ArgLab • Colloquium

Norbert Paulo

Stability in Ethical Theories

In the past three decades the relation between classical ethical theories and applied ethics saw a dramatic shift. At first, applied ethics struggled to be recognized as a distinct field in philosophy. Nowadays, the question is more if and how classical ethics is still relevant to resolve ethical problems in particular cases. Applied ethics has to a significant degree emancipated itself from classical ethics. This led to the accusation that applied ethics is not anymore a serious enterprise and lacks theoretical bracing for two reasons: First, applied ethics lacks a proper foundation; second, there is no stable connection between the foundation and the various more applied parts of the theories. The paper tackles the latter critique in two steps. The first step is to examine the method of specification that Henry Richardson introduced in 1990 and that is nowadays widely used in bioethics. The examination shows how seriously applied ethicists take the need of a stable connection between the foundational parts of their theories and their further development as well as their “application” to particular problems or cases. But it also highlights that specification—just like other methods such as deduction and analogy—needs to be complemented by a theory of interpretation. The second step brings a constructive turn to the argument by comparing specification to deduction as used in legal theory. This comparison strengthens the argument for the need of a theory of interpretation and reveals the embeddedness of methods such as deduction and specification in other forms of practical reasoning. I argue that specification merges into deduction and that the methods used in legal theory can also guarantee stability in ethical theories.


Norbert Paulo, Universität Hamburg