How Useful is Applied Ethics for Moral Theory?

Below Matt Zvolinski argued that in teaching and
researching applied ethics systematic moral theory should play only a small
role and can even be confusing and harmful. By and large, I agree with him.
However, I’m starting to change my mind about the opposite question. That is,
we can ask is applied ethics useful for moral theory. I did not think that it would be at all, but slowly I’m starting to change my mind. Here’s one reason why.

One issue I’ve been intrigued by in moral theory is what are the fundamental structural similarities and differences between different
moral theories. One such question is what is the crucial difference, if any, between
consequentialist and deontological theories like the Kantian views and
contractualism. The second issue of course is (when we have made the
differences clear and avoided the threatening collapse) which one of these views
we should accept. I used to think that applied ethics cannot be of any help in
answering to these questions. In teasing out the differences between the views and the
supporting evidence all that is needed are abstract, stripped
thought-experiments that focus our attention to the very essential. Let the things be otherwise the same…

 

In my case one such example has been the Taurekian life-saving
incidents. Say that there is A alone in one sinking boat and B and C on an
other. You have time to go to only either one of the boats and either save A or
B and C. That is pretty much all we need, right? Consequentialism directs us to save B
and C – we get more good in that way. Some deontogists want to argue that this
fails to respect the separateness of the persons – the complaints one the both
sides are equally big – each person’s own death. No-one dies many times. So, if
we are to respect each persons’ complaints equally we need to give them an
equal chance to survive. Flip the coin then. The consequentialist intuitions in us
cry out that this is wrong and therefore the deontological views are in
trouble.

 

I once wrote a paper defending the deontological
contractualist views by arguing that they can, by relying on an ex ante perspective,
give the correct ‘save many’ answer without disrespecting the separateness of
persons. I only had A, B and C in my mind. After all, the question seemed pretty
academic and of only structural importance in moral theory. How often would people be in simultaneously sinking boats or in the opposite ends of an
island where the volcano was erupting?

 

Today, while preparing for a bioethics class, I was reminded
that this is not quite right. I was reading Paul Menzel’s paper ‘Rescuing
Lives: Can’t We Count?’. Menzel discusses real-life cases concerning organ
donors. The question is, when we have a certain number donated organs to distribute
to children who suffer from life-threatening organ failures, should we give
these to those who have multiple organ failures or should we ‘save more’ of the
children by distributing one of these organs to each of those who only need one
organ to survive?

 

So, in effect, here we have a real-life life-saving incident
that essentially is the same as the case with A, B, C. Now, it only is about
real Lauras, Anns, Bens, Johns, their parents and hundreds of others. This is
furthermore happening all the time. If our normative theories give any
prescriptions about what should be done to these people, then we better be
prepared to explain our reasons for them and defend our views against those
real people who would object. I really do think that this helps to bring the
essential issues and their importance into focus better than the A, B, C case. I’m still convinced about
what I wrote earlier but I would have had a better perspective on the problem
if I had thought about the issue in the framework of applied ethics.