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What Makes Ethics Practical


  • Winston, Kenneth

    (Harvard U)


The place of ethics in the curriculum of schools of public management and policy is not a settled matter. One common approach, called applied ethics, relies primarily on the work of academic philosophers and follows a two-stage process: first, work out the guiding principles (in the academy, where one is protected from worldly pressures), then apply them to the real world (where they are inevitably compromised). This essay defends an alternative approach, practical ethics, which follows John Dewey’s admonition to be guided by problems of life and practice, rather than academic disputes or disciplinary methods. The essay identifies the basic features of practical ethics, and proposes an agenda for future research. It emphasizes, above all, that practical ethics is strategic and depends crucially on the ability to exercise contingent judgment. Practical ethics takes into account the powers, opportunities, and constraints, as well as the interests (including moral interests), of human agents in particular circumstances. The picture of practical reasoning is thus at odds with the prevailing approach. The essay also addresses the peculiar position of the classroom teacher of ethics, who is not confronted by ineluctable features of real decision making, including the necessity to act and the contingencies involved in acting both effectively and well. Suggestions are offered on how the teaching of practical ethics can be improved.

Suggested Citation

  • Winston, Kenneth, 2008. "What Makes Ethics Practical," Working Paper Series rwp08-013, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
  • Handle: RePEc:ecl:harjfk:rwp08-013

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