The independence of practical ethics

Theor Med Bioeth. 2001;22(2):87-105. doi: 10.1023/a:1011403909450.


After criticizing three common conceptions of the relationship between practical ethics and ethical theory, an alternative modeled on Aristotle's conception of the relationship between rhetoric and philosophical ethics is explored. This account is unique in that it neither denigrates the project of searching for an adequate comprehensive ethical theory nor subordinates practical ethics to that project. Because the purpose of practical ethics, on this view, is to secure the cooperation of other persons in a way that respects their status as free and equal, it seeks to influence the judgments of others by providing them with reasons that are accessible to their own understanding. On this account, the independence of practical ethics is rooted in an appreciation of the constraints that nonideal circumstances place on the role that the philosophically refined premises of moral theory can play in such public deliberations. Practical and philosophical ethics are united, not by shared theoretical frameworks or principles, but by the need to exercise intelligently the same intellectual and affective capacities. They are separated, not by the particularity or generality of their starting points, but by their responsiveness to the practical problem of facilitating sound normative deliberations among persons as we find them, under non-ideal circumstances.

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics*
  • Ethical Analysis*
  • Ethical Theory*
  • Freedom
  • Humans
  • Morals
  • Persuasive Communication
  • Philosophy