Ethics in PracticeReview - Ethics in Practice
Moral Theory and the Profession
by Andrew Alexandra and Seumus Miller
University of New South Wales Press, 2009
Review by Tom Grimwood
Jul 13th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 28)

Ethics in Practice is a resource for the teaching of professional ethics, bringing together the author's experience and research from teaching on professional courses, working as consultants for professional groups and academic writing. Each chapter is organized around a particular moral theme, starting with theoretical aspects of morality such as virtue, emotion and rationality, and moving to applied themes such as reproduction, privacy, drugs, family and so on. The chapters all begin with a series of between five and twelve 'case studies', taken from a range of sources, including philosophical texts; clinical and legal cases; newspaper articles, and examples of the author's own making. Each chapter then proceeds with an ethical analysis of what such case studies tell us about the particular concerns the subject raises, and the theoretical resources available for negotiating them. This enables each chapter to give an idea of the complexities and breadth of each area of ethics, without losing sight of the fundamental underlying philosophical issues. The book also keeps away from reducing the study of ethics to the recitation of formulas -- 'a Kantian would say this, a Utilitarian would say that' -- that is a risk for any ethics textbook. Overall, then, this is in many respects an excellent classroom resource for both professional courses and students of applied ethics.

As with any such wide-ranging textbook, however, there are some issues worth noting. Despite the steady presence of the 'applied' sense in which the book tackles morality, the case studies themselves are curiously de-contextualized. In some cases, this can be misleading: using Sartre's example of a waiter to illustrate role morality (p.98) is useful for certain audiences, but there's no mention of how Sartre himself sees the waiter's role in relation to 'ethics' (which would reveal a more complex notion of the experience of moral agency). Likewise with the book's discussion of St. Augustine's on the emotions of sin (p.85): both of these case studies are extracted from larger bodies of work with their own, often differing, views on the nature of ethical enquiry. However, even if Alexandra and Miller succeed in maintaining a relatively diverse approach, they do not account for these particular differences. This is a pedantic point, of course, given the aim of the book is a student audience rather than Augustine scholars; all the same, even as 'mere' examples some case studies are questionable -- I'm not sure that there is any real need, in contemporary ethical discussion, to see Jim in the Jungle, with its clichéd demarcation of the rational against the savage (albeit Bernard Williams' later version). This raises a side-issue of what makes a suitable ethical 'example', which, it could be argued, is very relevant to professional ethics.

The book is much better, though, when it moves away from its rather traditionally focused starting blocks and into examples from more recent explorations into ethical dilemmas. There are still some notable absentees from this contemporary discussion: for example, feminist ethics is largely ignored, despite chapters on the themes of 'the family' and 'reproduction', areas which have seen distinctive feminist philosophical approaches in the past thirty years or so (all the more surprising, when the chapters include case studies taken from specifically feminist texts such as Dworkin). Also missing is any discussion of the post-modern critique of ethics and subsequent attempts to reconfigure ethical demands. This is understandable to an extent, given the ambiguous place of ethics within post-modern discourses. But given the interesting work being done on the relationship between, say, deconstruction and applied contexts such as business ethics, I have often found such discourses to be a more engaging and informative way of discussing the themes that Alexandra and Miller re-tread through tired old ground of 'cultural relativism'.

My criticisms on this account are largely academic, and should not take away from the fact that this is a well-structured resource for the teaching of ethics and applied ethics -- one which I can see myself utilizing. As an applied use of philosophical ethics in the professional arena, however, it does tend to commit to a particular standpoint of what such 'ethics' should require, at the expense of the perhaps less traditional, but certainly no less interesting, theoretical approaches.


© 2010 Tom Grimwood


Tom Grimwood, Lancaster University