Sunday, July 10, 2011


An alternate title to this paper is ‘An Appeal to Moral Philosophers’, which asks that they incorporate into their teaching and writing a range of empirical findings on ethical practices.

But they do not:.  Fifty years ago, Nowell-Smith stated that this subject consisted of “theoretical statements”. Today, a range of philosophers - Hugh La Follette (The Blackwell Guide), Peter Singer (Practical Ethics), the writers of The Ethics Toolkit (Baggini and Fosl) argue that moral philosophy should guide action. But in their publications these philosophers exclude major empirical findings that guide ethical behaviour.

They are not alone: Refusal by the biggest public institution at the time - the Catholic Church - to accept empirical observations suggests that it believed its own teaching, as do philosophers today. The Church condemned to death Galileo Galilei, who had empirically demonstrated that the Church’s teachings were wrong.  

Three findings need to be included in courses and written works on moral philosophy, if we are to have any influence on ethical behaviour:

First - Public interest disclosures - (whistleblowing)  Extensive research has shown that the most effective way to identify and stop wrongdoing is through insiders speaking out against it.. (References –AJ Brown, KPMG, PWC, Univ, of Chicago- in full  paper). So whistleblowing has to be taught.

But whistleblowers are crucified (references), so our own integrity dictates we do have to teach those of our students who want to expose wrongdoing how to protect themselves.

The legislation is supposed to do that, but it doesn’t (refs). So surely we have to expand this teaching to advocate stronger legislation?

Second - Codes of Ethics Not philosophy you will say .Extensive research says that they can be effective. The long-term effectiveness and crucial sense of code-ownership by staff is repeatedly acknowledged in code studies (several refs). So ethics students should be taught codes, and ways for making them effective.

Third – The ethical infrastructure Institutions, legislation and guidelines designed to strengthen ethical practices have grown near exponentially in recent years (references and examples). Ethics officers are being recruited into new corporate positions .These developments follow on from the corporate scandals at the turn of the decade, and the recent Global Financial Crisis, widely regarded as a failure in corporate ethics   People skilled in program evaluation are now trying to find which have been effective, with tentative results emerging.  Are not teachers of ethics obliged to prepare their students for this environment?

Do moral philosophers teach these topics?   

Some do (Cohen and Grace, perhaps others). But most do not. A search for the first two topics - whistleblowing and codes- located 26 articles in the discipline based journals. None in the philosophy journals - The Australasian Journal of Philosophy , Journal of Moral Education,. or Journal of Applied Philosophy. A search of the Springer range of some 35 journals found 290 articles on whistleblowing. None were in the half-dozen or so philosophy journals.

The third topic, institutionalising ethics –has a many articles in the management and administration journals, none in the philosophy journals that were searched

But: Codes of ethics, whistleblowing, ethical institutions, ethical procedures, legislation, etc, are not philosophy.

What is philosophy? We will first use one definition –It helps answer the question on how we should  lead our lives.

But then speaking out, codes and a growing ethical infrastructure  would qualify as philosophically valid. For they guide our actions  provided  the argument that an ethical life leads to a more satisfying life has validity, Whistleblowing itself also raises fascinating philosophical questions on why  people are willing to take on the personal  risk of blowing a whistle against wrongdoing.

A second definition of philosophy states that philosophy consists of argument (reference:  Pojman –The Search for Truth  sixth edition). Whistleblowing exhibits many contradictions, well able to be argued. Two august professors of philosophy in the common room of a major Australian university argued vehemently against whistleblowing being effective – despite the evidence to the contrary.  The arguments are noticeable even in the many definitions of ethics -  the conflict between loyalty and honesty is an example. This conflict is between Virtue Ethics, for loyalty is a virtue, and the Kantian obligation to reveal a wrongdoing.

But perhaps the most fascinating argument of all is that between political philosophy and the public interest – Alan Kessing being a great Australian example of the conflicting moral obligations on a senior public servant when his/her government pushes the ethical boundaries too far.

The implications

The failure of moral philosophy to teach ethics in all its variations has a serious implication for society overall.  It forces the professions, industry associations, governments, and private business to develop their own individual moral philosophies – to write their own moral codes, decide their own ethics policies. Moral philosophy offers little assistance

At USydney, perhaps 20 departments have an ethics course .The lecturers are from the disciplines. They have read LaFollette, Singer, maybe even Aristotle, noted the 2500 years of disagreement, and worked out their own ethical theories. They do their research, publish in their professional journals.  Nobody outside that discipline reads the journals.

For a copy of the full paper, please email  It was rejected by the Journal of Applied Philosophy, The editor, Susan Uniacke, said  it was ‘not ethics’


At July 12, 2011 at 4:52 PM , Blogger seapink said...

Excellent article! As for being 'not ethics' I'd be interested in Uniacke's qualification of that statement.

Meanwhile the Kessing case remains in limbo while government languishes in utter failure to protect public interests.


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