why ambitious ethical theories don’t serve applied ethics

Most applied ethicists are skeptical that we can resolve significant problems by applying ambitious moral philosophies or theories of justice.

I report this skepticism anecdotally, but it comes from 15 years working in an applied ethics center and my peripheral involvement with educational ethics, media ethics, political campaign ethics, and related fields. People who teach ethics in college sometimes require students to apply the big moral theories to practical problems. (“What would Kant say about blockchain?” “What does utilitarianism imply about health reform?”) But these assignments are meant to convey the theories, not to resolve the problems. Professional ethicists rarely write their own “What would Kant say about …?” papers.

Why not? I think the following explanations are plausible. Some are mutually compatible, but they push in different directions:

  1. Stalemate: There are several academically respectable moral theories: utilitarianism, deontology, virtue-ethics, and maybe others. Some individuals are drawn to one theory over the rest, but that is a matter of intuition or sheer preference. Arguments have not resolved the disputes among them. To invoke one theory in relation to a concrete ethical problem just neglects the other theories. Invoking more than one often yields a dilemma.
  2. Pluralism (in Isaiah Berlin’s sense): Maybe the truth about the human world is that it involves many different kinds of good thing: various negative and positive rights, welfare outcomes, equity and other relations among people, procedural fairness, etc. These good things conflict, and one must choose among them. Each moral theory tends to illuminate and justify one kind of a good, yet practical wisdom is about balancing them.
  3. Particularism: The appropriate focus for moral assessment is not an abstraction, such as freedom, but a concrete particular, like the school in my neighborhood. In a parallel way, the most important focus for aesthetic evaluation is a whole painting, not all the instances of yellow ochre that appear in different paintings. You can believe that yellow ochre is a nice color, but that doesn’t tell you much about whether or why Vermeer’s “View of Delft” is beautiful, even though that painting does incorporate some yellow ochre. Likewise, you can’t tell much about a given situation in which there is some freedom just from knowing that freedom is generally good. If the appropriate focus of ethical evaluation is a concrete, particular, whole thing, then theorizing about abstractions doesn’t help much. (See Schwind on Jonathan Dancy, p. 36 or Blackburn, “Securing the Nots,” p. 97.)
  4. Complexity: Ethical problems often involve many people who have divergent interests, beliefs, rights, goals, etc., and who continuously affect each other. Their choices and responses are unpredictable. Given the resulting complexity, it is usually hard to model the situation empirically–regardless of whether one is more interested in consequences, rights, procedures, comparisons among people, or all of the above. Once you’ve modeled the situation reasonably well and you think you know what would happen if A did B to C, then a Pareto-optimal choice may become clear. For instance, reducing imprisonment in the USA would (I think) enhance individual rights, equity, utility, non-domination, rule of law, and practically every other value I can think of. However, agreement about Pareto-optimal choices is fairly rare, and the most common reason is persistent debate about the empirics. Moral theory really doesn’t help much.
  5. Narrowness of philosophy: To “apply moral philosophy” often means to apply Kantianism, utilitarianism, 20th-century virtue ethics, social contract theory, or perhaps one or two other idea systems. (Maybe some Levinas; maybe some Marx.) These systems have great value, but also limitations. They usually focus either on individual choices at given moment (Is it OK to lie?), or else on what Rawls called the “basic structure of society,” but not on the overall shape of a single human life, practices for enhancing virtues, deeply ingrained forms of oppression, institutions other than governments, or group processes other than lawmaking. Some of these matters are better explored in Hellenistic and classical Indian and Chinese philosophy or in applied social science fields; some have never received adequate attention. It’s not that abstract theory is irrelevant to concrete choices, but that the most widely respected philosophical theories are too narrow.
Lady Philosophy in Boethius: “On the lower fringe of her robe was woven the Greek letter ? [for practical reason]; on the top, the letter ? [for theory]; and between the two was a staircase from the lower to the upper letter.”

I think that large concepts or themes can help us think about what to do. Among the useful concepts for practical reason are the major concerns of modern Anglophone philosophy, such as rights and forms of equity. These concepts or themes do arise in concrete cases. But many other concepts are also useful. Depending on the circumstances, you might get as much value out of Albert Hirschman’s scheme of exit, voice, and loyalty as from Rawls’ account of justice, even though Hirschman’s theory is not explicitly normative. And examples, narratives, and concrete proposals also provide insights.

A reporter supposedly asked Earl Long, “Governor, should you use ethics in politics?” Long said, “Hell yes, use anything you can get your hands on!” I am inclined to agree with the governor–use whatever ideas help you to reason about what to do.

In turn, studying and discussing concrete problems can generate questions and insights that enrich abstract philosophy and social theory. If we must call pure philosophy the “top,” and practical reasoning the “bottom,” then influence should flow from bottom-up as well as from top-down.

(I am inspired here by a fine conference paper by Julian Müller, but I think these are my own established views rather than his. See also: structured moral pluralism (a proposal); Philosophy as a Way of Life (on Pierre Hadot); the importance of the inner life to moral philosophy; modus vivendi theory; consequences of particularism; etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.