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.