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Posner on the uselessness of moral theory: An empirical analysis

Lamey, A. and Best, K. (2008) Posner on the uselessness of moral theory: An empirical analysis. In: Teaching and Learning Forum 2008: Preparing for the graduate of 2015, 30 - 31 January 2008, Curtin University, Perth

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Richard Posner has argued that teaching moral philosophy is a misguided and pointless exercise. According to Posner, ethical philosopher exaggerate the role rationality play in moral judgement. As a result, classes on moral philosophy are "useless," as they invariably fail to influence students' thoughts or behaviour. We sought to test Posner's claim by surveying students in two university units dealing with ethics. Our findings suggest that, contrary to Posner's suggestion, ethics units do in fact influence students' moral thinking, including the judgements they make about particular moral issues. The influence of ethics units on students' behaviour was smaller, lending some support to Posner's view that there is a difference between making a moral judgement and possessing sufficient motivation to act on it. However, the purpose of ethics units may not be to cause students to embrace a set program of action, but to teach them to think critically about morality. Our evidence suggests ethics units succeed at this goal, and so are not the arenas of pointless futility that Posner portrays.

Item Type: Conference Paper
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Media, Communication and Culture
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