In the last issue of Australian Ethics, Peter Bowden challenged the relevance of ethical philosophy to applied and professional ethics, pointing out that many of the valuable practices that predominate the pages of the recent AAPAE book Applied Ethics: Strengthening Ethical Practices have little to do with ethical theorizing. Indeed, he goes so far as to argue that moral philosophy might be pernicious. Ignoring well-accepted empirical findings and encouraging endless disputations, it is nothing short of an ‘intellectual handicap’ for ethical decision-making in the 21st Century.

Here I take up the mantle of defending (albeit in a qualified form) moral philosophy’s relevance to applied ethics – in particular with an eye to the practice of having philosophers involved in the teaching of ethics to professionals and budding professionals.

What I am not arguing, however, is that moral philosophers should have the sole role in teaching and developing applied ethics. Bowden is doubtless correct when he lists the many vital ways professions themselves can develop codes, roles and integrity systems, and how we can learn empirically about which measures, legislation, and practices work and which do not. While philosophers have engaged with some of these issues, many of them are completely ignored – whistle-blowing is perhaps Bowden’s most important example here.

For these reasons, I accept that if philosophers alone are left to theorize, develop and teach professional and applied ethics, they can be expected to do a very limited job. Often, they will be unaware of some of the key modes of strengthening ethical behaviour, and ignorant of the empirical research on these. They may also be unfamiliar with the ethical issues that actually confront professionals, and of the difficult circumstances within which professionals negotiate solutions to them. Worse, they may know little enough of the actually existing social and institutional practices in a given practice that are working at promoting integrity – and which the philosopher’s topdown policies might weaken.

That much admitted, is there anything left that ethicists can offer? I think there is.

First of all, philosophy can excel at describing clearly the sorts of features of actions and situations that call for moral concern. Local practices, spontaneous arrangements and shared identities are crucial in creating ethical behaviour – but they equally can be threats to it. Institutions can display group-think mentalities and they can promote their narrow self-interest, or even just the self-interest of the institution’s leaders. For this reason, moral philosophy can be important precisely because of the external perspective it brings – forcing practitioners to face up not only to the views of their peers, but also to universal principles of proper conduct.

Second, moral philosophy is important because it can clear away some popular but potentially problematic philosophical viewpoints that some practitioners and students may already hold. Here I name (controversially!) three viewpoints that I tend to encounter:

  1. cultural relativism: the view that morality is just whatever the local culture says it is,

  2. psychological egoism: the idea that people only do whatever they think will make them happy, and;

  3. religious necessity: the view that the only reason people can genuinely be moral is if they believe in God.

I acknowledge there is much that may be said in favour of versions of each of these theses. But in my experience these views can be held in a naïve and unreflective form where they create problems for those trying to teach and develop applied ethics. Teachers, in particular, need to be able to provide the basic arguments that may be given to a student who challenges course material by saying, ‘It’s all relative really, so why should we care what you say?’ or ‘This is naïve. People only ever do what makes them happy anyway.’ There are powerful philosophical arguments against the simplistic versions of these views – but they are views that often arise as soon as people start thinking and talking about ethics.

Third, learning moral philosophy can help motivate – or at least energize interest in – moral behaviour. This is not to say that the first principles arguments of Aristotle, Kant or Mill are better fillips to moral action than institutional structures or entrenched cultural practices. But such theories can play an important supplementary role – consider, for example, the many people who become committed vegetarians after reading Peter Singer’s books.

As a more general matter, though, I have found students can be quite excited when they are first exposed to a moral theory that seems to make sense of their previously unexamined moral intuitions. They find that a theory such as utilitarianism explains something about them, and who they are, and this plays a role in forming and concretising a moral identity for them. Thenceforth, they see themselves as utilitarians.

Fourth, Bowden draws an unwarranted distinction between argument and empirical evidence. Empirical evidence plays a role in argument (that is pretty much what it means to call something evidence). To be sure, Plato at the dawn of western thought instilled a proud tradition of armchair philosophy, working top-down from abstract, other-worldly principles to applied ethical conclusions with little engagement with history or anthropology. But it did not take long for his student Aristotle to develop the alternative tradition, where serious ethical thought is infused with evidence about cultures, practices and institutions, and about what works and what does not. If we think that empirical evidence is a vital way of ensuring our ethics is in touch with lived reality, then this does not mean we should avoid philosophy. Rather, it means we should engage with the sort of moral philosophy that is informed by genuine understanding of actual human institutions and how they operate. Far from being contrasted with the workings of actual social institutions, philosophy can itself study and improve our knowledge of these. AAPAE Members doubtless will be able to think of many instances of this – Professor Daniel Wueste’s paper at our recent 2012 conference, discussing the construction of professional roles and responsibilities according to the purpose the institution in question serves, and the significance of factors such as trust and knowledge in this process, is an excellent example.

For these four reasons, I submit, moral philosophy has much to offer the teaching and development of professional and applied ethics.

Before concluding, though, I must respond to the important point Bowden makes about philosophical disputations. Philosophy might spark division because it raises the questions of ‘Why be moral?’ and ‘What are the fundamental principles of morality?’ And it is altogether possible that people who might be able to agree on the proper response to a moral problem might hold sharp disagreements on these deeper questions. If we needed agreement on first principles before we could start creating practices and institutions that treat people decently, we would all have died out long ago.

Another way philosophy focuses attention on disputations occurs because in teaching and thinking about different ethical theories philosophers need to differentiate those theories from one another, and an important mode of accomplishing this task is by considering cases where the theories give rise to different moral prescriptions. So, for instance, we are invited to speculate on fantastic cases that allegedly show stark differences between utilitarianism and deontology. And in general we philosophers spend much more time pondering the ‘hard cases’ about which there can be much fascinating and revealing disagreement, rather than emphasizing how much agreement there is on the overwhelming amount of ordinary issues people confront every day.

These are important points, but awareness of them can generate sensitive responses. These contentious matters rightly receive emphasis in philosophical theory for the plain reason that philosophers do not need to debate matters where there is little serious disagreement. But this narrow emphasis becomes less helpful when we turn to helping teach and promote ethical practices. There the focus should centre on the enormous amount of issues upon which there is wide consensus, and direct attention to the project of motivating and empowering individuals and institutions to do the right thing.

Finally, it is worth remembering that argument does not necessarily mean endless, confrontational disputation. Argument can also mean rational discussion aimed at persuading another person of the merits of your view, and being open to the merits of theirs. There are other ways of responding to moral differences, after all, that are not as civilised. Far from being a pernicious handicap, a world where consensus is rare, the ability to solve problems by giving and listening to another person’s reasons is a precious one.