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Topics and Trends in Ethics?
By S. Matthew Liao

So what are the hot topics/issues in ethics at present? Off the top of my head, in metaethics: John Broome’s account of reason and rationality? moral fictionalism?; in normative ethics: Kamm’s ethics? the role of intuitions in moral theory?; in applied ethics: enhancement/disability? ethics of war and terror? neuroethics? What else?

Please feel free to be as specific as possible and feel free to link to online papers, books, and blogs. This could be a good resource for graduate students in search of thesis topics, and/or for people who like to stay on top of things. Do chime in. :)


  1. 1. Posted by Colin Farrelly | January 28, 2008 3:01 am

    Hi Matthew,

    Good question. Under the topic of applied ethics you noted “enhancement”, so let me elaborate a bit further on what I see as an issue that ought to be a hot topic (and hopefully will be soon) in ethics- aging. More precisely, the moral duty to retard human aging (by modulating the biological processes of aging).

    Given the truly amazing advances that have been made in aging research in the past decade, the prospect of retarding human aging is becoming more of a reality and thus this research raises a number of diverse ethical issues philosophers ought to consider– like the therapy/enhancement distinction, scarcity and healthcare resources, the role of longevity in the good life, etc. And if one considers the number of human beings that will suffer age-related disadvantage this century alone there are few issues as pressing and challenging as tackling aging.

    As for sources: one of the papers that really brought me around to thinking seriously about the importance of retarding human aging was “In Pursuit of the Longevity Dividend” in The Scientist.

    The philosopher Nick Bostrom has been working on this topic for a number of years and his website ( contains a number of important contributions to these new debates (His paper “The Fable of the Dragon-TyrantJournal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 31(5), 2005, pp. 273-277 is, in my opinion, one of the exemplary examples of philosophy at its best and is a must read for those interested in aging).

    Aubrey De Grey is another major figure in this field. He has an excellent paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics entitled Life extension, Human Rights, and the Rational Refinement of Repugnance 2005;31:659-663. And his latest book is entitled Ending Aging.

    I have a paper in the December issue of the journal Rejuvenation Research entitled Sufficiency, Justice and the Pursuit of Health-Extension and a few others in the works and forthcoming on this topic.

    And for those who enjoy videos rather than reading more articles and books, there are some excellent videos online on this topic. Here are a few:

    Alliance for Aging Research Video on Alzheimer’s Research and Basic Science of Aging: Is There a Better Balance?

    The Charlie Rose Science Series on The Science of Living Longer

    Bostrom and De Grey have also given very interesting talks on tackling aging for Ted Talks, and so those interested will want to download those as well, here and here.


  2. 2. Posted by Guy Kahane | January 28, 2008 7:14 pm


    Maybe I’ll add some remarks on what seem to me trends in recent meta-ethics. As in many areas of contemporary philosophy, one sometimes wonders if some changes are due to general progress or simply to a search for novelty due to growing sense that there’s not a lot more to say about the things that were previously at the centre of discussion. But I get a sense that in recent years there is increasing acceptance of various forms of non-naturalism, even supernaturalism. It seems to me that more philosophers are pessimistic about the previously dominant project of trying to reconcile morality, value and normativity with naturalism. But given that naturalism (I use this term to refer to a general metaphysical conception, not to a specific form of moral realism) is no longer seen as obvious, more people are just biting the bullet. The last chapter of Nagel’s The Last Word is a very interesting statement of such a view. This is really in line with what is happening in other areas of philosophy: e.g. dualism is no longer a dirty word in philosophy of mind.

    On the other hand, those who hold on to naturalism, and there are plenty, find themselves pushed into more revisionary directions, such as moral fictionalism and Mackie’s error theory is generally now taken more seriously and various forms of ‘reconciling’ approaches seem to be less popular. Much of the pressure on the project of reconciliation is now coming from the empirical sciences — evolutionary psychology and the psychology and neuroscience of morality and intuition. Interestingly this trend has also gone along with renewed analytic interest in the work of Nietzsche.

    Your other example of the discussion of the relation between reasons and rationality fits this trend: whereas instrumental rationality was taken for granted in much prior discussion and the question was whether there’s anything else, now even the normativity of instrumental reason is questioned and sometimes claimed to depend on precisely the kind of norms that were previously treated as at best suspect.

    It will be interesting to see how these trends will play out in coming years — robust forms of realism in non-naturalist and even ‘supernaturalist’ forms on the one hand and empirically-informed forms of naturalistic scepticism on the other.

  3. 3. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | February 1, 2008 6:55 pm

    Readers might be interested in learning that Brian Leiter has posted a similar thread on his blog:


    Daniel Star and a number of others make some very interesting observations there which should be of interest to all ethicists.

    Feel free to continue the discussion here or at Leiter’s Report.

  4. 4. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | February 2, 2008 6:23 pm

    Colin, nice points about the ethics of aging. As you know, Julian Savulescu, David Wasserman and I are editing a special volume on the Ethics of Enhancement for the Journal of Applied Philosophy. In it, there will be a contribution from Larry Temkin who questions whether living longer is living better. It’s a fantastic piece, and I’ll note it when it becomes available.

    Guy, great observations about the state of play in metaethics. Just a quick note to support your point regarding the increasing acceptance of non-naturalism and even super naturalism, which worries some non-naturalist realists. In a recent issue of the Journal of Moral Philosophy, Russ Shafer-Landau tries, for example, to explain how potential vulnerabilities of non-naturalist realism on this front are quite different from those of theism.

  5. 5. Posted by Jeff Huggins | February 25, 2008 8:56 pm

    Hi Matthew,

    Great question.

    I’d like to mention two things that are either “trends” or, if not yet, should be trends in the near future, in my view.

    First, there is what I’ll call the comparison and “bridging” of key aspects of the “science” and “philosophy” of morality. For example, several excellent books (past and very recent) set the context for, set the stage for, and “point” in this direction, including Appiah’s recent “Experiments in Ethics” and the earlier book, Gibbard’s “Wise Choices, Apt Feelings.” These books are very complementary with, and set great context for, work that I’ve been doing regarding linking the “science” and “philosophy” of the matter, the matter in this case being an understanding of human morality (in both explanatory and justificatory senses).

    Second, there is another trend, or at least a “should-be” trend, involving the theme and argument that Nicholas Maxwell lays out in his book “From Knowledge to Wisdom” (from the 1980s but recently re-released as a Second Edition). The theme that Maxwell sets forth is of vital importance, in my view, given central issues in the world today, and, in addition, is also related (in important ways) to the topic mentioned above.

    If time allows, I’ll participate in the Appiah (“Experiments in Ethics”) reading group. I’ve already read the book, and I recommend it. Although I don’t agree with every single ancillary point or sentence, I think its central point is very much on track, and very timely.


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