Encyclopedia of Business Ethics
Definitions and Concepts
Descriptive ethics can broadly be thought of as the study of morality and moral issues
from a scientific point of view. It can be thought of as the branch of ethics that attempts to
develop conceptual models and test those models empirically in order to enhance our
understanding of ethical or moral behavior, moral decision making, and more broadly moral
phenomena. This area or branch of ethics might also be referred to as behavioral ethics.
Descriptive or behavioral ethics, then, describes and explains moral behavior and phenomena
from a social science perspective or framework.
One might distinguish morality from ethics. Morality can be thought of as the set of
norms, rules, standards, principles, or values that guide adherents in their behavior as to what is
right and wrong, good and bad, or appropriate and inappropriate behavior. In this sense virtually
every human has some morality or moral code. Or morality might be considered the practice of
such moral codes among members adopting such standards or codes. To the extent that the
practice of business has such a code or set of norms, we might refer to that practice or practices as
“business morality.” “Ethics” may be thought of, then, as simply the study of morality.
Accordingly, ethics is critical reflection or critical analysis of moral issues and moral phenomena.
Further, business ethics then can be defined as the study of moral issues in a business context, i.e.
an applied area of ethics or ethical inquiry. Organizational ethics can be thought of as studying
moral issues in a broader organizational context.
To position descriptive ethics, we may distinguish different approaches to studying moral
issues and phenomena. One distinction is between normative and descriptive or behavioral
ethics. Critical reflection that attempts to answer questions as to what is right or wrong, good or
bad, would constitute normative ethics. Such approaches are “normative