International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities (IZEW)

Exploring New Methods for Applied Ethics

Summer School: July 2-4th 2020, University of Tübingen

In recent years, more and more philosophers working in areas other than applied ethics – areas such as metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and philosophy of science – have turned their attention to publicly debated issues, including issues around gender, race, power, climate change, epistemic injustice, conspiracy theories, fake news, and post-truth. Since the tools and methods employed in these different disciplines vary greatly, both between themselves and in relation to the traditional methods of applied ethics, there are interesting methodological questions that this new body of work gives rise to. This summer school aims to foster a conversation about methodology between applied ethicists and philosophers from other areas who work on real-world challenges.

Keynote Speaker

Jessie Munton
(University of Cambridge)

Henry S. Richardson (Georgetown University, Washington, DC)

Thomas Schramme (University of Liverpool)

Deadline CfA: 31.03.

Detailed Description

Over the last decade, we have witnessed a number of developments – continuing global warming, the rise of right-wing populism, advances in artificial intelligence, self-driving vehicles, CRISPR, to name a few prominent examples – that confront our societies with difficult decisions, rendering applied ethics more relevant than ever. There are four long-established approaches in applied ethics that have been developed to tackle these sorts of issues:

  1. Monistic top-down: applying one of the grand normative ethical theories in order to derive particular moral judgments.
  2. Pluralistic top-down: applying a plurality of basic moral principles and resolving conflicts between them, e.g. through intuitive balancing.
  3. Reflective equilibrium: going back and forth between ethical theories, principles and particular moral judgments, and making adjustments on all levels.
  4. Bottom-up: inductively deriving particular moral judgments by analysing a set of analogous cases.

For each of these approaches, there is a broad variety of more specific methods that fall under it, and some scholars, especially in applied ethics, have developed hybrid methods that combine elements from different approaches and cross the boundaries that the above taxonomy draws.

Still, despite these lively methodological debates within applied ethics, the above approaches face a set of familiar problems that tend to haunt the more specific methods and hybrids developed on their basis as well: monistic top-downers are forced to presuppose a highly controversial ethical theory, pluralistic top-downers and bottom-uppers face arbitrariness charges, the reflective equilibrium method is said to inherit the problems of coherence theories of justification, and so forth. In addition to these approach-specific problems, there are also some very challenging questions concerning methodology that applied ethicists have been raising for a long time: for example, questions about the way in which they rely on moral intuitions, about the role of empirical claims, and about how to appropriately collaborate with the empirical sciences.

At the same time, philosophers working in other areas have also shown increased interest in leaving the ivory tower and tackling real-world problems. Epistemologists, for instance, have ventured into new territory by exploring publicly debated phenomena like epistemic injustice, fake news and conspiracy theories, using new frameworks like that of epistemic virtue theory. Philosophers of language have adapted existing theories and distinctions and developed new ones to expose the workings of racist and sexist speech. Metaphysicians have made an attempt to breathe new life into the age-old bioethical debate on abortion by using the machinery of contemporary metaphysics to address questions about pregnancy and birth, or about the identity and persistence of organisms. Moral psychologists and experimental philosophers have argued that their findings about moral decision-making cast doubt on both traditional moral theorizing (see (1)-(4) above) and common-sense notions of how to make people care about important issues like climate change. Philosophers of science and decision theorists are debating how computational models and decision-theoretic tools can be used in justifications of climate change policies. Conceptual engineers encourage us to scrutinize our concepts with a view to developing a conceptual repertoire that suits our practical concerns. And, political philosophy has entered a phase of growing suspicion of so-called ideal theory.

As these examples show, this new body of work relies on a variety of tools and methods many of which don't seem to fit into the above taxonomy. This includes traditional philosophical methods, such as conceptual analysis and deductive reasoning, the application of familiar philosophical frameworks to new issues, and experimental and computational methods borrowed from other disciplines. With this in mind, it makes sense to ask whether and how these methods can help to address currently relevant problems and how they are related to the established approaches in applied ethics.

In light of this state of affairs, we aim to bring together applied ethicists and philosophers from other areas working on publicly debated issues, both with an interest in methodology. The aim of our three-day summer school is

  1. to re-examine the traditional approaches (1)-(4), new objections to/defences of them, and any smaller trends in the methodology of applied ethics,
  2. to consider whether and how applied ethicists could learn from applied work done by philosophers in other areas, if the former could expand their toolkit by incorporating methods and tools deployed by the latter, etc., and finally
  3. to consider whether and how philosophers from other areas interested in current social and political debates could benefit from engaging with work done by applied ethicists

– in short, how a fruitful exchange between the two groups could be established.

Submitting an Abstract

We are pleased to invite early career researchers and graduate students to submit extended abstracts (1000 words) that are anonymised for blind review by March 31, 2020. Submissions may - but do not have to - focus on the following topic:

  1. the methodology of applied ethics
    • the strengths and weaknesses of existing methods in applied ethics (top-down vs. bottom-up, monism vs. pluralism, reflective equilibrium, specificationism, and so on)
    • methodological reflections on specific examples of work in applied ethics
  2. the application of tools and methods from other areas of philosophy to issues of public concern, for instance
    • the use of epistemological concepts and tools in accounts of fake news, post-truth, epistemic injustice, conspiracy theories, among others
    • the use of metaphysical concepts and tools in accounts of sex, gender, race, pregnancy, and birth, among others
    • the use of concepts and tools from the philosophy of language in accounts of sexist and racist speech, pornography, among others
    • the use of mathematic models in accounts of social dynamics like inequity and the spread of misinformation, among others
    • the use of decision theoretic tools in policy-oriented work on climate change and artificial intelligence, among others
    • the tools and methods of ideal and non-ideal political philosophy, respectively, and how they differ
    • the alleged value-neutrality of “theoretical disciplines” such as metaphysics, epistemology, and philosophy of mind
  3. connections between topics in a) and b)

In order to submit an abstract, please follow this link:

All accepted speakers will be asked to submit a full version of their paper by June 20, 2020. Their travel and accommodation costs will be covered in compliance with the University of Tübingen's policies.


The Summer School is organized by Irina Schumski (Department of Philosophy), Thomas Grote (Ethics and Philosophy Lab at the Cluster of Excellence 'Machine Learning'), and Eugen Pissarskoi (International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities). It is funded by the Excellence Strategy at the University of Tübingen and the International Center for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities.

If you have questions, please contact Irina Schumski.