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Moral theories in teaching applied ethics
  1. Rob Lawlor
  1. Correspondence to:
 R Lawlor
 Interdisciplinary Ethics Applied, University of Leeds, 8–12 Fenton Street, Off Woodhouse Lane, Leeds LS2 9JT, UK; r.s.lawlor{at}


It is argued, in this paper, that moral theories should not be discussed extensively when teaching applied ethics. First, it is argued that, students are either presented with a large amount of information regarding the various subtle distinctions and the nuances of the theory and, as a result, the students simply fail to take it in or, alternatively, the students are presented with a simplified caricature of the theory, in which case the students may understand the information they are given, but what they have understood is of little or no value because it is merely a caricature of a theory. Second, there is a methodological problem with appealing to moral theories to solve particular issues in applied ethics. An analogy with science is appealed to. In physics there is a hope that we could discover a unified theory of everything. But this is, of course, a hugely ambitious project, and much harder than, for example, finding a theory of motion. If the physicist wants to understand motion, he should try to do so directly. We would think he was particularly misguided if he thought that, to answer this question, he first needed to construct a unified theory of everything.

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  • iIn the same paper, Darwall1 also objects to the term “practical ethics”. And his own suggestions, “case ethics”, seems unfortunate in that it might be confused with an approach to teaching applied ethics that is based primarily around case studies.

  • iiI say “to a large extent” because there are good reasons to think we cannot avoid moral theories completely. This will be discussed in the concessions and clarifications section.

  • iiiApproaches to ethics in higher education: teaching ethics across the curriculum is available from the Philosophical and Religious Studies Subject Centre, free of charge, to all involved in learning and teaching in higher education in the UK A pdf version can be downloaded from

  • ivI am not arguing against these approaches either. I am simply remaining neutral on these approaches—they do not concern me in this paper.

  • vTony Hope also makes a similar distinction in relation to medical ethics in the first chapter of his book,3 but he appeals to Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between the fox and the hedgehog. However, Hope does not offer an argument for his approach (which I would identify as the piecemeal approach). He merely states that it is the approach that he prefers.

  • viIn relation to teaching medical ethics, Tony Hope’s book3 deserves a mention as a good example of the piecemeal approach, which is very accessible and an ideal text for introducing philosophical ethics to healthcare students.

  • viiWe can imagine a philosopher holding out a deck of cards: “pick a theory, any theory”.

  • viiiIndeed, in the case of utilitarians, many argue that utilitarians ought to be committed to the claim that we should (at least sometimes) kill the one to save two. But, as Bernard Williams6(p 94–5) stresses, utilitarians have typically been reluctant to embrace these “unpalatable conclusions”. This seems to highlight the point that even committed utilitarians have more confidence in their judgements about specific cases than they have in utilitarianism.

  • Competing interests: None.

  • Submitted to be considered for the thematic issue “Teaching ethics to healthcare students and professionals”.

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