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date: 08 April 2020


Abstract and Keywords

Practical ethics has only recently come into its own as a sub-discipline within philosophy. This article briefly describes the nature of practical ethics and its major subfields. It presents the theme of this book: This text discusses key issues in practical ethics. In each case the text not only maps the conceptual territory, but actively explores the landscape. The plan is to provide a book that gives a sense of the main moves and main participants in the relevant debate, while also advancing that debate.

Keywords: practical ethics, theoretical debates, sub-discipline, conceptual knowledge, applied ethics, moral understanding

1. The Emergence of Practical Ethics

Practical ethics has only recently come into its own as a sub-discipline within philosophy. When I began graduate school in the early 1970s, practical ethics was still in its infancy: the first journal in the field had just been launched; the first anthology, just published. The idea that practical ethics was then a serious subdiscipline, worthy of full membership in the philosophical community, would have been ludicrous. After all, even normative ethics, which had a rich intellectual history going back to the ancients, had itself only recently re-emerged as a recognized part of professional philosophy.

In the 1940s and 1950s ethicists were centrally concerned with the nature of moral language: they sought to identify the meaning of central moral terms like ‘good’ and ‘right’, and to explore the truth conditions, if any, for moral utterances. Old- fashioned normative ethics was largely delegated to historians of philosophy. As P. H. Nowell-Smith (1957: 24) expressed the then-common view:

The moral philosopher's task is now conceived, not to be one of conducting a theoretical inquiry into practical wisdom, but to be one of investigating questions, judgements, doubts, and beliefs that are themselves theoretical. The moral philosopher not only makes theoretical statements about his subject-matter; his subject-matter consists of theoretical statements.

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It was not surprising, then, that at that time practical ethics could not be a serious academic possibility. However, by the late 1960s and 1970s, pressures within and outside the academy—most especially the appearance of a bevy of social movements—allowed normative ethics to reclaim a place at the philosophical table. But it was initially a secondary place. Still late into the twentieth century some philosophers thought meta-ethics was the apex of philosophical enquiry. For them normative ethics—and therefore indirectly practical ethics—was dependent upon a well-worked-out meta-ethics. As Michael Smith (1995: 2) put it:

Despite their interest in normative ethics, however, philosophers have not tended to think that these sorts of questions are of the first importance in moral philosophy.… rather they have thought we should do normative ethics only after we have given satisfactory answers to certain questions in meta-ethics Philosophers have surely been right to give meta- ethical questions a certain priority over questions of normative ethics.

By that time, however, practical ethics had already begun to emerge as a serious sub-discipline. The aforementioned re-emergence of normative ethics, coupled with significant social upheavals, opened a space within which practical ethics could appear. In the 1960s, popular culture and college campuses were the scene of heated debates about racial and sexual discrimination, the war in Vietnam, abortion, and the degradation of nature. In this environment, courses dedicated to the careful discussion of these issues could bolster falling enrolments. Even those suspicious of practical ethics's philosophical pedigree recognized its drawing power in the classroom.

Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to infer that its heightened status simply reflects a prudential decision to boost departmental enrolments. There has also been a significant shift in professional attitudes. In general, philosophers conceive of their role more broadly than did philosophers of the 1940s. The increasing interest in practical ethics since the early 1970s is just one instance of this change. Philosophers known primarily for their work in normative and meta- ethics are now making forays into practical ethics. They are peering over—and even tearing down—the once high walls between meta-, normative, and practical ethics. Some are doing practical ethics and many others are proclaiming its relation to normative and meta-ethics. For instance, Stephen Darwall (1998: 12) rejects any clear separation between meta-ethics and normative ethics, while Shelly Kagan not only eschews the distinction between meta-ethics and normative ethics (1998: 7), but also renounces any firm distinction between normative and practical ethics (1998: 5). One indication of its heightened status is that the most recent— and admittedly controversial—Leiter Report identifies the top two philosophy departments in the English-speaking world as either good or excellent in applied philosophy (Leiter 2001). Practical ethics is here to stay. The changed status of the field has doubtless driven some shifts in the nature of the field, shifts I now discuss.

