What can the Social Sciences Contribute to the Study of Ethics? Theoretical, Empirical and Substantive Considerations



This article seeks to establish that the social sciences have an important contribution to make to the study of ethics. The discussion is framed around three questions: (i) what theoretical work can the social sciences contribute to the understanding of ethics? (ii) what empirical work can the social sciences contribute to the understanding of ethics? And (iii) how does this theoretical and empirical work combine, to enhance the understanding of how ethics, as a field of analysis and debate, is socially constituted and situated? Through these questions the argument goes beyond the now commonly cited objection to the over-simplistic division between normative and descriptive ethics (that assigns the social sciences the ‘handmaiden’ role of simply providing the ‘facts’). In extending this argument, this article seeks to establish, more firmly and in more detail, that: (a) the social sciences have a longstanding theoretical interest analysing the role that a concern with ethics plays in explanations of social change, social organisation and social action; (b) the explanations that are based on the empirical investigations conducted by social scientists exemplify the interplay of epistemological and methodological analyses so that our understanding of particular substantive issues is extended beyond the conventional questions raised by ethicists, and (c) through this combination of theoretical and empirical work, social scientists go beyond the specific ethical questions of particular practices to enquire further into the social processes that lie behind the very designation of certain matters as being ‘ethical issues’.