The following are some thoughts I’ve been mulling over in anticipation of a lecture I will be giving at CSU Long Beach’s Applied Ethics Center next Thursday.   I’ve been thinking about these issues with regard to business ethics, but I think the concerns extend to most other areas of applied ethics as well.

I start with the assumption that one of the main aims of teaching and scholarship in applied ethics is to get people to be morally better.  This needn’t be the only aim of applied ethics, of course.  Taking courses and reading articles in applied ethics can strengthen one’s skills in conceptual analysis, improve one’s argumentative abilities, and sharpen one’s writing and reading skills, to name just a few of the more obvious instrumental benefits.  And far be it from me to neglect the intrinsic reward of the pursuit of wisdom for its own sake.  But I think most of us involved in the field hope that in addition to these skills (or perhaps by means of them?), students and readers will become just a bit more moral as well.

If that’s the case, then my question is: how useful is it to dedicate one’s teaching/scholarship to the explanation and clarification of moral theory?  Irrespective of the contributions this endeavor might make to the other goals described above, does it help us make our students/readers better people?

I won’t go so far as to say that moral theory doesn’t help with this goal at all, but I do think the role it plays in applied ethics articles/textbooks/syllabi is vastly inflated in proportion to its usefulness.  My reasoning is as follows:

First, think of the major moral scandals in your favorite area of applied ethics.  Take Enron, from business ethics, or take the Tuskegee Experiments, from medical ethics.  It’s hard to make the case that the people involved in these situations didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong.  That defrauding grandmothers out of their money is wrong is one of the intuitions we start with in doing moral theory — it is not a product of moral theory.  A far more likely diagnosis of what happened is that people knew that what they were doing was wrong — they simply didn’t care. 

Second, reflect on what social psychology has taught us about people’s willingness to do wrong.  Milgram showed us that the average person is willing to shock an innocent stranger to death simply because a man in a white lab coat asked them to.  Zimbardo showed us that a normal, healthy college student can be turned into a sadist simply by asking him to play the role of a prison guard.  And that’s just the beginning.  Once again, one surely doesn’t need a moral theory to know that these sorts of things are horrific.

Now, there are undoubtedly hard cases where having a well-worked out moral theory at one’s disposal would be useful.  But the truly hard cases seem relatively rare.  For most of the day to day issues, there is a tremendous amount of convergence among moral theories.  And for the cases where moral theories disagree, is knowing why and how they disagree really all that helpful in making the right decision?  Indeed, given the way applied ethics is often taught…

  • Here is hard case X
  • Here is the utilitarian answer to hard case X
  • Here is what is wrong with that answer, and what is wrong with utilitarianism in general
  • Here is the deontological answer to hard case X
  • Here is what is wrong…

…might not an excessive focus on moral theory even set back the moral progress of our students?  Focusing on hard cases serves a useful purpose insofar as it allows us to see where moral theories diverge, and so we philosophers are naturally drawn to this approach.  But there is a danger that this will leave students with the incorrect impression that most cases are hard cases, and that most of the time moral theories diverge…so if no one can agree about what’s right and what’s wrong, why not do what serves my own self-interest?

If this is correct, I think our applied ethics — certainly our teaching, and maybe our research — should focus less on explaining/clarifying moral theory, and more on getting people to care about being moral in the first place.  And/or we could teach students how to recognize situational forces that tend to lead to unethical behavior, and how to avoid or overcome those forces.  There are probably lots of useful projects in which we could engage as applied ethicists.  My point is that if out main concern is helping students to be better people, then it’s not clear tha teaching them lots of moral theory is going to be a significant part of any of them. 

My hunch is that if we teach people why being moral is important, then for the most part they’ll figure out how to do it on their own.  If we don’t teach people why they should care about morality, and all the moral theory in the world won’t stop them from turning into moral monsters.