(p. 3) 2. The Nature of Practical Ethics

Practical ethics at its best exhibits the virtues of any good philosophy: it eschews unqualified grand claims; it is careful, clear, thoughtful, and theoretically informed. Specifically, it is the explicit discussion of practical ethical issues, by philosophers, in their capacity as philosophers. That definition, of course, covers considerable conceptual turf. That is as it should be. We should not exclude important work from the realm of practical ethics on narrow ideological grounds, especially since, as a new sub-discipline, it is still defining itself. And, like all new sub-disciplines, it defines itself more by how it is practised than by bare self-description.

Of course there is a clear family resemblance between what practical ethicists are doing at the beginning of the twenty-first century and what they were doing in the 1970s. However, there are also significant alterations in the way it is practised, at least changes in emphases. These are both the product of, and partly responsible for, its enhanced status within philosophy more generally.

The four most important changes, to my mind, have been (a) the emergence of sub-fields, (b) a diminishing role for bare intuitions, (c) a heightened concern for and reliance on empirical data, and (d) a more robust relation between ethical theorizing and practical ethical discussion. These changes have been gradual, and, in some cases, their nature is apparent only in retrospect. I predict each of these tendencies will continue into the foreseeable future. Understanding them will help better understand what practical ethics is and what practical ethicists do.

2.1 The Emergence of Sub-Fields

People who now work in practical ethics are increasingly inclined to identify them- selves as working in one of its sub-fields. Indeed, there are probably few of us who think of ourselves more as generalists in practical ethics than as a specialist in one of those sub-fields. Medical ethics and business ethics are the best established, with environmental ethics arguably the fastest growing; the prominence of this triumvirate is signalled by the facts that (a) each now has four or more specialized journals, (b) an increasing number of academic and non-academic jobs now require one of these sub-specialities, and (c) there are specialized programmes and even degrees in each. Still other practical ethicists now describe themselves as working in legal ethics, journalistic ethics, engineering ethics, research ethics, or professional ethics more broadly. Within these newer areas, there are also a growing number of journals, programmes, and advertised jobs. The emergence of these areas of sub-specialization indicates practical ethics's professional maturation. But specialization has its costs.

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First, much of the work in early years of a sub-field is spent trying to define the field: to differentiate itself from other disciplines, to identify core issues, to categorize the basic options, to trace important argumentative lines, and to expose wholly untenable positions. Work at this stage can be very exciting, but is often deeply flawed. Since the central issues have not yet been clearly delineated, philosophers may be prone to two opposite mistakes. Some may blindly embrace and defend the status quo, while others may cavalierly reject it without fully understanding or appreciating its insights or rationale (Gaita 1991: 315–16). Arguably early work in biomedical ethics (formerly called simply ‘medical ethics’) exhibited both tendencies. Some practitioners, suffering from science envy, blindly defended current medical practice, while others, who failed to understand the operation of modern medicine, advocated changes that, in the light of the medical institution's operation, were simply untenable. Then, once a field moves into professional adolescence, practitioners may become unduly adversarial; they may also get bogged down into argumentative ruts dug by their predecessors (see, for example, Battin's discussion (Chapter 26, this volume) of the cur- rent status of the debate over physician-assisted suicide).

Secondly, the appearance of sub-fields can encourage inappropriate and mis- leading specialization where the problems within each are thought to be—or treated as if they were—sui generis. Practitioners may say or imply that they can satisfactorily resolve this issue while effectively ignoring others. This tendency is in tension with the third change, which I discuss later.

