Practical Ethics and Philosophy

It is now quite common to draw distinctions between three types of philosophical ethics. Practical ethics is meant to concern substantive moral issues facing many of us each day, such as abortion or climate change. The subject of normative or theoretical ethics is the more abstract principles that might enable us to make decisions about these practical issues. Here, at the so-called ‘first order’ level, we will find debates between utilitarians and Kantians, act utilitarians and rule utilitarians, contractualists and virtue ethicists, and so on. The final, most abstract, second-order level is metaethics, where the focus is on the kinds of judgements made in practical and normative ethics: Can these judgements be true or false? What is the metaphysical status of the properties of rightness and wrongness which seem to be predicated by these judgements? And so on.

On one extreme ‘situationist’ view, a real moral agent should not seek help from any of these kinds of philosophical ethics. Rather, she should respond appropriately to the salient features of any situation in which she finds herself, and such appropriate response will not involve appeal to any normative principles or other abstract philosophical position.

Most of us will reject this position, thinking that at the very least a moral agent ought to be able to give us her reasons for some particular moral decision she makes, reasons which – on a plausible understanding of reasons – might be seen as an attempt to capture certain normative principles. That suggests that anyone who makes a non-situationist moral decision is already engaged in first-order theoretical thought, though of course it might be quite restricted in its scope. This has implications for the view that practical ethics should keep clear of normative theorizing. If any non-situationist practical judgement introduces a view about reasons, then it seems somewhat unreasonable to suggest that the person making that judgement should steer clear of any thought about how the reason she’s advocating stacks up against other reasons for acting, and what those reasons might be.

But then our agent may well face issues about whether there are such reasons at all. Perhaps when she offered some moral reason for, say, offsetting the carbon she released on a recent journey, she was merely expressing her sentiments or acceptance of some norm which does not itself have any special rational or metaphysical status. And this might be thought to be a form of nihilism about reasons. So everyday practical ethics will lead her into metaethics as well as normative ethics.

Nor is it obvious  why she should stop there. The reasons that she brings up will often involve concepts which are not purely ethical: personhood, experience, death, and so on, and on. Moral agency and practical ethics, then, lead naturally into philosophy as a whole, and any dyke constructed to keep them separate will spring leaks immediately.

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3 Responses to Practical Ethics and Philosophy

  • Nick Smyth says:

    Hello Professor Crisp, and thanks for this.

    at the very least a moral agent ought to be able to give us her reasons for some particular moral decision she makes, reasons which – on a plausible understanding of reasons – might be seen as an attempt to capture certain normative principles. That suggests that anyone who makes a non-situationist moral decision is already engaged in first-order theoretical thought, though of course it might be quite restricted in its scope.

    This may be true, but isn’t it only true on a very broad understanding of what constitutes first order thought? For example, one of the hallmarks of theoretical thought is that it is systematic: it seeks to subsume the particular judgments and principles at play in one’s ordinary deliberation under a more general set of principles. This may be where the relevant fault line lies, as it is highly implausible that all ordinary reason-giving requires the relevant agent to be in possession of a moral theory.

    But then our agent may well face issues about whether there are such reasons at all. Perhaps when she offered some moral reason for, say, offsetting the carbon she released on a recent journey, she was merely expressing her sentiments or acceptance of some norm which does not itself have any special rational or metaphysical status. And this might be thought to be a form of nihilism about reasons. So everyday practical ethics will lead her into metaethics as well as normative ethics.

    This seems right, but I would suggest that the issue of relativism falls more naturally out of ordinary moral thought than any concern over expressivism. I have never met a moralizer outside of academia who has ever worried about the semantics of moral language, but I have met plenty of people whose awareness of other cultures and traditions has caused them to reflect on the objective validity of their own moral judgment. So, I think that you’re absolutely right that first order thought can lead to metaethics, but I also think that meta-ethicists themselves may be responsible for erecting certain barriers between metaethics and ordinary moral thought. What do you think?

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    I’m sure that you are right, Roger!
    It could be argued that the Practical Ethics blog demonstrates this, as posts often end up with a discussion expressing directly, or at least implying, normative principles. And then someone will come along and pose a meta-ethical point of view and try to question the whole point of the debate….
    There is probably not only a form of logical hierarchy at work here, as you suggest, but also an ad hominem desire to seek common ground to advance one’s thesis.
    The debater will seek to show that their point of view is consistent with a normative principle with which they hope that their readers will share : the maximisation of welfare for a utilitarian, the conformity with certain values for a virtue ethicist and so on…(sorry to be so simplistic).
    But in the absence of agreement one falls back necessarily on meta-ethics : a justification of utilitarianism or virtue ethics or whatever. Or, less frequently, we read a point of view that questions the whole basis of ethical norms, or at least questions that there are rules that can be ordered as neatly as mathematical theorems to guide our behaviour.
    But this shouldn’t prevent us from proposing solutions to practical ethical problems witout over-complicating the issue. I suspect that most of us share similar moral baggage, whatever our meta-ethical philosophies might be, and that in many cases there is no need to ascend the hierarchy.

  • Roger Crisp says:

    Thanks, Nick and Anthony.

    Of course I agree that someone who makes a particular ethical judgement, for which she is prepared to give a reason, isn’t presenting us with a systematic theory. But, unless she is a particularist (and very few people are), she should allow her judgement to be universalized into a general claim about reasons. So ‘It will hurt her’ might become ‘There is a reason against hurting people’. This raises the question of what other reasons there are and how they might be weighed against one another.

    I agree that relativism is also a big concern for many people. But I do think that many also believe that ethics is in some sense subjective, as compared to science, because they think there are no standards for verifying ethical views.

    On common ground. Yes, a lot of good ethics can be done using *axiomata media* — middle-level principles with widespread support from ethical theory. But often there will be hard cases, and that is where ethical theory and metatheory have to be brought in.

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