Ethics as Method

Albert P. Brogan


The main interest of ethical thinking has usually been in formulating an ethical standard. This standard has been described as a rule to be obeyed or as a good or highest good to be attained. Serious attention has seldom been given to the question how this standard is to be applied to specific problems in morality. Indeed, it has frequently been held that the standard is too pure and noble to be realized in this world. So ethics is not to be concerned with the trivial details of practical decision, but must formulate a moral standard or ideal. In this tradition ethical method means the method, whether intuitive or deductive or inductive, by which one philosopher refutes all other ethical standards and proves that his chosen standard is indeed the only truth in ethics.[1] Afterward the philosopher may give some attention to the applications of the standard, but these applications are relatively unimportant and may be entirely omitted.[2] The standards are often so re-mote from life that the most opposed standards seem equally consistent with the one moral tradition in which the philosophers have been reared.[3]

In opposition to this traditional formulation of a standard it may be suggested that ethics should be primarily concerned with a method for solving ethical or moral problems. A moral

( 264) method[4] will be a technique for investigating those problems in morality which need careful consideration. It will be the specific logic of reasoning about moral affairs. If one is in doubt as to what is right or wrong, if one wants to deal with conflicting interests, if one is concerned with any real moral problem, how should one go about the task of thinking the matter through? Surely this is the primary task of ethics. Ethical theories, principles, standards, rules, goods, or what not, are important only as they are presupposed or implied in the actual process of investigating moral problems. They are incidental to the moral method. The moral method is not an introduction to them or an afterthought as to how to apply them. Ethics is the moral method and what the moral method involves. To say this is not to deny the importance of a systematic elaboration of a set of ethical doctrines or principles, but these doctrines or principles are ethical because they are involved in the moral method. It should be added that ethics, as treated in this article, is not to be identified with the general theory or philosophy of value. No doubt a complete discussion of ethical principles involves a general theory of value, but moral value is only one part of value.


I shall first state in some detail what I think the moral method should be. Then some antecedents of this method and one notable contrast to it will be discussed. It is convenient to distinguish five steps in the moral method.

1. Explanation of problem.—If there is need of ethical investigation and decision there must be some situation which creates a problem in conduct. The first step is to explain why there is a problem here. Is there a conflict of rules, habits, customs, or laws? Or is there a demand to violate or change some prevailing rule? Or is there a new situation which demands treatment? Or are there clashing interests which must be re-

( 265) strained or modified or reorganized? Our first step is to be sure that we have explained to ourselves the exact cause of the present conflict or problem. Then we shall be prepared to go ahead with its study and solution.

2. Survey of alternatives.— The next step is to make a survey of the important alternatives. What practicable alter-natives shall we consider? By practicable alternatives is meant those various possibilities any one of which can be realized if we make the appropriate effort. We must exclude those proposals which would be practicable only in an ideal world, or only if this world were different. This is not meant to exclude the planning of one action now which will lead to an-other action later. But the future possibility is to be considered only in connection with those present lines of action which lead to it.

An alternative is not important unless it is practicable. But some practicable alternatives are not important. Some are trivial or absurd. Some are not within the range of our available knowledge. On the other hand, we must avoid the narrowness that comes from what may be called the "either-or" mistake. We often falsely assume that there are just two lines of action open to us, one right and one wrong. Our task is to make an inventory of all the important practicable alter-natives of action in our present situation. For this survey we need all the experience, imagination, and science that we can possess.

3. Analysis of alternatives.— Our next task is the study and analysis of each of the alternatives. First we must under-stand the antecedents of each alternative. If it is a new plan of action, how can it be brought about? What are the causal or genetic factors which must be produced in order to reach the proposed solution ? Have similar plans been tried in the past, and have they succeeded or failed, and why? Or, if one alternative is to continue an existing practice, what is the history of that practice? How did it grow up, and what light does

( 266) this knowledge throw on the practice? After the study of the historical or genetic aspects of each alternative, our next step is to study the exact nature and the knowable consequences of each alternative. We must understand the nature of the alter-native throughout its development and we must be able to estimate the relative values involved. What are the desirable and what are the undesirable aspects of each alternative ac-cording to the knowledge available to us at the time of choice? We must consider both the comparative values involved and also the relative probability of each value.

