Empirical ethics, context-sensitivity, and contextualism

Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 30 (5):467 – 490 (2005)
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Abstract

In medical ethics, business ethics, and some branches of political philosophy (multi-culturalism, issues of just allocation, and equitable distribution) the literature increasingly combines insights from ethics and the social sciences. Some authors in medical ethics even speak of a new phase in the history of ethics, hailing "empirical ethics" as a logical next step in the development of practical ethics after the turn to "applied ethics." The name empirical ethics is ill-chosen because of its associations with "descriptive ethics." Unlike descriptive ethics, however, empirical ethics aims to be both descriptive and normative. The first question on which I focus is what kind of empirical research is used by empirical ethics and for which purposes. I argue that the ultimate aim of all empirical ethics is to improve the context-sensitivity of ethics. The second question is whether empirical ethics is essentially connected with specific positions in meta-ethics. I show that in some kinds of meta-ethical theories, which I categorize as broad contextualist theories, there is an intrinsic need for connecting normative ethics with empirical social research. But context-sensitivity is a goal that can be aimed for from any meta-ethical position.

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