2.2 The Role of Intuitions

Since the 1930s philosophers have debated the role of intuitions in ethics. Some have derided them, while others see them as essential epistemological tools. Among the latter group, some see intuitions as the central element of a formal moral theory, while others see them as having a vital, but more limited, role in moral reasoning. Those who see them as the central elements of moral theory are intuitionists. Intuitionism gained its full expression in the work of Ross (1930/1988). According to Ross and his followers ‘there are a number of distinct moral principles or duties some of these duties are fundamental or underivative. These principles are not them- selves grounded in, or derived from, some more general theory’ (McNaughton 2000: 269). Although Intuitionism, as a formal theory, has been out of favour, it is making a bit of a philosophical comeback (Stratton-Lake 2002). Were it again to become a lively theoretical option, there is nothing in principle that would prevent its adherents from engaging in practical ethics. Nonetheless, few do, perhaps because many also embrace particularism (Hooker and Little 2000), and those committed to stronger forms of particularism will, because of their views of moral reasoning, be unable to say anything general about particular issues (Hooker 2000: 16–21).

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Although most philosophers are wary of full-blown intuitionism, most also believe intuitions of some form are crucial elements of sound moral reasoning, important tools for constructing or testing a moral theory. As Kamm (1995: 84) put its:

A second idea that people may have in mind when they discuss the relations between theory and practice is the view that the correctness of a theory can be tested, and a theory be changed, by seeing its implications for hypothetical cases and also for real cases. I believe theories should be tested, at least in part, in this way.

Kamm suggests that we begin with a (proto-)theory, and then explore the implications of that theory. If the implications clash with our intuitions (our pre-theoretical moral beliefs, whether specific, general, or abstract), then the theory must be rejected or modified. Theory, in this view, is thus a way of unifying our intuitions about which we are confident, so that we will be empowered to act rationally when we face issues or circumstances about which we are not so confident.

The idea that we must use intuitions in framing our moral theories is clearly in the air. The best-known way of describing their role, made popular by Rawls, gives intuitions a somewhat more circumscribed role. Bare intuitions, Rawls claims, are illegitimate starting points for moral deliberation since they may be unduly influenced by ‘extraneous factors’—personal quirks, societal indoctrination, and bias. Intuitions, duly pruned of these factors, are ‘considered judgements’; these are starting points for sound moral deliberation. However, they are not simply tests for theories; they, too, are subject to theorizing. Here's how. We begin with considered judgements as afirsttest for our theories: sometimes an intuition is very strong and our theoretical commitments weak. If so, barring any further information, we (temporarily) abandon the theoretical ‘commitment’. In other cases, however, even our considered judgements are weak or fuzzy and our theoretical commitments are strong. If so, barring any further information, we abandon or at least modify them. We work back and forth between our ‘considered judgements’ and further theorizing, until wefinallyreach ‘reflective equilibrium’ (Rawls 1971: 48–51).

There are three important lessons about this Rawlsian method for the way that practical ethics is practised: (1) we begin ethical enquiry by reflecting upon our ‘inherited’ moral beliefs—what we were taught by our parents or cultures—there is nowhere else to begin; (2) those beliefs, as embodied in our intuitions, are not inerrant; and (3) the best theory is the one that makes the best overall sense of all our beliefs—moral and otherwise. However appealing this methodology is, it does not easily yield specific answers to practical ethical issues. Not even in Rawls's view. But it does help motivate the need for more extensive empirical knowledge and more careful theorizing. After all, this model presupposes that knowledge is importantly holistic: that no knowledge stands entirely on its own; it is shaped and some- times rejected because of other knowledge we have. Seen in this way, Rawlsian reflective equilibrium is a practical adaptatiorTof Qulne's idea of a ‘web of belief (Quine and Ullian 1978) and Peircian ‘ideal inquiry’. It is a recognition—if I may (p. 6) paraphrase Wilfred Sellers—that ‘The aim of (moral) philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how… (moral phenomena) in the broadest sense of the term, hang together in the broadest possible sense of that term’ (Sellars 1963: 1).

