Journal of Applied Ethics and Philosophy;vol. 6


Professional Ethics without Moral Theory : A Practical Guide for the Perplexed Non-Philosopher

Davis, Michael

Permalink :
JaLCDOI : 10.14943/jaep.6.1
KEYWORDS : Ethics;Morality;Moral theory;Profession;Teaching


My thesis is that any course in professional ethics —even in a philosophy department —is, all else equal, better without moral theory than with it. In defending this thesis, I shall return to a debate I had with Bernie Gert and Ed Harris a few years ago, itself the culmination of almost four decades of teaching professional ethics and more than two decades of teaching others to do the same. I am, I should make clear, not against moral theory (the attempt to understand morality as a reasonable undertaking). Indeed, not only do I enjoy teaching a course in moral theory every few years and publish on the subject now and then, I would agree that, in principle, moral theory can not only enlighten students but also be useful to them, helping them to identify moral issues they might otherwise overlook, seek information they might otherwise not think relevant, and formulate courses of action that might otherwise not occur to them. My thesis is entirely practical: Given the time normally allotted to a course in professional ethics (45 or so classroom hours), moral theory will never be useful enough. There is always a less-timeconsuming way to do what moral theory can also do, leaving more room for other topics that a course in professional ethics should include. Moral theory is, therefore, always a waste of time in a professional-ethics course.