18 Replies to “How Useful is Moral Theory for Applied Ethics?

  1. My first teaching job, just this past summer, was in the required ethics class in Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, so this is a question that I certainly thought about in deciding both what readings to assign to my students and what to focus on during class discussions. One thing that I immediately realized is that there isn’t much in the way of written work out there that attempts to answer the question “why be moral” in a way that is both accessible to non-philosophers and not mere preaching. Indeed, when students pressed me on the question I found it rather difficult to provide them with an answer that I thought would satisfy them. This has a lot to do, I think, with the culture of business schools and the business world in general, and perhaps would be less of a problem in classes of non-business students. Still, if students reject the most obvious and potentially most compelling answer to the question (as almost all of my students did), namely that it is in one’s self-interest to be moral, then it is difficult to see how we might convince students who don’t already care about being moral to start caring. What sort of pedagogical tools might be used in applied ethics classes to acheive this aim? I’m not sure there’s a good answer to this question, though I’d certainly appreciate suggestions.

  2. Welcome Matt. Really interesting post. I wanted to pick up on this:
    “I think our applied ethics…should focus…more on getting people to care about being moral in the first place. And/or we could teach students how to recognize situational forces that tend to lead to unethical behavior, and how to avoid or overcome those forces.”
    I’d like to know what you think about the relative emphasis that should be placed on these two strategies, and what you mean by “getting people to care about morality.”
    My view is that more emphasis should be placed on getting people “to recognize situational forces that tend to lead to unethical behavior, and how to avoid or overcome those forces.” Doing this can then be exploited to get people to “care about morality,” but maybe not in the sense you intended.
    So, it would be nice if, say, corporate leaders were always motivated by “the good” and cared about morality for its own sake. But I doubt I’m a good enough teacher to get my students to care about morality in that sense.
    Instead, focus on “second-best” solutions that incorporate provisions for people who, predictably, aren’t motivated by the good. Show how the “rules of the game” can be structured in such a way that provides incentives for corporate leaders to identify their interests with those of the corporation and its stakeholders.

  3. I would have thought that topics like abortion, euthanasia, our obligations to the poor (think Singer/Unger), animal rights and so on are all topics that belong to applied ethics. I’m sure these are all things that are (to more or lesser extent) everyday, and difficult moral issues that people need answers to.

  4. Hi Matt,
    I think moral theory is essential. But it’s also important to explain the value of theory. My favourite strategy, borrowed from Dave Sobel, is to present examples showing that ordinary, pre-theoretical moral thought contains apparent inconsistencies. We can describe one case in which everyone’s happy to say we all know that doing X is wrong, and another case in which everyone’s happy to say we all know that doing Y is right, even though, at one level of description, X and Y are just the same thing. An excellent pair of cases for making this point is the ‘trolley case’ (killing one to save five is right) and the ‘harvesting organs’ case (killing one to save five is wrong). The moral of the story, as I tell it, is that theory has the virtue of imposing constraints of consistency and coherence on our moral thought and talk. I think that’s the key benefit that moral philosophy has to offer; so I’d be very reluctant to leave theory out of a class on moral philosophy, even one on applied ethics.

  5. Hi Matt. Yes, thanks for the interesting post. A few thoughts.
    First, one of the more useful things I’ve done in teaching professional ethics is to have at least one class on the apparent widening divergence between moral intellect and conduct. The tenor of this particular class is more or less a challenge: you are learning some things *about* ethics, but will you now use it to be morally better professionals? The short articles that I’ve used are Robert Coles’ “The Disparity Between Intellect and Character,” Christina Hoff Sommers’ “Where Have All the Good Deeds Gone?”, and Sheila Mullett’s “Shifting Perspectives: A New Approach to Ethics,” all of which can be found in Judith Boss’s *Perspectives on Ethics*. I’ll email a .pdf of the articles in a separate email, in case you’re interested.
    Second, another thing that might help is to help shift the students’ conception of themselves as powerful business people or professionals to one of vulnerable clients. It is characteristic of ethical problems in the professions that they arise because of the tremendous power differential between professionals and clients. It doesn’t take much for students to see, when they imagine *themselves* going to a doctor or a lawyer or trusting an engineer to build a safe bridge, that *they* are quite vulnerable to the potential abuses of professionals, and are left *hoping* that their doctor or lawyer or engineer does not abuse that power.
    Third, it would also help if students had more examples of morally exemplary business leaders and professionals, perhaps some that can speak to the class or to the university community.
    Fourth, I agree with Campbell that one of the ways to motivate discussion of theory in practical or applied courses is to show that our everyday thinking about moral problems is often quite inconsistent, something with which theory can sometimes help.
    Fifth, I don’t know how one could teaching an applied or practical ethics course without doing at least *some* theory. For example, many ethical issues involve the notions of individual autonomy and consent. It’s hard to think well about these issues if we don’t do some thinking about what autonomy and consent are and why they are supposed to be important.
    Thanks again for the interesting post.