Intuitions, then, are not themselves solutions to practical ethical issues, not even for intuitionists. No one doing practical ethics thinks, talks, or acts as if she can adequately resolve a practical ethical controversy simply by appealing to her intuitions. If nothing else, she must argue from those intuitions before she can reach conclusions about practical ethical issues. People do not simply intuit the proper answer to abortion, physician-assisted suicide, capital punishment, or affirmative action. Or, if they think they do, their intuitions are unreliable.

It is not only that intuitions do not do all the work in practical ethics. I sense that intuitions, in any robust sense—where they are thought to be more than summaries of previous ethical experience, and thus, starting points for ethical deliberation— play a diminishing role. When perusing the essays in this volume, you will notice, I think, just how limited a role intuitions play in the current description of, or tentative solutions to, these issues. Those currently working in the field are less likely to resort to intuitions; they are especially less likely to employ highly fictionalized examples as ‘intuition pumps’ (Dennett 1984) to defend certain positions on practical ethical issues. To the limited extent that some use such examples, they standardly use them to explain a position rather than offering them as the principal premisses defending that position. In fact, the best work in practical ethics is now more inclined to exhibit considerable familiarity with relevant empirical details.

2.3 The Role of Empirical Data

Just as many philosophers of science once thought—or wrote as if they thought— that they could ply their trade in relative ignorance of the actual practice of science, many practical ethicists once thought—or wrote as if they thought—that they could solve practical ethical issues without any detailed awareness of the practical details of the problem they were discussing. Both sub-disciplines have realized the error of their ways. Philosophers of science now standardly understand scientific practice and are usually well acquainted with recent scientific developments. They read not only other philosophers but also practising scientists. And their awareness of the practice of science shapes their philosophical work. Practical ethicists are likewise more prone to know relevant empirical details (legal, political, sociological, and economic) about ethical issues they discuss. And those details shape their philosophical discussion. Perhaps not as much as they should; but more than they once did (Glover 1999: 6).

These empirical details serve two related purposes. First, since practical ethics aims to say something informative about the moral appropriateness of individual behaviours and institutional structures or actions, then, on virtually any moral (p. 7) theory, we need adequate empirical data to know when and how the moral theory is relevant to that behaviour or institution. If we do not understand the circumstances under which many people die or in which most people make decisions about the end of life, then we will fail to fully understand and appreciate both the appeal of, and disquiet about, physician-assisted suicide. Unless we understand the circumstances in which people are impoverished and starve, we will not know how to evaluate either individual actions or political and economic institutions that might cause or prevent such impoverishment. And, unless we understand the nature and long-term effects of systematic discrimination, we cannot seriously entertain arguments for affirmative action. In short, without these (and many other) empirical details, abstractly asking whether physician-assisted suicide is justified, whether we have an obligation to help the starving, or whether affirmative action is justified will tell us little. It will probably lead us on misleading argumentative tracks.

Secondly, awareness of detailed empirical data will guide moral theorizing in at least two different ways. First, it gives content to our moral principles and moral considerations. Without knowledge of empirical details, our principles and considerations remain unacceptably amorphous. We may say, for example, that we should maximize the greatest happiness of the greatest number or that we should respect people's rights. However, those claims are little more than vague objects of our homage unless we have some knowledge of human psychology, the nature of human happiness and autonomy, and an awareness of the ways that our, others', and institutions’ actions shape people's abilities to be happy or to live autonomously. Often, though, we do not notice the importance of this empirical knowledge because we normally converse about these issues with others of similar background, education, inclination, and information. Imagine, though, trying to discuss these moral principles with the average 6 year old; children of that age simply cannot understand these principles in any robust way.