4. Consideration of moral influence.— One part of the con-sequences of each alternative is the influence of that action on our general morality. But this consequence is so intangible frequently that it deserves separate treatment. Usually we are inclined to consider only the immediate and obvious results of our actions. Yet many actions have very important influences in strengthening or weakening a moral rule or principle, in setting a precedent, in forming habits and traditions, and in raising or lowering our entire set of moral ideals and valuations.

5. Choice of better alternative.—We are now ready to make our choice. Which alternative is better than the others for all the interests involved and in the light of the available knowledge? If one alternative stands out as the best of that set, then that one is the acceptable action. Occasionally two or more alternatives may both seem equally as good as possible. Then either one is acceptable. The process of investigation is now finished temporarily and life can advance in the accepted direction.


Various criticisms may be aimed at the moral method as it has been formulated. Some may say that the method is too long, and should be shortened. Others, on the contrary, may say that there should be a sixth step involving the verification of the chosen alternative. Finally, some may attack the

( 267) ethical assumptions which are at the basis of the method as it has been formulated.

It would be very easy to reduce the method to three steps. The explanation of the problem could be included as part of the genetic study in the analysis of the alternatives. This change would be a simplification, but hardly an improvement. Then the consideration of the moral influence of an alternative could be included under the study of the consequences of each alternative. This again would sacrifice emphasis for simplicity. As thus simplified, the moral method would consist of three steps: (1)survey of alternatives; (2) analysis of alter-natives; (3) choice of better alternative. These three steps may be the important logical divisions, but the longer method, with its five steps, seems to be more useful in the actual teaching of ethics. Of course, a sensible person will know when any one or more parts of the method are so obvious that they do not call for much attention. Different moral problems have different needs for their adequate discussion.

It might be suggested that our entire method is incomplete because no provision is made for further study and verification of the adopted alternative. It is doubtless true that there are some problems in which new interests are so constantly arising that continuous study and readjustment are necessary. But here we have simply a continuous application of the moral method. More frequently the choice of the better alternative marks the temporary end of the process of moral investigation. Life then goes its way until a new problematic situation demands new investigation. If action along the lines of the adopted alternative seems satisfactory there will seldom be ethical criticism or discussion. If developments come as expected they may be called verifications of that part of the moral method that analyzed the consequences of each alter-native. But whether the chosen alternative is really better than the other alternatives cannot usually be put to direct verification. To do this would demand the realization of all the alternatives under controlled laboratory conditions.

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In this short paper no attempt will be made to explain or defend all the assumptions or presuppositions that may be connected with the present formulation of the moral method. They constitute an entire ethical theory. Here the point may be made that those who object to this moral method on ad-count of its assumptions should show in detail how their assumptions and theories can be embodied in a definite moral method.


In the history of ethical thought there have been a few formulations very similar to the present moral method, and one formulation of a method sharply opposed to it. As these discussions occur in well-known writers I shall content myself with very short references.

If the moral method here formulated might, in general terms, be called melioristic, the method of Plato in the Republic might be called perfectionistic or utopian. According to the perfectionistic or utopian method there are two steps in ethical thinking.[5] The first step is the discovery or description of what is perfect or best. The second step is the consideration as to how far this best is practicable or possible. Usually it is added that the best is only a model or pattern laid up in heaven, which will never exist in this world.[6] First see what is perfect, and then see how close we can come to it. This utopian method is almost the exact reversal of the melioristic method, which starts with a discussion of what is possible or practicable, and then chooses the better practicable alternative.[7]

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Modern antecedents of the moral method are to be found mainly among English realistic writers and among American Pragmatists. A fairly clear statement of it may be found in Richard Cumberland's Laws of Nature.[8] In recent English ethics the best statement is in the Principia Ethica, by Mr. G. E. Moore.[9] Among the American writers, Professors Dewey and Mead have insisted on the importance of the problem in ethical and in other forms of thinking.[10] Professor Dewey's famous analysis of a complete act of thought may be both compared and contrasted with our moral method.[11] The application of Dewey's theories has called forth much important material in recent ethics.[12] One of the most interesting developments has been the formation of a technique for group discussion.[13] Perhaps the most careful discussion of the process of moral judgment is to be found in the writings of Professor Tufts.[14] In every one of these writers there are valuable suggestions for a moral method, but in none of them is there exactly the formulation of the moral method given above. Perhaps it is better to let this moral method be judged on its merits without controversy.

