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Descriptive ethics deals with what the population actually believes to be right and wrong, and holds up as ideals or condemns or punishes in law or politics, as contrasted to normative ethics which deals with what the population should believe to be right and wrong, and such concepts as sin and evil. Society is usually balancing the two in some way, and sociology and social psychology are often concerned with the balance, and more clinical assessments and instruments to determine ethical attitudes.

Value theory can be either normative or descriptive but is usually descriptive.

Lawrence Kohlberg was a developmental psychologist who devised an influential theory about moral reasoning. He proposed that moral reasoning, which he thought to be the basis for ethical behavior, develops through stages. From the results of his studies at Harvard's Center for Moral Education, he concluded that there are six identifiable stages of moral development. In the lower levels, self-interest is the criterion which is used to judge the morality of actions, whereas abstract principles are more important in the higher levels.

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