Second, a serious acquaintance with the empirical details is one of, and arguably the best, means of ensuring that we do not blindly adopt the moral status quo. If we do not understand the way people act and the way our world works, we will lack a plausible standpoint from which rationally to evaluate current practices, and will therefore be more inclined to embrace that status quo. If our extant ‘moral principles’ condone slavery, or forbid women or ethnic minorities from voting—as they once did—then one (and perhaps the only) way of undermining those ‘principles’ is to become vividly aware of the practice of slavery and systematic discrimination, and to understand the nature, abilities, intelligence, and feelings of slaves, minorities, and women. Such knowledge and experience impel us to rethink our theoretical commitments, and surely one of the central aims of ethical theorizing is to help us battle bias, ignorance, short-sightedness, and selfishness (Nussbaum 2000). Anyone who teaches introductory ethics students knows just how often the students’ moral views are skewed because of their relative ignorance of human psychology, and complete unfamiliarity with economic, social, and political institutions.

(p. 8) 2.4 Theory and Practice

When people talk about the relation of theory to practice, they sometimes speak, or suggest, that we merely apply a theory, perhaps the way an engineer might apply a mathematical formula in designing a bridge. The old (and still widely used) name ‘Applied Ethics’ feeds this supposition. It implies that we have a theory, and that from that theory, in conjunction with the description of the current situation, we can straightforwardly derive the appropriate action. Thus, the relation between ethical theory and practical ethical deliberation is roughly the relationship between Newton's second law and the force of an accelerating car. By using the law and the statement of initial conditions, we can calculate the force of the moving vehicle. What is crucial in both the moral and the scientific cases is that we must first have the correct theory. The theory dictates the answer to the practical issue.

That is not, I think, the proper account of the relation between practical ethics and ethical theory. However, the proper alternative is not to jettison theory, as some philosophers claim or suggest (e.g. Williams 1985; Baier 1989), and as some early practitioners of practical ethics seemed to do. Both approaches err in assuming that theory and practice are fundamentally separate enquiries. However, practice without theory lacks direction; it becomes little more than a loose amalgam of reactions to specific cases, while theory without practice runs the danger of'building castles in the air that nowhere touch the ground.’ It becomes an intellectual game only vaguely connected to the very phenomena it is supposed to understand and explain. What we must do is acknowledge that theory and practice are deeply related. Sound practical ethics must be theoretically sophisticated, and a workable moral theory must understand how that theory might be embodied in practice. The best work in practical ethics is increasingly theoretically sophisticated, and, when done well, helps illuminate that theory.

When we think carefully about practical issues, we are impelled to theorize— although that does not mean that we merely ‘apply’ a theory. Such reflection reveals the connections between particular cases, isolates the contrasts between competing theoretical perspectives, and becomes aware of tensions between what we were taught and what experience and reflection reveal. These require us to step back from our preconceptions to examine an issue more abstractly. We begin to see that we cannot think clearly about racial and sexual discrimination unless we think about the moral status of groups; that thinking about love,friendship,and families requires us to think about the nature and role of impartiality in ethics; that we cannot evaluate competing theories of punishment unless we think more broadly about the nature of responsibility; that we cannot evaluate corporate responsibility or the practice of whistleblowing unless we also think about the moral status of corporations; that, in resolving the issue of world hunger, we must discuss the demandingness of morality; and that we cannot think about any of these issues unless we explore competing major theories and determine the moral relevance, if any, of the (p. 9) act/omission distinction, the principle of double effect, and so on. Then when we are theorizing, we are further led to think about still other practical ethical issues— to see how theoretical considerations are raised and realized within them. That con- strains how we should think about each of these issues. For instance, if we employ the act/omission distinction to explain why we are not obliged to help the starving, how can we then reject that distinction when advancing the ‘Best Bet’ argument about capital punishment? Or, if we employ consequentialist considerations when defending our view on abortions, how can we then reject those same considerations when arguing against affirmative action? In short, we find we must think more holistically about ethical theory, meta-ethics, and practical ethics—to conceive of ethical thought, broadly understood, as a web of belief.

