Contemporary applied ethics, and by extension practical and professional ethics education, can be considered an offshoot of the broad philosophical doctrine of moral realism. Moral realism takes many forms but in broad outline it is an established meta-ethical position that emerged as a seemingly attractive alternative to another family of established philosophical positions that sometimes goes under the name of “expressivism”. Expressivism, again in rough terms, is the idea that ethical beliefs are mere expressions of subjective preferences, attitudes, emotions, and desires. Moral realists typically reject expressivism (as well as other forms of subjectivism in ethics) because the realist-sounding ordinary language with which moral views are debated and promoted is hard to square with the idea that moral beliefs are mere expressions of subjective preferences (cf. Darwall et al., 1992). People speak as if moral statements correspond to some real features of the world, features that exist independently of anyone’s opinions or preferences. Just as the statement “The cat is on the mat” can only be regarded as true if the cat is in fact lying on the mat, a moral judgement such as “Alain is generous” is true only if it is the case that Alain actually is generous. Moral statements, like statements about the material world, seem to report facts and this suggests that there is some discernible truth about moral matters. If the main claim of moral realism is the idea that the referents of moral language are fact-like, moral realism also tends to adopt, for the same reason, an internalist position on the question of moral motivation. Moral judgements, expressed seriously and in ordinary language, are not just descriptive. They are also prescriptive: when I judge, say, that it is morally preferable to eat the eggs of only free-range chickens, it implies that I, and perhaps everyone else as well, have a good reason to actually eat free-range eggs. That is to say, ordinary language supposes that judgements of moral rightness and wrongness come with a built-in or “internal” motivating reason to act in accordance with one’s moral judgements.


Moral Judgement Moral Reasoning Ethic Education Professional Ethic Practical Wisdom 
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  1. 1.
    For a detailed discussion of internalism, various versions thereof, and its opposing counterpart externalism, see, for example, Smith (1994).Google Scholar
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    See Annis (1992) for a brief but comprehensive account of the critical capacities and knowledge components that are explicitly or tacitly accepted as the cognitive aims proper to secular practical ethics education (pp. 189–191).Google Scholar
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    For a statement of this view, see Habermas (1993a), who argues that the question of why some people are morally responsible and others are not is not a philosophical question but is best handled by empirical psychology.Google Scholar
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    These findings seem to mirror Arendt’s (1961/1994) controversial postulate on the “banality of evil”, an idea she developed while observing Eichmann’s trial for war crimes. It was not, she concluded, that Eichmann had bad moral judgement. Nor was there any indication that he was motivated by hateful or diabolical ideas, as Arendt read him. He simply failed to engage in any kind of independent judgement at all (cf. esp. p. 288). For one recent discussion of this point see Todd (2007).Google Scholar
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    For a defence of the virtues at the core of professional expertise in teaching see Sockett (1993). In his reading of the situation, there are five moral excellences: honesty, courage, care, fairness, and practical wisdom.Google Scholar
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    In fact, in this section of Principles of biomedical ethics the term they use is “compassion” but later they use the two terms synonymously (cf. 374–375). Barnbaum (2001) also treats “empathy” and “compassion” as interchangeable in reference to role morality in health care.Google Scholar
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