Meta-Ethics in Debates on Public Safety: A Critical Appraisal of Jonathan Wolff’s Bottom-Up Approach to Applied Ethics

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This symposium article explores Jonathan Wolff’s book Ethics and Public Policy: A Philosophical Enquiry (EPP). This book being a welcome addition to a growing literature exploring the relationship between ethics and public policy-making. The article identifies the strengths of the book which are broadly three-fold. First, EPP benefits from the lucidity of Professor Wolff’s philosophical writing, while rarely losing the profundity and nuance of the issues at stake. Second, drawing from Professor Wolff’s experience of contributing to Government advisory committees, EPP is replete with detailed accounts of public debates giving a refreshing richness to the philosophical arguments made. Third, a very good case is made for what Professor Wolff calls, a bottom-up approach to applied ethics. He demonstrates, with skill and authority, the importance of philosophers engaging with the specifics of public debate, including a proper consideration of well-researched empirical studies relevant to the policy area under review – rather than relying on philosophers’ half-baked ‘common-sense’ assumptions which have frequently got philosophers into embarrassing holes, when positions are defended for this or that principle or ethical theory.
Nevertheless, taking EPP at face-value, the article focuses on its lack of attention to meta-ethics and questions concerning the nature of value pluralism. Certainly, philosophy has important things to say about meta-ethical issues and how different versions of value pluralism affect decision-making. The contention here is that EPP could have engaged with these issues more explicitly, shedding greater light on the dilemmas and conflicts in public debate and the bottom-up approach to applied ethics.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)69-82
Number of pages13
JournalPhilosophy and Public Issues
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • ethics
  • public policy
  • meta ethics
  • philosophy
  • applied philosophy
  • social philosophy
  • political philosophy
  • public safety
  • jonathan wolff


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