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What is Prescriptive Ethics?

Prescriptive ethics, which is often referred to as normative ethics, aims to understand human behaviour by establishing what actions are right, wrong, good, or bad. 

Much like the purpose of medical prescriptions that solve physical and mental health problems, this branch of ethics ‘prescribes’ or guides you towards making moral decisions.

It provides a framework for how individuals ought to behave by determining right or wrong conduct and promoting moral behaviour in various contexts. 

Prescriptive Ethics & Ethical Decision Making

Prescriptive ethics equips us with the ethical reasoning skills necessary for effective decision-making;

  • It presents various ethical frameworks that guide decision-making

  • It offers moral guidelines and principles to help evaluate actions as right or wrong

  • It encourages individuals to reflect on and improve their moral values, beliefs, and behaviours

Difference between Prescriptive and Descriptive Ethics

Prescriptive Ethics

Descriptive Ethics


Recommends (or prescribes) specific moral principles, rules, or guidelines that individuals should follow. 

Analyses (or describes) existing moral beliefs, practices, and behaviours within societies without making judgments about their validity or prescribing how people ought to behave. 


Aims to provide guidance on how to behave in various moral dilemmas or situations.

Provide explanations for why people hold certain moral beliefs or engage in particular moral behaviour.


Involves philosophical reasoning, ethical theories, and normative frameworks to determine principles or rules that should guide moral decision-making. 

Employs empirical methods like surveys, observations, or anthropological studies to analyse moral phenomena.

Types of Prescriptive Ethics 

  • Utilitarianism advocates actions maximising overall happiness or utility. It focuses on judging the moral worth of the result or outcome rather than the action itself. Example: Donating to a charity that helps thousands of people instead of spending the same amount on personal luxury aligns with utilitarian principles.

  • Deontology, conversely, focuses on judging the action itself, regardless of the consequence or outcome. Example: Refusing to lie to protect a friend's feelings. This would violate the moral principle of truthfulness, regardless of consequences.

  • Virtue ethics focuses neither on action nor outcome but on character traits and moral virtues like courage or honesty.  Example: A person who chooses to donate anonymously is motivated by a deep sense of compassion and generosity rather than seeking recognition or praise.

The various approaches within prescriptive ethics provide different perspectives on what makes an action morally right or wrong. 

Remember that these theories can overlap and interact with each other, and it is up to us to draw upon single or multiple ethical frameworks depending on the context and circumstances.


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