Ethics and Social Science: Which Kind of Co-operation?

Birnbacher, Dieter
December 1999
Ethical Theory & Moral Practice;Dec1999, Vol. 2 Issue 4, p319
Academic Journal
The relation between ethics and social science is often conceived as complementary, both disciplines cooperating in the solution of concrete moral problems. Against this, the paper argues that not only applied ethics but even certain parts of general ethics have to incorporate sociological and psychological data and theories from the start. Applied ethics depends on social science in order to asses the impact of its own principles on the concrete realities which these principles are to regulate as well as in order to propose practice rules suited to adapt these principles to their respective contexts of application. Examples from medical ethics (embryo research) and ecological ethics (Leopold‘s land ethic) illustrate both the contingence of practice rules in relation to their underlying basic principles and the corresponding need for a co-operation between philosophy and empirical disciplines in judging their functional merits and demerits. In conclusion, the relevance of empirical hypotheses even for some of the ‘perennial‘ problems of ethics is shown by clarifying the role played by empirical theories in the controversies about the ethical differentiation between positive and negative responsibility and the relation between utility maximisation and (seemingly) independent criteria of distributive justice in the context of social distributions.


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