Finally, sustained and careful discussion of practical ethical quandaries can heighten our moral understanding and moral imagination, and therefore increase the chance that we will act appropriately. One benefit of higher cognitive thought is, as Popper was fond of saying, that hypotheses can die in our stead. We can learn from imagination: we need not have an experience to know what might have happened if we had. If we think carefully about and reflect upon our own experience— and the chronicle of others’ experience—we can go some distance towards identifying the best ways to behave. Practical ethics, as the systematic discussion of practical moral issues, thus becomes a fountain of hypothetical experience that enriches our moral imaginations and makes us vividly aware of the subtleties of both theory and practice.

When seen in this way, practical ethics is—or could become—the ideal bridge between practice and ethical theorizing. If we approach ethics more holistically, we increase the likelihood that discussion of practical cases does not become unprincipled, and that theory does not become empty.

Each of these four changes helps drive the development of debates within practical ethics. Some options that once seemed defensible have been abandoned, and replaced by more careful, and more theoretically and empirical sensitive analyses. My aim is that the essays in this volume will serve as a suitable guide to professionals who want to know about these developments, and that the contributors to this volume will further advance those debates.

3. The Structure of the Volume

The Oxford Handbooks are designed for professionals and graduate students— not (primarily) for undergraduates or the general public. Each handbook will include chapters profiling and evaluating the current work in some segment of a professional field. Taken as a whole, each will give professionals a firm understanding (p. 10) of the current status of work within that field. The Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics is one of the first philosophy books in that series. It includes twenty-eight lengthy chapters on key issues in practical ethics. In each case I have invited authors who can not only map the conceptual territory, but are themselves active explorers on that landscape. The plan is to provide a handbook that allows professionals and graduate students who want to familiarize themselves with a practical ethical issue to have one chapter that provides that relevant background, and that gives them a sense of the main moves and main participants in that debate, while also advancing that debate.

To provide some structure to the volume, I have arranged chapters into six broad categories running the gamut from the intensely personal through the social to the international: Our Personal Lives, Moral Status, Equality, The Just Society, Justice and International Relations, and Life and Death. This reveals the range of issues that properly come under the rubric of ‘practical ethics’. However, we should not take these categories too seriously; after all, they do not carve the moral universe at its joints. There are alternative schemes I could have used, schemes that would also have made sense.

Certainly I do not want to beg too many practical or theoretical questions by this categorization. For instance, by placing abortion in the category called ‘Moral Status’, I am not, for instance, merely assuming the ‘right-to-life’ position. I might have placed it in the ‘Equality’ part, but then it might have seemed that I was begging the question in favour of the ‘right-to-choose’ position. In the end, I decided to categorize abortion as I did largely because of historical considerations—that this is the way, rightly or wrongly, that the problem was first characterized. That does not mean that characterization is correct. It does mean, however, that we can best understand the debate by first understanding its history, even if we eventually conclude that the history was misguided. Minimally, we should understand that any adequate ‘solution’ to the issue must address both types of considerations, even if it is only to argue that some of them are morally irrelevant.

Likewise, by putting war under ‘Life and Death’ I do not mean to deny that it is also or even primarily a question of’Justice and International Relations’, or even of ‘Equality’. I put it there because one crucial set of issues we must address to resolve this issue comprises issues it shares with euthanasia and capital punishment. But it certainly does not exhaust the issues one must resolve to think morally about war.

I do not find this overlap either confusing or undesirable. Rather, I see this as one important indication of the extent to which (and the ways in which) practical ethics has advanced. Philosophers concerned about any of these issues are becoming increasingly aware of the complexities of the issues, and increasingly attentive to the interconnections between seemingly disparate moral issues. No issue is an island unto itself. Each engages both empirical data and theoretical considerations that are common to other practical moral issues. These connections will be apparent as you read many of these chapters. This now gives us another way to see one earlier (p. 11) expressed worry about undue specialization: it leads practitioners to assume they can resolve one practical ethical issue without confronting underlying theoretical issues and without thinking about other practical issues. Practical ethics, well done, combats this danger of specialization by keeping us well aware of the interconnection between different issues and between theory and practice.


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