Choosing Relevant Cases

When we are applying ethics, cases can play a variety of roles. We can use cases to highlight moral quagmires in the area of inquiry. We can also use cases to highlight the various features of ethical theories, codes and principles we are exploring. Cases can also be used to stimulate the moral intuitions (and in some instances the moral outrage) of that you present the case to. Using cases to elicit moral outrage can be a way of using cases as a call for change or a call to action. All of these are legitimate uses of cases, however different types of cases will be required to fulfill these various roles. Moreover, the various uses of cases tend to be different in both different types of courses, and different stages of a course. The success of your discussions in class (and assignments) is heavily influenced by appropriate choice of cases when teaching applied ethics.

General Requirements for Case Selection

You are the best judge of appropriate cases for analysis in your area, but good cases for exploring applied ethics tend to have several common features.

  • They should be Problem Cases. That is, they should contain some moral dilemma or controversy. That is, there are good reasons to pursue (at least) two exclusive courses of action to resolve the case. It is always good to include both types of cases where you can. The opposite of Problem Cases are Clear Cases, or paradigmatic cases. Clear Cases are cases in which there is a single clearly preferable course of action that should be taken to resolve the issue presented.
  • They should have identifiable morally significant factors. That is, you should be able to list those elements of the case that are capable of influencing moral intuitions, judgments, and responses regarding this case.

Requirements for Cases over the Arc of a Course

A course can be usefully divided into three stages: Introduction; establishing tools and methods; and inquiry into the area under discussion.

Introduction: In the first instance, you often want to stimulate the moral intuitions, and probably moral outrage, of your learners in order to show them why they should care about morality in this context.

Here a surprising or celebrated case relevant to your area of inquiry which has sensational aspects is best.

Establishing Tools and Methods: Next it is often best to introduce the method for applying theories, codes and principles to cases in a way that highlights the various features of the ethical theories, codes and principles you are working with.

The morally significant factors should connect to the ethical theories, codes and principles that you have selected to use to analyze cases in your area.

Inquiry: Finally, the bulk of a course generally involves highlighting the various moral quagmires and controversies in the area of inquiry.

The cases should be salient to your specific area. That is, the reason that they are problem cases should be connected to the aspects of the case that are specific to your area.

Note that these stages are neither exclusive nor exhaustive and one case could fit multiple stages, but indicative of the fact that you should keep the purpose of the case in mind when you select it.