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Hypotheticals, the Classroom, and Moral Biology

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  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    1. I haven’t read the paper either, but I’m curious about the use of Ph.D. ethicists as an experimental population. Did the order effect apply (i) to individual ethicists, e.g., ethicist A was presented cases in 2 or more different sequences and reached different conclusions based on the order (and likewise ethicist B, C &al.), or was it (ii) ethicists A and B were presented the case in sequence 1 and reached conclusion X, while C and D were presented the case in sequence 2 and reached conclusion Y? Case (ii) especially wouldn’t seem so surprising: how large, and how random, is the population of Ph.D. ethicists, anyway? Maybe factors such as academic genealogy, ethical proclivity (utilitarian, deontologist, etc.), culture or other factors weren’t controlled for.

    2. I also don’t know what kind of hypos you’re using in class, but the two different uses you describe seem complementary; I don’t think you need to worry about any threat. For drafting legislation or a contract, a more coherentist view is helpful: you’re trying to imagine the flow of time from the outside. But what judges do, especially in an Anglo-American style legal system, tends to be more path-dependent. There’s usually some a priori rule that’s assumed to be, or claims to be, clear and defensible — in no small part because it was the most recent in a historical sequence of pertinent laws or cases.

    If one accepts that the laws in a constitutional democracy ought to originate from politics, rather than from immutable moral principles of “natural” law, it also shouldn’t be so troubling if there isn’t one “right” answer even from a coherentist standpoint. Laws are repealed or amended all the time (contracts, too); our understanding of, say, the copyright statute or of any number of amendments to the Constitution is quite different from what it was just 20 or 25 years ago. Life is an inherently historical process at both the individual level and the generational one. Even our collective understanding of moral principles evolves historically: think of slavery or of various types of discrimination. None of that means that we can’t, or shouldn’t, make a good-faith effort to reach the best answer we can today, based on what we understand today.

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