Thursday, July 10, 2008

Ethical theory "casebook"

When I've taught ethical theory, I've found that students appreciate the various theories and their salient differences much more clearly when they have concrete examples of the theories in action. I imagine many of you have the same experience. So with that in mind, I'd like people's help in putting together an ethical theory "casebook." The idea is to gather up articles, etc., on particular practical topics that explicitly exemplify a given theoretical approach. Examples of things I have in mind are Hursthouse's "Virtue theory and abortion" or Mappes' piece on liberal Kantian sexual morality. So feel free to suggest article-theory pairs that you think might go in such a casebook. Thanks!


  1. I once used these two to compare consequentialist and deontological defenses of animal rights:

    Singer, Peter. "All Animals Are Equal." In Animal Rights and Human Obligations, edited by Tom Regan & Peter Singer. (1989)

    Regan, Tom. "The Case for Animal Rights."

    Regan's defense does a nice job of illustrating deontologists unwillingness to break moral rules to achieve good consequences. The Singer article might not be the best choice for your casebook, since a good chunk of the article consists of an argument that it's unfair to discount animal suffering. This gives his article a decidedly deontological flavor, even though the core argument for animal rights is a consequentialist one.

  2. To be picky, Singer's argument from "All Animals Are Equal" (and Animal Liberation) is not based on utilitarianism or any obvious kind of consequentialism. It's based on the principle of equality, which really isn't a moral theory anyway, it's a principle that says similar interests deserve similar consideration. It might be moral-theory neutral, so it might not fit the bill.

    For more see "Utilitarianism, Vegetarianism, and Animal Rights,"
    Tom Regan, Philosophy and Public Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Summer, 1980), pp. 305-324

  3. A Singer article that is widely used and is utilitarian is "Famine, Affluence, and Morality":

  4. Anon 7:50,

    Although the issue of equality and discrimination is a central piece of Singer's article, I do think the central argument is a consequentialist one: The basic reason for treating animals well is to avoid making them suffer. The equality bit is about whether animals' suffering matters (i.e., about whether that consequence is morally relevant).
    But the fact that Singer places so much emphasis on equality in that article is precisely why I suggested that it might not be the best exemplar of consequentialism, so I am sensitive to your point.
    I haven't yet read the Regan article you cited, though, so maybe that will change the way I read Singer's article.


    I think "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" is self-conciously theory-neutral and not particularly utilitarian. That article was my first thought, but I avoided it for just that reason.

  5. Michael,
    What ethical theories do you plan to cover?

  6. Michael,
    Here's why I think the famine article is in fact consequentialist, or at least the way I use it to illustrate it. The drowning child analogy uses a cost benefit analysis of what it costs one to save the drowning child, and then applies that same analysis of the relevant moral costs and benefits to the starving child case.
    The recent anthology entitled "Working Virtue" would be another resource for applied virtue ethics.

  7. Nathan, the usual menu in my ethical theory course is egoism, utilitarianism, Ross-style intuitionism, Kantianism, and virtue theory. (I can't think of too many articles in practical ethics written from an egoistic perspective, but anyway ...) But I'd be interested in good articles tied to other theories (religious ethics for example -- Roy Perrett's article on Buddhism and abortion is a nice example there.)

  8. What about Judith Jarvis Thomson's A defence of abortion. It could be an example of either rights theory or on some takes virtue theory, either way it is an approach well worth introducing I think.

  9. Michael,

    I suspect that finding readings that demonstrate a distinct moral theory directly applied to a practical application might be a bit challenging. This is because writers on practical ethics often try to apply to the least controversial (mid-level) moral principles they can and/or extract these principles from vivid cases and so do not commit themselves to a particular theory.

    But here's something short that, at least, straightforwardly applies egoism or a kind of contractarianism to the treatment of animals:
    Jan Narveson, “A Defense of Meat Eating

    Also on that theme, there also are some disputes between Singer (and Regan) and Ray Frey on what utilitarianism implies regarding animal agriculture.

    To keep up on the question of whether Singer's arguments from "Famine, Affluence and Morality" are utilitarian, here's what he said:

    "[I]f it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it. By "without sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance" I mean without causing anything else comparably bad to happen, or doing something that is wrong in itself, or failing to promote some moral good, comparable in significance to the bad thing that we can prevent. This principle . . requires us only to prevent what is bad, and to promote what is good, and it requires this of us only when we can do it without sacrificing anything that is, from the moral point of view, comparably important."

    This seems to me, unlike utilitarianism, to acknowledge some constraints and is less demanding.

  10. On the meat-eating front, I've found that students actually *enjoy* reading Bart Grazalsky's (I think that's his name, don't have the piece in front of me) "The Case Against Eating Meat" (h/t to Adam, who recommended this piece to me a while back to use in class).

    It's not theoretical at all, very easy to read, short arguments that are easily digested (seven of them if I recall) by an undergraduate (while remaining sufficiently controversial). As a piece for the other side, I'm not sure.

  11. One more thing -- maybe the Grazalsky piece would be paired nicely with the Narveson piece Nathan mentions. I recall that Grazalsky argues against Narveson in the piece I've recommended, so they'd fit together in that way.

  12. I think some of Bart Gruzalski's papers' "targets" are closer to some of the arguments from, among other sources, Ray Frey. The issue in some of Frey's arguments is whether any individual's personal choices regarding eating make a relevant difference to the overall outcome regarding animal production. One of Frey's papers on that is here:
    Utilitarianism and Vegetarianism Again: Protest or Effectiveness?”.

    I can scan in the Gruzalski article later, if anyone want it. (nathan.nobis @

    It's interesting that animal issues are more often considered useful to demonstrate and evaluate broad ethical theories. At least Regan and Mark Rowlands have some books that do just this. I don't think I have ever seen any other issue used in this way, e.g., "What you think about abortion, capital punishment, famine aid, euthanasia, etc. is deeply indicative of what (should) think about what the correct ethical theory might be, and vice versa." I wonder why.

  13. Nathan -

    I don't recall Frey as a target in Gruzalsky, but I do recall Narveson clearly. But I haven't read the other pieces (just G's), so I'll defer to you as I think you know them better than I do!

  14. Nathan,
    I was just thinking about the "comparable moral worth" clause today, and I think you are right in your comments about Singer's famine argument, as is David. Do you think it would be fair to classify the argument as consequentialist?


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