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What is ‘Practical’ Ethics?

By Roger Crisp

This is an exciting time for practical ethics in Oxford. The University has recently launched a new Masters in Practical Ethics, organized by the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics and the Department for Continuing Education. Applicants are currently being assessed for admission, and the course begins in earnest in October.

But what makes ethics – by which I mean philosophical ethics – ‘practical’ (or ‘applied’)? It’s true that a good deal of philosophical work in ethics is at the ‘meta-level’, covering issues such as the truth-aptness of moral judgements or the metaphysics of moral properties. But isn’t the rest of it, if it’s not ‘meta’ and not merely clarificatory, all going to be practical, in some straightforward sense?

Yes, it is. Henry Sidgwick, I believe, saw the shape of philosophical ethical theory correctly: it is a debate between egoism (the view that each of us has reason only to advance our own good), consequentialism (according to which we should bring about the best state of affairs), and deontology (which states that there are reasons grounded in more than one’s own well-being or the bringing about of the best state of affairs). And each of these views is practical, in so far as it tells us what our ultimate reasons for action are.

So is it a mistake to speak of ‘practical’ ethics, as if it were an area of philosophy independent of philosophical ethical theory? No, it is not. The essence of practical ethics lies in its specificity. Consider for example the most popular version of consequentialism: act utilitarianism. The idea of utility maximization is pretty general. First, of course, it leaves undetermined what utility consists in, and whose utility should be taken into account. But even when these questions have been answered, and we have been offered, say, a preference-based form of total, non-person-affecting utilitarianism, we are still not working within what most would construe as proper practical ethics.

Practical ethics involves taking these more general principles and ‘applying’ them to specific areas of human life: medicine; business; our relationship with the environment; reproduction; war; and so on. The general/specific distinction here is somewhat vague. For example, benefiting others could be said to be an area of human life, whereas a principle of beneficence is usually seen as part of a moral theory. The same goes for promising, receiving gifts, and making claims on others. But it is hard to see any special problem arising from this vagueness, or any advantage in seeking to avoid it by stipulation or other means.

This ‘theory-based’ conception of practical ethics is sometimes criticized as insensitive and excessively abstract. Imagine a course in practical ethics which taught its students about deontology and consequentialism and then told them to choose one, and follow through its implications for issues in applied ethics. This does seem to me a faulty methodology. First, it might be taken to imply that there is consensus on what such theories say, precisely; and, second, it seems to suggest that there is nothing to be gained at the theoretical level from application. What’s required, of course, is a much less dogmatic approach, informed by different perspectives and statements of the theories, and by recognition that theory can be developed in the light of more specific discussion. For example, reflection on torture and what it involves might lead one to incorporate an absolute prohibition in one’s deontological account.

But can’t one do practical ethics properly without theory? I think not, if practical ethics involves the giving of ultimate reasons. Sometimes, because people are not fully aware of the importance of the distinction between ultimate and derivative reasons, their theory will remain undeveloped. But it is still part of a theory, awaiting further development as a set of principles made as clear and unambiguous as possible.

But what about the ‘anti-theory’ movement in ethics, associated with Bernard Williams and others? If the point is that making the right decision requires more than knowledge of ethical theory, and in particular a sensitivity to the salient features of the situation, I would not disagree. Williams also objects to what he calls ‘reductive’ ethical theory (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, p.17), that is, theory with a small number of principles. Whether this criticism is correct seems to me a question impossible to answer a priori. We certainly cannot rule out from the start the possibility that some relatively straightforward ethical theory will turn out to be correct. To assume otherwise is nothing more than dogmatism.

Another of Williams’s criticisms is that ethical theory has no authority; it cannot give a ‘compelling reason to accept one intuition rather than another’ (ELP, p. 99). This would be an apt point for a nihilist to make. But Williams is no nihilist, and has himself engaged in a good deal of practical ethics, where his own ethical principles are put to work. Consider, for example, his claim – which is clearly not merely descriptive — in ‘The Human Prejudice’ that humans as such have a claim on our care and attention which other animals do not. Nor need any ethical theory claim any special authority; each theory, including Williams’s own, operates at the same level – that of enumerating our ultimate reasons.