  6. Matt,
    Welcome. Gosh, your post, and apparently some of the responses, could not be more thoroughly opposed to how I think about these things, so now I have to think harder why I have the views I do. In my view, nothing a philosopher does has anything at all to do with making people better. That was their parents job. God helpl them if they end up in my class looking for moral instruction. My assumption is always that whatever we do in class, it will be very little if any help regarding what choices they should make.
    And ‘applied ethics’ is not, at least as I see it, in any way a separate subject from ethical theory; it’s all just ‘ethics’. There is no ethical theory without working from and to cases. What is often called ‘applied ethics’ is just ethics more on one end of that process than what is called ‘ethical theory’.
    Perhaps this is because the defensibility of conclusions about what to do depend upon the truth of the theory behind it. I could teach business ethics from a Kantian perspective. That would get me one set of conclusions. But I wouldn’t have the time to convince students that is the right theory. And in a course in which I might try convincing them — ethical theory — there’s no room for talking about what exactly the upshot will be for a whole lot of particular applied areas.

  7. I’m in real agreement with Robert in not accepting the premise of your post, Matt, viz., that one of the jobs of an applied ethics class is to make students morally better. My main emphasis (as it is in all my philosophy courses) is to make my students better thinkers generally, better critical evaluators, better analyzers of texts, and so forth. And that might have the indirect effect of making them morally better (it should at least make them better moral deliberators). But that’s certainly not a direct aim of the course.
    As for the role of theory, I’ve gone back and forth on this question for a while. At this point, I teach theory right up front, along with sketches of the standard objections, primarily because various theories are either explicitly or implicitly presupposed in many of the articles to be read, and so it helps students both to situate the articles in their more general philosophical contexts and also have available in advance some strategies for critical evaluation.

  8. Zwolinski on Teaching Applied Ethics

    Matt Zwolinski, a professor in the Philosophy Department at the University of San Diego, and a colleague of Larry Alexander and Steve Smith in USD’s Institute for Law Philosophy, has a wonderful post over at PEA Soup on the teaching

  9. Greetings Matt. I agree with those who point that moral theory can help students bring consistency and systematicity to their moral thinking. As for making people morally better … well, I think that if teaching ethics, theoretical or otherwise, happens to make people morally better, that’s a happy accident and not something I’d identify as an explicit pedagogical goal. I actually think one common outcome is that students know they’re not as morally sterling as they think they are (and they may form no plans to be any better). Is that a way of making them morally better? I also think it’s worth asking if *anything* can make youngish adults morally better. In this regard, I suspect that the study of ethical theory may have a small impact but as much impact as anything could have on well-established attitudes and dispositions.

  10. I too am skeptical that an applied ethics class can or should be expected to improve students other than in intellectual ways. I worry more about whether the teaching of ethics–applied or otherwise–actually corrupts students. Focusing on hard cases may have this effect. Give a person of mediocre character the tools with which to rationalize acting out his wishes, and stand back!
    But I do like your idea of teaching students to recognize situational forces that tend to lead to unethical behavior, and how to avoid or overcome those forces. This is something that someone already of good character needs to understand, especially in a society like ours. I teach business ethics from time to time, and I would like to learn more about how to incorporate this into my syllabus.

