Principles in Practice

June 28, 2012
Churchill College, Cambridge University

United Kingdom


  • Analysis Trust
  • Society for Applied Philosophy
  • Aristotelian Society
  • Mind Association

Keynote speakers:

Maike Albertzart
Cambridge University
Michael Anderson
Stanford University
Richard Ashcroft
Queen Mary University of London
Stephen John
Cambridge University
Christian List
London School of Economics
Onora O
Cambridge University
Jon Roffe
University of Texas at Austin
Alan Thomas
Tilburg University

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The history of normative ethics has largely been a history of attempts to identify, articulate and defend principles that explain when and why certain actions, institutions, and characters count as right or wrong, just or unjust, virtuous or vicious. Moral and political philosophy has been dominated by principles. However, during the last two decades so-called moral particularists have forcefully attacked this dominance of principle-based normative theories. According to particularists, moral thought and judgement neither needs nor should be principle-based. Although particularism has emerged out of a general dissatisfaction with traditional, first-order moral theories, the current debate between particularists and their generalist opponents is a highly technical and rather isolated debate in metaethics. It is high time to move this debate forward into a wider, more practical context. There are three areas that are especially worth exploring.

First, it is important to ask what implications different metaethical claims about moral principles will have for first-order normative problems and theories. In this context it seems particularly fruitful to discuss how the current particularist/generalist debate links with the debate between defenders of principlism and different forms of anti-theory in bioethics. For example, are difficult decisions in human stem-cell research or assisted suicide best approached with a set of general principles or are we more likely to make progress by comparing the difficult cases with a range of clear-cut, paradigm cases?

The second area that merits special attention is the area of practical reasoning. Particularists argue that moral reasoning does not require moral principles. It is worth asking whether this might be true for practical reasoning in general. What role, if any, do practical principles play when we think about what to do? Is practical reasoning best conceived of as an inference from general principles to particular actions, or is it a non-inferentially process? Does an agent’s practical decision have to be the result of an inference from a set of premises in order to qualify as reasoned?

The third area of interest follows naturally from the second. Current particularists and their generalist critics are concerned exclusively with the judgements and actions of individual moral agents. But practical reasoning is not a solitary endeavour. What do particularists and generalists have to say about the role of practical principles in collective reasoning? Collective reasoning raises interesting questions about group agency and collective responsibility. To what extent can institutions be guided and shaped by moral principles? Should institutions conceive of themselves as persons of principle? Can a principle-based approach to collective reasoning enhance the accountability of, and trust in, institutions?

The conference will bring together international experts in each of these three areas to discuss the role of principles in moral and political practice. The conference aspires to create a forum for mutual illumination between practitioners in metaethics and moral theory on the one hand, and applied philosophy on the other. Thinking about the role of principles in moral and political practice not only promises to move forward the current particularist/generalist debate, but also to shed new light on a number of urgent first-order normative questions.

Registration for this conference is free of charge. The deadline for registration is 30 May 2012. Please register online at:


Panel 1, 9.30AM-11.20AM

Alan Thomas: 'Politics without principles?'

Christian List: 'Three kinds of collective belief and preference'

Panel 2, 11.35AM-1.00PM

Michael Bratman: 'Shared deliberation'

Maike Albertzart: Comment

Lunch: 1.00PM-2.00PM

Panel 3, 2.00PM-3.50PM

Richard Ashcroft: 'Do we need principles in biomedical ethics?'

Stephen John: 'Ethical principles and ethical expertise: some lessons from

Panel 4, 4.05PM-5.55PM

Jonathan Dancy: 'Practical reasoning without principles'

Onora O'Neill: 'A typology of different forms of judgement'

Graduate Bursaries for conference attendance:

Due to generous support of the Analysis Trust, we are able to offer a limited number of graduate bursaries for attendance of the conference. The bursaries will cover 50% of the costs of bed and breakfast at the conference venue for one or two nights (27th/28th and 28th/29th of June). In order to apply for a bursary please send an email briefly stating your institutional affiliation, research interests and the benefits you hope to gain from attending the conference to the conference organisers ( Deadline for receipt of the application is 28 April 2012.

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May 30, 2012, 2:00pm BST

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