We have taught a number of courses over the years from Foundations in Ethics and Law, Autonomy and Mental Health to Policy Issues in the Life Sciences, and Ethical Dilemmas of Genetic Intervention. In this section of the website, we want to put links to information, books, and papers that may be valuable to students studying bioethics. On this page, we will post a variety of materials from recommended reading lists to tips on how to write essays and papers. This section will be updated on a regular basis. We hope students will find this information helpful. Kerry Gutridge and A.M. Calladine…
What is Ethics?
Ethics is a branch of philosophy. It is concerned with the question of how should we live. Although the term is often used to encompass morality which is concerned with the question of how should we treat others. Both of these questions are normative. That is to say they are concerned with ‘should’ or ‘ought’ questions rather than ‘is’ questions – i.e. the questions that science tries to answer pertaining to empirical facts about the world. This distinction is crucial. It is important to remember that just because society, culture or people believe something to be right doesn’t mean that they should. There is a fundamental difference between social norms and normative norms. Don’t confuse them!
If you want to read more about ethics we recommend reading:
Chapter 2: The Scope and Limit of Moral Argument in Jonathan Glover’s Causing Death and Saving Lives. Click here.
Chapter 1: About Ethics in Peter Singer’s Practical Ethics. Click here.
For more on the distinction between ethics and morality, and also an interpretation which we’ll talk about later, see:
- Ronald Dworkin’s Justice for Hedgehogs. Click here.
How should we do ethics?
So if ethics is normative, how should we consider ethical issues? The essential aspect of normativity is that it is about reason and constructing an argument. It isn’t simply a process of going around and asking people what they think about certain issues of right and wrong then transcribing or describing it. While empirical approaches can enrich and provide insight into moral questions they cannot provide an answer to the question: what should we do?
For more on these sorts of issues see:
- Thomas Nagel’s The Sleep of Reason. Click here.
- Ronald Dworkin’s Objectivity and Truth. You’d Better Believe it! Click here.
- Martha Nussbaum’s Skepticism about Practical Reason in Literature and the Law. Click here.
Ethics and moral philosophy are about reason, constructing an argument, clarifying questions and interpreting concepts. Ethics should be a subversive and provocative activity. You should question orthodox morality, test it, challenge your own intuitions and the intuitions of others. Of course, your intuitions and prevailing social norms may be correct but it is only by challenging them that we can be sure. We can think here for example about historical attitudes towards slavery, women, homosexuality or perhaps other sexual practices.
The idea that moral philosophy is dangerous, subversive and challenging is perhaps exemplified by Socrates. His way of questioning, arguing and doing philosophy is an excellent example to follow. Here are the six steps of the Socratic process:
For an excellent podcast on Socrates see:
- “Provocative, rude and deliberately irritating”. A dangerous icon?
So following on from Socrates, we can perhaps discern three crucial questions for ethics:
- What should we care about? (Normative argument)
- What should the concepts mean? (Interpretation, normative argument)
- What is the argument for what we ought to do?
What should we care about?
We should try to make a case for why it is we should care about a particular ethical issue. Why is it important? What sort of an impact might it have? Is the question clear? How can it be clarified?
What should the concepts mean?
Most disagreements, morally speaking, concern what the conceptions of certain concepts ought to mean. For example, most people will agree (if they care about morality) that we ought to be just, that we ought to treat people with dignity, that we should respect someone’s autonomy etc. However, disagreements occur at a conceptual, foundational level about what justice entails, what dignity means and how we should interpret autonomy. Concepts are contested. The issue of interpretation is essential to ethics. Of course, people interpret different concepts in different ways (an empirical question). However, the question is: how should we interpret these concepts? How should they relate to each other? Is the underlying conceptual architecture in an argument consistent? For more on this see:
- Ronald Dworkin’s Justice for Hedgehogs.
- Walter Gallie’s Essentially Contested Concepts.
What is the argument for what we ought to do?
Finally, the most important thing which both of the two previous questions play into is: what is the argument? After considering why we should care, the conceptions which come in to play – what should we do? What are the arguments that other people use? How are they problematic? What is the best way of structuring your response to the question? What other questions are raised? When considering the work of others, use Davidson’s principle of charity. In other words, don’t attack straw men. Try to formulate the strongest case against what you are proposing and argue for why it is problematic. Be simple, clear and to the point. Don’t just make assertions, justify your claims. For further information see the section on advice on writing below.
Moral philosophy is also about being creative and using your imagination. Don’t just draw on philosophical texts or scholarly papers. Read widely. We can gain insight into philosophical problems by drawing on art, literature, history, psychology, work in social science and other places, for example, sport perhaps and everyday life. We shouldn’t just seek to interpret concepts but also try to interpret people’s behavior. Works of art, literature and fictional scenarios can sometimes provide insight into how people feel on the inside. Questions of moral psychology and the human condition are also important issues to contemplate when considering ethical questions. Although, like empirical data, by themselves, they cannot provide the normative force. See for example:
- Jonathan Glover’s Anna Karenina in Well Being and Morality: Essays in Honour of James Griffin. Click here.
- Martha Nussbaum’s Loves Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. Click here.
- Colin McGinn’s Ethics, Evil, and Fiction. Click here. Available on Oxford Scholarship online.
Advice on Writing
The first rule of writing – don’t bullshit. For an in-depth conceptual analysis of what bullshit is see:
- Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit. Click here.
- Gerry Cohen’s Deeper into Bullshit in Contours of Agency: Essays on Themes from Harry Frankfurt. Click here.
Some people think that philosophy is obscure, abstract and mystical. But what you should endeavor to do is be as clear and simple as possible and not leave anything out. Don’t try and be profound. Don’t use big words. Use short concise sentences. Be clear. As John Searle has said, “If you can’t say it clearly you don’t understand it yourself”. In philosophy (as perhaps with everything) simplicity is the key to perfection. It is more difficult to say something clearly and simply that it is to be obscure. Some of the best advice on writing philosophy papers (and writing in general) can be found here:
- George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language. Click here.
- Jonathan Bennett and Samuel Gorovitz’s Improving Academic Writing. Click here.
Orwell’s rules for writing (you should read the essay!):
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figures of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
Some other things to consider before writing and handing in your essay:
The grandma test: Before and while writing your essay, think about whether your grandma would be able to understand the argument and the points you are making. If someone who does not have an academic background cannot understand your work it isn’t clear enough. (Of course, your grandma may be an excellent philosopher as well!).
The pub test: Before and while writing your essay, think about whether your friends in the pub would find the issue and your work interesting. Would they care about it? What sort of arguments might, or do, they raise? This isn’t just a hypothetical suggestion. This is a good way to test out your arguments and if the people in the pub aren’t interested in your work chances are you have not considered the question we asked earlier: why should we care? Ethics should be about tackling important questions that raise real-world concerns. As the philosopher, John Dewey once said: “Philosophy recovers itself when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.”
The reading aloud tests: Before you submit your essay it is always best to read it aloud (it is even better if you can force someone else to listen). If your work doesn’t sound good on the ear it won’t be easy to read either and it will be lacking in clarity.
Teaching videos on ethics
If you would like to watch recorded teaching sessions on ethics please see:
- Jonathan Glover’s medical ethics class.