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It should not be necessary to insist that the moral method is not intended to be a cure-all. It contains neither an answer to all the perplexing problems of ethical theory nor a certain solution for many vexing problems in contemporary life. But it does show us what aspects of ethical theory are important practically, and it helps to keep thinking and living in fruitful relations. It tends to make ethical thinking practical rather than academic. It abolishes the deadness of casuistry. It gives a method for reasonable thinking about all moral problems. If one observes both educated and uneducated persons discus-sing moral problems one will have little doubt as to the practical value of any careful method for moral thinking. Its influence on students in ethics courses is unmistakable. Finally, the moral method is theoretically important as furnishing a center for ethics. Ethics may well be interpreted as the moral method and the implications of the moral method.



  1. H. Sidgwick, Methods of Ethics (7th ed., London, 1907); H. Spencer, Data of Ethics (London, 1879), chap. iv; S. E. Metes, Ethics (New York, 1901), pp. 14-17; J. Seth, Ethical Principles (12th ed., New York, 1911), introduction, chap. ii; H. W. Wright, Self-Realization (New York, 1913), 'pp. 16-27; T. de Laguna, Introduction to the Science of Ethics (New York, 1914), chap. ii; G. S. Fullerton, Handbook of Ethical Theory (New York, 1922), chap. v. No doubt many other illustrations could be found.
  2. Illustrations are so numerous and so well known that they need not be named.
  3. Compare L. Lvy-Bruhl, La morale et la science des moeurs (6th, ed., Paris, no date), chap. ii. 
  4. Since the phrase "ethical method" has been used for the method of proving ethical standards it is perhaps best to use the phrase "moral method" for our process.
  5. Plato's Republic, marginal paging, 466d-73c.
  6. Republic, p. 592b; also pp. 472d-73a.
  7. It is hardly necessary to insist that the above account is not intended to be a complete discussion of Plato's ethical method. It is one aspect, however. The dialectical method for discovering the nature of goodness is admirably characterised in Republic, p. 434bc. It would be difficult to list all the instances of perfectionistic method in modern thought. An extreme illustration may be found in S. Ward, The Ways of Life (New York, 1920), p. 72-73.
  8. Translation by J. Maxwell (London, 1727), pp. 42, 47, 180,201. I am indebted to my former student, Mr. C. M. Perry, for calling my attention to Cumberland in this connection.
  9. Principia Ethica (London, 1903 ), pp. 149-54. Compare Bertrand Russell, Philosophical Essays (London, 1910), pp. 49-57; also H. Rashdall, Theory of Good and Evil, Book III, chap. v, A different approach by an idealistic writer may be found in B. Bosanquet, Some Suggestions in Ethics (London, 1919), chap. vi.
  10. J. Dewey, "Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology," Psychological Review, III, 357-70 ; G. H. Mead, "Suggestions toward a Theory of the Philosophical Disciplines," Philosophical Review, IX, 1-17.
  11. J. Dewey, How We Think (New York, 1910), chap. vi; Dewey and Tufts, Ethics (New York, 1908), chap. xvi.
  12. H. W. Schneider, Science and Social Progress (New York, 1920)), especially pp. 44-48.
  13. Perhaps the most stimulating recent application of Dewey's account of thinking is in the little pamphlet entitled A Co-operative Technique for Conflict. It is published, without the name of the author, by the National Conference on the Christian Way of Life, New York, 1924. Apart from the last two pages it is an application of Dewey's principles to the problem of group discussion. For its purpose it is very good. However, it is more concerned with the dissemination of knowledge and mutual understanding than with a method for acquiring knowledge or for investigating moral problems scientifically.
  14. J. H. Tufts, "The Moral Life," in Creative Intelligence (New York, 1917), especially pp. 357-72, 407.

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