  11. Matt,
    I love your example of “hard cases” (via your link) that philosophers often invoke to test moral theories. I wonder what you would say, though, about the cases thrown at students who now compete in the Ethics Bowl
    Having served as a judge at one Ethics Bowl (my colleague M. Cholbi, who advises our student teams, dragged me into this…), I was initially skeptical about the event, but seeing our students shine in this context really impressed me. Moral theory gave our students a vocabulary and tools for identifying the moral issues and options, and for discussing them in ways that seemed helpful and intelligent. I also found (and this ties in with the thread on rape) that students who understood how their cases related to historical and current moral/political controversies did a better job evaluating the cases and defending their answers. Students who relied only on moral theory, and used the cases to promote their favorite one, often missed the interesting issues.
    So perhaps the upshot is, there are good and bad uses of moral theory, and applying moral theory alone doesn’t get us very far.

  12. Thanks for the feedback everyone. I think Laurie’s absolutely right that there are good and bad uses for moral theory, and that providing students with a vocabulary with which to discuss moral issues is defeinitely one of the benefits. (I actually think that by providing them with this vocabulary, we can also sharpen their moral perception. It’s often easier to ‘see’ something we have a name for)
    So I’d never eliminate theory from my courses. But I do think it’s important to stress the extent to which they converge, and to make our presentations of the theories as rich as possible. It’s easy for students to laugh off the cartoon version of utilitarianism presented in a lot of textbooks. It’s much more difficult to laugh off the kind of sophisticated theory Mill actually wrote about. Not to mention that the sophisticated version of Mill has much more in common with the sophisticated version of Kant etc.
    It’s interesting to see the divergence on the question of whether making students morally better is a legitimate pedagogical aim of applied ethics courses. I’m pretty convinced that it is, but I think that reasonable arguments can be made on both sides. The problem with the situation as it is now, though, is that different parties to the exchange have radically different expectations of applied ethics courses. Students and administrators, in my experience, both expect that the course will teach people how to be morally better.(*) When professors teach the course with a different perspective, people’s expectations are bound to be upset. That’s not always a bad thing, but it does present challenges, and raises the question of whether those student/administrator expectations are legitimate.
    Shameless Plug – I’m actually working on a business ethics anthology right now which I hope will address both the “why be moral” and “how to recognize/adapt to situational forces that undermine morality” questions in a way that other texts currently don’t. My own opinion is that a lot of these questions are best answered by combining philosophical analysis with the findings of other disciplines — psychology, game theory, and literature, for instance — so I try to reflect this in the selections for the text.
    (*) Note: teaching students how to be better is different from making them better. The former is an intellectual task, and perhaps one that even opponents of the view I set out in my original post could endorse. The latter is, I think, pretty clearly out of our control as professors.