I look forward to seeing our first cohort of Masters students developing their own ethical theories, partly through response to particular ethical issues, and to their employing those theories to seek clarification and at least partial resolution of the problems in practical ethics which led them to apply in the first place.

(This blog is based on a part of a talk given at a conference to mark the 10th anniversary of the IDEA Centre at the University of Leeds. I thank the Centre for the invitation to speak, and the audience for comments and discussion.)

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9 Comment on this post

  1. Do you think there’s any mileage in looking at how theory and application play out in other areas? I have in mind the relationship between theories of international relations (realism, variants of liberalism, IPE theories and so on) and foreign policy analysis, in which theory plays an important role, but so do the specifics of the situation: if the question is “Why did Palmerston abandon Denmark?” then the answer “because the benefits of doing so outweighed the costs” isn’t much of an answer, even though it may provide the ultimate reason, through either a realist or liberal lens. Someone (can’t remember who*) pointed out that the challenge for foreign policy students was something like “to master theory but not be slave to theory.” Which I think is similar to the challenge practical ethics students face. The real issue is actually sound judgement in executing that task of knowing whether (and how) to weight theory vs the situation. (Which has different facets – sometimes its a level of analysis issue, sometimes its a scope issue, etc.) Or is that a really bad analogy?

    *Sounds a bit like the Sphinx from Mystery Men, but it’s still a reasonable point.

  2. “Another of Williams’s criticisms is that ethical theory has no authority; it cannot give a ‘compelling reason to accept one intuition rather than another’ (ELP, p. 99). This would be an apt point for a nihilist to make. But Williams is no nihilist, and has himself engaged in a good deal of practical ethics, where his own ethical principles are put to work. ”

    Surely one does not need to be a nihilist to argue that one type of activity (ethical theorizing) lacks the authority with which to provide us with substantive reasons. This quite obviously leaves open the possibility that other kinds of activity (for example interpersonal advice, or psychological/genealogical investigation) might be able to provide us with these sorts of reasons. The anti-theoretical stance cannot be dismissed this easily.

  3. Ethical theories certainly provide frameworks, kind of different moulds, in singular sense. To say that theory has no independent authority, in my view, is correct unless applied and reach to a conclusion that which mould or mix of moulds are helping to make the right decision. An independent human usually utilize different theories unknowingly in the solution of different problems or taking different actions, rather right actions. Practical Ethics can help provide us the missing links in our conception of Ethics at theoretical levels. The practical ethics can help the idea of Derek Parafit to reach to some unification at theoretical level in ethics, which in turn can help the humanity in better sense.

  4. I agree that a practical ethics course that only taught students theories, then told them to choose one and follow through its implications for issues in applied ethics, would be a faulty methodology. Unfortunately, from my knowledge of university practical ethics departments in this country, Europe and the USA, this is all too often the methodology. There is not only an institutional bias towards theorising in universities which tends to select and reward theorists in applied ethics, but there is also an expectation among many students that university courses, including those in applied ethics, are in essence the acquisition of theories and the application of them to problem-solve.

    They believe that theories can, as you say, enumerate our ultimate reasons. Williams believed that this was seldom if ever possible and that we should not relentlessly seek ultimate reasons and theories as they could distort our understanding of ourselves and our world. Raising concerns about the damage theorising in ethics might do is not, I believe, dogmatism. As to his “theory”, as expressed in your example of ‘The Human Prejudice’, it does not operate at the same level as the theories that concerned Williams because he does not take the external perspective of the theorist and has, so to speak, a different ontological structure.

