The Relation between Normative and Descriptive Ethics – A Consideration of Empirical Bioethics

Jon Hugaas
Bergen University
This article offers a discussion of the relevance of empirical studies to normative ethics focusing on the new trend in bioethics called empirical bioethics. The author sees this trend as an answer to a call made by anthropologists decades ago that ethicists should be more aware of the situatedness of the moral institution of life. Through a discussion of two opposing views expressed in the final publications of the EU-funded EMPIRE-project, the middle way is sought between the misconception of bioethics as pure philosophy on one side and the misconception of bioethics as sociology on the other. The author argues that empirical studies may be of relevance to the normative enterprise in at least three ways as illustrated in the EMPIRE-material. First, there is the relevance of empirical facts as descriptive premises in ethical arguments. Second, there is the relevance of empirical studies as means of mapping moral opinion and moral experience which ought to serve as one of two poles between which one oscillates in moral decision making – the other being the normative ethical theories. Third, there is the relevance of empirical studies of the capacity and function of the human mind, which may tell us something about the range of normative principles and rules.Keywords: Ethics, normative ethics, descriptive ethics, empirical bioethics
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