  13. Hi Matt!
    Some loosely related comments:
    (1)I’m mostly with Robert, David & Eric about the point of teaching ethics not being to make people better people. Partly that’s because I’m a little skeptical of the whole idea that it is the badness or goodness of people that mostly determines what good and bad gets done. One upshot of the Millgram experiments Matt mentions is precisely that the situations one finds oneself in often have as much to do with a “good” person’s reactions as their character. I do think that knowledge that that is true, both can change a person’s dispositions when is such loaded situations, and it should turn our attention, as people concerned with ethics to the issue of how to construct institutions which provide the right sorts of incentives for good behavior. Thus I think it is a mistake not to connect scandals such as what happened at Enron with political philosophy and issues of institutional design, and whenever I teach a “current issues” class I try to focus on these sorts of issues, rather than issues of personal morality.
    In fact, to be really cynical for a bit, I believe that much of “business ethics” is really just a fig-leaf that is used to cover the failure to address the political issues involved, which lead to the incentives to do bad things that we wind up having to deal with. By claiming to address the problem by offering ethics classes, business interests can let themselves off the hook for not changing the institutions that give people no incentives to look after the public good.
    (2) Of course, the issue of “why be moral?” (or better, “why act in the right way?”) has a long history in ethics and the ethics literature. I take it that the whole Eudaimonist tradition is one attempt to answer that question (though I think probably not in the right way). And Prichard’s famous paper, ‘Does Ethics Rest on a Mistake’ and Falk’s responses to it are another attempt to address the question.
    Yet I think that these papers are addressing the issue as a philosophical issue, not as an attempt to motivate people by giving an answer to the question which, upon recognition, would provide everyone with a (hitherto missing) motive to act rightly. And I think that is likely the right way to approach these issues. To think that we can find a philosophical argument that will bring people who don’t already ever see any point in doing what is right to suddenly be reliably motivated to do the right thing seems pretty far-fetched to me.
    (3) But that does not mean that moral theory cannot effect behavior for the better. In fact, I think that most people most of the time are to some extent motivated to do what they regard as right. So if thinking about an issue or set of issues leads such people to change their views of what is in fact right, then they will likely also change what they are motivated to do. Since I tend to think that the correct positions on difficult moral issues just are those for which the better reasons can be given, teaching people what reasons have been offered for various positions and helping them sort out which are in fact better reasons will lead to (some) better actions over the long haul.

  14. Matt,
    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘making students morally better’. If this is a ‘pedagogical aim’ of your applied ethics class, is becoming morally better a ‘learning objective’ for the students? Do the students’ grades reflect how morally good they are? If a student writes a bad paper, can he get extra credit by helping an old lady cross the street?
    Do you think of yourself as an especially morally good person? Wouldn’t you need to be in order to instruct others in being morally good?

  15. My own anecdotal evidence is that ethicists are no better nor worse than any other people. I shouldn’t find that if ethics can improve people. But perhaps others have different evidence.
    In any case, if people who take a course in ethics will be improved by it, then we should expect a moral difference to be detectable between those who take it and those who don’t. If, however, we worry (as does Eric) that ethics might corrupt students instead (by raising questions about their actions that would never occur to them otherwise), we should also expect such a detectable difference. Again, going on my own purely anecdotal evidence, neither seems the case.
    If that’s true, then perhaps we are engaged in a bit of a fraud in academia, by not insisting on this, and pointing it out, when administrators ask us to teach these ethics courses. I’m often floored by the number of people in other areas of the academy — business, journalism, engineering–who actually think that I can help to make their students better.

  16. Robert writes:

    Gosh, your post, and apparently some of the responses, could not be more thoroughly opposed to how I think about these things, so now I have to think harder why I have the views I do. In my view, nothing a philosopher does has anything at all to do with making people better.

    Robert, this post is also making me think more about these things, and I suspect that most of us in this thread are not as much opposed as it might appear. Here are some of the assumptions I make in designing, for example, my business or professional ethics courses.
    I assume, first, that most students coming into my classroom are already predisposed to want to “do the right thing,” since my class will be of very little practical help to those who are not already disposed to doing what is right. Second, I assume that people can be aided in doing the right thing if they are able to make better *decisions* about practical problems in business or in the professions. Third, I assume that, often, better decisions are made when folks are able to take into account certain kinds of considerations (e.g., certain kinds of consequences, harm, autonomy, consent, etc). Fourth, I assume that, sometimes, better decisions are made when folks are disabused of certain false beliefs, or at least of beliefs that are not as obviously true as some students might think (e.g. that business has nothing to do with morality). Fifth, I assume that many practical problems are better resolved, or even prevented, if folks have an understanding of the forces or pressure points that serve to give rise to the practical problems in the first place.
    These assumptions affect the design of my courses in various ways. For example, I discuss the issue of whether businesses and the professions have anything to do with morality (i.e., “the myth of the amoral business”). Also, we discuss various ethical theories on the grounds that, though each has obvious problems that need to be worked out by ethical theorists, each focuses on at least some of the important considerations when making decisions in the face of practical problems in business. We also discuss the variety of forces or pressure points that give rise to many practical problems in business and the professions. For example, some practical problems arise because of the *nature* of professions, which often leave clients and customers significantly vulnerable to the actions of a professional. Some arise because of organizational pressures, e.g., that many business people and professionals work as teams, thereby being able to pass the buck, keeping up with competitors, group loyalty, and financial pressures. Some arise because of “virtues” or values within each profession that are taken too far, or at least given dominant importance at the cost of ignoring other professional virtues. (For example, engineers who take the virtue of efficiency so far that they ignore the virtue of safety.) And of course, all of these factors can come together.
    Now, Campbell writes:

    I’m not sure what you mean by ‘making students morally better’. If this is a ‘pedagogical aim’ of your applied ethics class, is becoming morally better a ‘learning objective’ for the students? Do the students’ grades reflect how morally good they are? If a student writes a bad paper, can he get extra credit by helping an old lady cross the street?

    My students’ grades are affected by how well they are able to identify the forces that give rise to particular practical problems, by how well they are able to develop solutions to resolve these practical problems, and by how well they are able to develop policies that might have prevented the problem from arising in the first place. So, I am in partial agreement with Dave Shoemaker when he writes:

    I’m in real agreement with Robert in not accepting the premise of your post, Matt, viz., that one of the jobs of an applied ethics class is to make students morally better. My main emphasis (as it is in all my philosophy courses) is to make my students better thinkers generally, better critical evaluators, better analyzers of texts, and so forth. And that might have the indirect effect of making them morally better (it should at least make them better moral deliberators). But that’s certainly not a direct aim of the course.

    To me, one of the jobs of an applied ethics course is to help students make better decisions about, or to help prevent them from having to make tough moral decisions about, practical moral problems so that they can become morally better people. I don’t know whether this means that helping my students become morally better people is a *direct* aim of the course, but it is certainly one of my most important learning objectives for such a course.
    This is a great discussion.

  17. Mark makes an important point about the role that the structure of institutions plays in guiding the conduct of individuals. It’s not clear to me, however, what the upshot of recognizing the point is for how best to approach teaching applied ethics courses. Mark says he focuses on the relation of scandals like Enron to questions in political philosophy, such as how best to design our institutions, but I wonder if too much emphasis on these issues might turn out to convince students that things are pretty well hopeless, and lead them to have little regard for ethics altogether. If the problem really lies with the structure of existing institutions, and not with the choices of the individuals who participate in those institutions, then unless students believe they can do something to change the institutions (which none of them, in my experience, do), then they may come to believe that the only thing they can do is to work the system like everyone else.
    Indeed, many of my students expressed great dissatisfaction with existing institutions, but (quite understandably) were not able to put forward much in the way of solutions that they believed might actually be acheived. Because of this, I do think it’s important to discuss individual choices in addition to political problems. This is not always easy; my students were extremely enthusiastic about discussing the faults of our political and economic systems, but after reading Singer and Unger were much more hesitant to discuss the ethical implications of their own choices and ambitions. But I think it was these discussions that did the most to make them question, in a serious way, at least some of the elements of business culture that are so often taken to be morally unproblematic, as Dan points out above.

  18. Just a quick question to all those people (seems to be most of you) who feel that we should not aim at helping our applied ethics students to become morally better, or to learn how to solve moral dilemmas ethically:
    If what you’re saying is true, then shouldn’t we explain this to our university administrators, and to the curriculum committees in the business, nursing, medicine, etc. faculties?
    After all, the reason why these faculties insist their students come to philosophy departments to take our applied ethics courses is presumably because they think their students will actually benefit in these ways. If you are right — and I think and hope that you aren’t — then isn’t it highly unethical, on your view, for us philosophers to continue to rake in the money from these students for no good reason? Or is it your view that, since we ethicists don’t need to concern ourselves with actually being good, we shouldn’t care? I’m asking this seriously.

Comments are closed.