    My own experience of teaching so-called anti-theory ethics is that it is not easy. (I dislike the term anti-theory because there is always at least some “weak” theorising in it, but for the sake of brevity I will stick with it.) As I have said, students expect theories and universities like them, if for no other reason than they are easy to learn and regurgitate in exchange for marks and ratings. It is difficult to teach anti-theory because students have to understand about the history theorising and its critics, the differences between theory and anti-theory in analytical and Continental philosophy, the types of theory, the problems of incommensurability, and then perhaps they should have to write an essay on proposition 4.112 of the Tractatus with both the ‘body of doctrine’ and ‘theory’ translations. After that they can start to get into ethics – hopefully as an ‘activity’! You may think this is excessive (if not cruel), but I believe it also strengthens their understanding of theories because their prejudice for theory is exposed and explored.

    I hope your students have more than a theoretical good time on their course.

  5. Thanks to all for their comments. I like the international relations analogy. Perhaps it’s also a question of properly working out one’s theory *before* assessing the situation? I take the point about nihilism — anti-theory might be seen as a kind of anti-philosophy-in-general. What I was trying to get at was that Williams himself isn’t anti-philosophy, and so ends up appealing to theoretical philosophical principles on the same level as those he’s criticizing in contemporary ethical theory. That is to say, he does have an ethical theory, if not an especially well-worked-out one. I’m not sure what Keith means by the ‘external perspective’ of the theorist, but whatever it is it seems to me that Williams is taking it. He may not explicitly spell out the allegedly universal principles behind what he says, but it could be done quite easily. I also agree that studying metaethics, incommensurability, and so on are important in philosophical training. But in the end I would hope they might lead a student to form their own theoretical view on ethics. And of course I do hope that Fayyaz is right that ethical theory, and ethical theorizing, might have good consequences overall.

  6. I am somewhat surprised that you are unsure what I mean by Williams’ criticism of the ‘external perspective’ and even more surprised you believe that ‘whatever it is Williams is taking it’! I could have given a brief outline of chapter 6, ‘Theory and Prejudice’, in ELP, where he discusses the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ perspectives; how he believes that the whole idea of the possibility of an outside impartial point of view is mistaken because it leaves little or no room for the individuality of the agent; that it fails to capture the essence of dispositions and is irreconcilably divorced from the ‘inside’ point of view. ..and so on and so forth. But this is a post and, as with picture postcards, we can often say little more than a few words about where we are. Not sure where you are when you say, ‘[h]e may not explicitly spell out the allegedly universal principles behind what he saying, but it could be done quite easily’, but I am sure the view is fine.

  7. Thx Keith. That is helpful, and of course you’re right that he isn’t taking an impartial line as in utilitarianism or Kant (on his construction of Kant). But he is on the face of it offering us ultimate reasons, and that is all that I was understanding by the idea of a theory.

    1. I think Williams attempts to do too much at Ch. 6 of the ETL and is not specific enough in his other writings about his own “theorising”. (Nagel, I believe, deals with the issue with greater clarity.) He certainly was opposed to the notion that everything could be rationalised. As he say, ‘[o]nce we see that it is impossible to rationalize everything [in ethics], the project of rationalizing as much as possible need not be understood as doing the next best thing. We may conclude instead that we were looking in the wrong direction.’ (ELP. P.113) He believed that psychology and the history of ethical reflection do not give us ‘reason to believe that the theoretical reasonings of the cool hour can do without a sense of the moral shape of the world.’ (ELP. P.110) Of course, we can give ultimate reasons at a “higher” level (i.e. theory) why we cannot or should not give reasons at a “lower” level, but I am not sure Williams achieved this with great clarity. Having yet again used a postcard abbreviation, I think I should post it and go.

      1. Thx Keith. That’s a revealing quotation from Williams. I think what lies behind it is perhaps his non-cognitivism. Compare Aristotle, who believes in seeking out practical truth, and says we should make things as clear as we can (EN IX.2). There is also that interesting passage in the Jim example where Williams speaks in favour of acting without reflecting.

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