Virtual Special Issue: The methodology of ethical theory

Thomas Schramme

Free articles available below this introduction

Our journal, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, has always been home to papers that discuss methodological concerns. This virtual special issue makes globally accessible numerous examples of such publications to the interested reader. Ethical Theory is itself a term that allows interpretation. In one reading it builds the contrast to moral practice. Here, theory is concerned with systematising moral beliefs, principles and the like. In another reading, which is more to the point pursued here, ethical theory is concerned with the practice of theorising. If ethics is the theory of morality, then ethical theory may be understood as the theory of the theory of morality. Seen this way the notion naturally lends itself to methodological concerns. How are we (moral philosophers) to theorise about morality? What are the elements we may use in devising an ethical theory? Is theorising in ethics just like theorising in other areas where we aim at knowledge? What are the purposes of ethical theories? Are theories at all possible in ethics?

In textbooks on ethics one often finds a systematic distinction between metaethics, normative ethics and applied (or practical) ethics. It is a curious fact that there is almost never a discussion of the methodology of ethics. Perhaps it is assumed that this is either redundant – because the methods of ethics are supposed to be simply the same as the methods of philosophy more generally – or it is assumed that such discussion of methodology is impossible because of the vast amount of different methods in ethics.

What makes the absence of methodological thinking in introductory ethics books remarkable is the fact that ethics usually works with theoretical elements. We are familiar with elaborate versions of, say, utilitarianism and we also refer to meta-ethical theories, such as cognitivism. To develop and use ethical theories surely requires some methodological awareness? The methodological questions mentioned earlier call for a meta-perspective in ethical theory. Note that such problems are not the same as what we do in meta-ethics, however. Meta-ethics involves theorising about epistemological, ontological or linguistic elements of morality. Discussing the methodology of ethics involves theorising about the theory of morality.

An important debate about the methodology of ethics is discussed under the (perhaps misleading) label anti-theory (Clarke & Simpson 1989; Louden 1992; Furrow 1995; Sorell 2000; Chappell 2015). Some philosophers have rejected the notion that normative theories of morality make sense as theories. One reason might be that theories usually aim at justification of beliefs and that this might be impossible; another reason might be that ethical theories emulate scientific theories and that this is allegedly not adequate. Theorising hence might be simply unnecessary or even dangerous when it comes to issues of morality – perhaps it is enough for moral practice to have fitting moral attitudes or intuitions. Accordingly, perhaps we should reject the idea of theories in the realm of morality? Yet, how can we even make sense of the philosophical debate on anti-theory in ethics if we do not know how to understand and itself theorise these issues? In other words, how can we make sense of such a philosophical debate if we do not discuss the methodology of ethical theorising?

One of the classic modern texts in moral philosophy is called The Methods of Ethics. Surely we would assume to find some interesting thoughts about methodology in Sidgwick's magnum opus? But what he refers to as methods are hedonism, common-sense morality and utilitarianism. Roger Crisp, in his marvellous study on Sidgwick, accordingly states that "[h]is book should perhaps have been titled The Ultimate Principles of Ethics" (Crisp 2015, p.21). Similarly, an introductory book by Marcia Baron, Phillip Pettit and Michael Slote is called Three Methods of Ethics. Here we learn that the three methods covered are Kantian ethics, the consequentialist perspective and virtue ethics. Hence, in a word, methods are identified with normative theories. What has gone wrong here; or has anything gone wrong?

When pressed to state their methodology, a popular answer moral philosophers give is that they are aiming at reflective equilibrium. This model is supposed to strike a balance between intuitive beliefs about cases and more general, principled considerations, as well as some additional, partly factual assumptions that form the background of ethical deliberation. Given the popularity of reflective equilibrium, surprisingly little has been written about the method (but see Tersman 1993; Daniels 1996; van der Burg & van Willigenburg 1998).

