Carnegie Mellon University
Methodology in Theoretical and Applied Ethics

Methodology in Theoretical and Practical Ethics

A central goal of normative ethics is to understand the nature of moral values, the source of their normative force, the structure of their relationship to one another, and how best to represent this structure to deepen our understanding and facilitate effective deliberation and choice. Different methods of ethics can be distinguished by the answers they give to a range of questions, such as: Where does moral value come from? What should an ethical theory attempt to accomplish? What role, if any, should comprehensive moral theories play in deliberations about practical moral problems? Is there a method for conducting moral inquiry that can achieve convergence to a sound solution without relying on a comprehensive moral theory?

Research on methodological questions in theoretical and applied ethics at Carnegie Mellon is distinctive for the way it integrates a unique set of disciplinary perspectives. Wenner has explored the merits and the pitfalls of procedures for democratic deliberation in various social contexts, from large scale political decisions to the deliberation of expert bodies tasked with evaluating clinical research. Similar themes have been explored by London who is deeply critical of purely procedural approaches to questions of social value. London and Zollman have demonstrated how a popular procedural approach to questions of justice in international research does not avoid substantive value commitments but simply obscures the extent of their influence on the distribution of benefits and burdens of medical research.

Several faculty working in this area approach questions in practical ethics by examining how social institutions can be designed and regulated by norms that reconcile the production of important social goods (such as scientific knowledge) with respect for the status of stakeholders as free and equal. This approach is embodied in London’s approach to justice in international research, and in his work on the relationship between the goals and limits of practical ethics. Similar ideals inform Wenner’s development of non-domination as a core requirement for regulating social institutions, including those that are involved with research involving human participants.

Where possible, faculty working in this area strive to make use of precise formal tools from economics, decision and game theory. London and Zollman have used game theoretic tools to explore questions of justice and fairness in the context of international research and to demonstrate the practical value that a Kantian conception of human dignity can have for agents involved in competitive social interactions. Similarly, London, Zollman and Bjorndahl have used formal tools from decision theory to clearly represent how Kantian agents can avoid violating the restriction on treating persons like things when making decisions under uncertainty. Finally, Wenner has used decision theoretic frameworks to inform understandings of social value in clinical research.