexuality, family organisation etc.

Let us see the difference between Normative Ethics and Descriptive Ethics:

Normative Ethics

Descriptive Ethics

Study of ethical action

 Study of people’s views about moral beliefs

Analyses how people ought to act

Analyse what people think is right

Tries to evaluate or develop standard as to how people ought to act.

Describes the behaviour of the people and what type of moral standard they claim to follow


Lawrence Kohlberg's Moral Reasoning

Lawrence Kohlberg, a psychologist, had worked on Descriptive Ethics and described human beings' actual moral development. In an experiment he questioned some boys about what would be a right or wrong action for a man facing a moral dilemma: should he steal a drug to save his wife, or refrain from theft even though that would lead to his wife's death?

Kohlberg’s concern was not about which choice the boys made, but the moral reasoning they made that shaped their decision.

On the basis of his experiments, he described three levels of moral reasoning:

Level 1 (Preconventional Morality):

  • This is the basic level.
  • People under external controls (sanctions) obey rules or norms.
  • For example, Child avoids copying in the exam to avoid punishment.

Level 2 (Morality of Conventional Role Conformity):

  • As the child grows, he is likely to internalise the rules and standards of the authority. He is concerned about being good, pleasing peers, and maintaining social order.
  • Approval of society is the locus of control in his moral behaviour.
  • A secondary school-going boy avoids copying in exams, because his teacher, friends approve that behaviour.

Level 3 (Morality of Autonomous moral principles):

  • A grown-up boy, having learnt different moral standards and conflict between them, make his own judgement on the basis of moral reasoning considering the principles of righteousness, fairness and justice.
  • A young boy does not copy in the exam, because, he understands that it is not correct and it defeats the purpose of the exam.

Kolhberg observed that how people think about moral issues reflects their cognitive development.

He, therefore, concluded that people make moral judgments on their own, rather than internalising the standards of their parents, teachers and peers.

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