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Precision in ethics

Thursday, 19 September 2013

In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle remarks "Our account will be adequate if its clarity is in line with the subject matter, because the same degree of precision is not to be sought in all discussion . . . it is a mark of an educated person to look in each area for only that degree of accuracy that the nature of the subject permits."

One variable in deciding where this line should be drawn in the case of ethics, is what one thinks about the nature of ethics. So, an Aristotelian is likely to think that we should not aim at being to precise when it comes to specifying what it is that we should do. Someone who thinks that ethics is best captured via a framework of duties, some of which are perfect, is likely to think being more precise is a good thing.

There's a second kind of way in which the degree of precision might vary, which is highly relevant to applied ethics. Some domains of ethical deliberation are such that attempting to be precise about them can quickly lead to absurd or even straightforwardly wrong conclusions. When Martha Nussbaum remarks "The idea is that it is better to be vaguely right than precisely wrong; I claim that . . . what we often get in public policy is precise wrongness" she is referring to the context of international development. Her reasons for expressing caution about this domain are convincing, but what conclusions should we take for other areas where ethical concepts impact upon public policy, such as health care prioritisation? Tony Hope, Dominic Wilkinson and I take on this issue in an article that has just been published in the Cambridge Quarterly of Health Care Ethics. We consider a series of arguments for and against precision about health care prioritisation and argue that the presumption should be in favour of being as precise as we can.