Some of the most interesting methodological contributions to ethics have come from applied ethics (DeMarco & Fox 1986; Edel et al. 1994; Sugarman & Sulmasy 2001; Tomlinson 2012). Perhaps this is because applied ethics aims at concrete answers to moral issues of public concern and is therefore under considerable pressure to lay out its methods of justification. Publications from an applied angle are important contributions to the philosophical literature and, to my mind, show why the fashionable distinction between meta-ethics, normative ethics and applied ethics at best serves analytical purposes only; seen more critically, the separation might undermine methodological progress in moral philosophy.

A final thought: There is considerable philosophical discussion about the methodology of devising theories in philosophy of science. Why does this debate have almost no impact on ethical theory? Perhaps philosophers such as Abraham Edel can be rediscovered. Edel published numerous books that are pertinent to our discussion. In these studies, he distinguished four main methods: First, the analytical method, where conceptual elements of the apparatus of ethical theories are studied; second, a descriptive method with a focus on moral experiences and processes; third, a causal-explanatory method, which examines the conditions of the presence of moral phenomena; and, fourth, an evaluative method aiming at standards of assessment.

I suppose these distinctions by themselves are not surprising and they are possibly implicit in the work of many moral philosophers. But Edel has more to offer than these distinctions as such. I personally found his metaphor of "stage-setting" by theory interesting and helpful. Theories, he claims, provide "existential perspectives". They might be based on scientific or trans-scientific – mainly theological or metaphysical – assumptions. For Edel, there is accordingly no such thing as the autonomy of ethics in the strict sense, because it is always infused with theoretical elements from other spheres.

Altogether, there seems to be a dearth of publications in a vital area of moral philosophy. Perhaps the papers, which are here made accessible to everyone, not just subscribers of the journal, can be used as a starting point of a more thorough discussion.


Baron, M.W.; Pettit, P.; Slote, M. 1997. Three Methods of Ethics: A Debate. Oxford: Blackwell.

Chappell, S.G. (ed.) 2015. Intuition, Theory, and Anti-Theory in Ethics. New York: Oxford University Press.

Clarke, S.G. & Simpson, E (eds.) 1989. Anti-theory in ethics and moral conservatism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Crisp, R. 2015. The Cosmos of Duty: Henry Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Daniels, N. 1996. Justice and Justification: Reflective Equilibrium in Theory and Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

DeMarco, J.P. & Fox, R.M. (eds.) 1986. New Directions in Ethics: The Challenge of Applied Ethics. New York and London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Edel, A. 1961. Science and the Structure of Ethics. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Edel, A. 1963. Method in Ethical Theory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Edel, A.; Flower, E. & O'Connor, F.W. 1994. Critique of Applied Ethics: Reflections and Recommendations. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Furrow, D. 1995. Against Theory: Continental and Analytic Challenges in Moral Philosophy. New York: Routledge.

Louden, Robert B.: Morality and Moral Theory: A Reappraisal and Reaffirmation. Oxford 1992.

Sidgwick, H. 1907. The Methods of Ethics. 7th Edition. Indianapolis: Hackett 1981.

Sorell, T. 2000. Moral Theory and Anomaly. Oxford: Blackwell;

Sugarman, J. & Sulmasy, D.P. (eds.) 2001. Methods in Medical Ethics. Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Tersman, F. 1993. Reflective Equilibrium: An Essay in Moral Epistemology. Stockholm: Almqwist & Wiksell 1993.

Tomlinson, T. 2012. Methods in Medical Ethics: Critical Perspectives. New York: Oxford University Press

van der Burg, W. & van Willigenburg, T. (eds.) 1998. Reflective Equilibrium: Essays in Honour of Robert Heeger. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publ.

Robert Audi

1998, Volume 1, Issue 1, pp 15-44

Moderate Intuitionism and the Epistemology of Moral Judgment


Hallvard Lillehammer

1999, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 117-133

Analytical Dispositionalism and Practical Reason


K. Kappel

April 2006, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 131-147

The Meta-Justification of Reflective Equilibrium


Johan Brännmark

November 2009, Volume 12, Issue 5, pp 449-462

Ethical Theories and the Transparency Condition


Nora Hämäläinen

November 2009, Volume 12, Issue 5, pp 539-553

Is Moral Theory Harmful in Practice?—Relocating Anti-theory in Contemporary Ethics


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