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Lecture 01

1. Introduction

This course is – as the title suggests – about ethical discourse. Since more than half of the audience has no background in philosophy, I’d like to convince both groups (Philosophy students and those of other majors) that this course does matter to all of them. First, I will introduce myself, then I will define and categorise the course content so that it becomes clearer what it will be about and how it relates to philosophy and your own life.

1.1 Self-Introduction

My name is Jan Mehlich, I am from Germany. I’d like to let you know my background in order to convince you that I am qualified to teach this course, but also to give you a chance to understand my thinking and my own “philosophy”. Of course, a course like this includes the elaborations and thoughts of many thinkers and scholars, ancient and contemporary ones, but it will be helpful for you to understand in which way my own thinking is coloured by my experiences and my worldview.

First, I studied Chemistry in Münster, a city in the North-West of Germany. I received a Diploma degree in 2007 and continued with a PhD course, doing research on chemical surface patterning by “microcontact printing”. This is considered a “nanoscientific method”, because it changes the properties of surfaces by forming self-assembled monolayers of organic molecules that are only a few nanometers thick. I finished the PhD course in 2011. At the same university, from 2010 to 2012, I attended a Master course “Applied Ethics”, because I was interested in the ethical and social aspects of my research work. This combination (Nanoscience and Applied Ethics) helped me getting a job in the field of Technology Assessment (TA). TA is a discipline that tries to accompany technological development with reflections on ethical and social implications of progress, so that it is possible to guide it into “the right direction”. The particular project I was in involved in was the application of nanoparticles for medical diagnostics, a part of nanomedicine. We wrote a report to the European Commission who is in charge of making new regulations and laws about new drugs and medical treatment methods. That means, we had a “client” who expected us to write certain things in the report (e.g. that nanomedicine is “good” after all). However, I decided that I want more “academic freedom” and quit that job in order to continue my academic career. I planned to get a position as a postdoc in South Korea and moved there, staying a few months in Buddhist temples. Here, I studied Buddhist philosophy and practiced Buddhist methods (meditation, mindfulness). It turned out that it was very difficult to get a job in Korea, but I found a collaborator in Taiwan, so I moved here in 2014. I got a research grant for a project about “Ethical and social aspects of Taiwan’s National Nanotechnology Initiative”, a cooperation with the Nanoscience Center at Chung Hsing University and the philosophy department of Tunghai University. Here, I could combine all my competences – Nanosciences, Ethics, Technology Assessment, experience with Asian culture (esp. Buddhist philosophy, Confucian society) – in one project.

A few words about my German background and how it influences my idea of this course: In Germany, in contrast to Taiwan, there is a big difference between “school” and “university”. A university is not a school, it is a research institution that – besides research – also educates the future generation of academics. The main difference is: the pupils at school have to learn what the teacher tells them to learn, no matter if they are interested in it or not. The students at university are there because they want to study something in a specific field. They are interested and motivated to acquire knowledge in their field of interest. Therefore, I expect all of you to be here because you are interested in it, not because you have to. That means, I expect you to visit these classes with the willingness to learn something, so you will pay attention, ask questions, think about it and read more about it after the lessons. I am not your teacher, I am just the one with more experience and knowledge, and I am here to share that with you. I observed that many students in Taiwan sleep in class. I’d like to ask you not to come here to sleep. If you are tired, please sleep at home or in the library. I want you to be motivated and ready to learn new insights. Then, we will work well together here! Another point is homework: In order to prepare you for the exams, I will give you questions at the end of each class. However, they are an offer for you to check your understanding, but not an obligatory homework. You may write down answers and send them to me, I will check and correct your work. But you don’t have to! I believe that university students should be self-responsible enough to study without pressure.

Now, before I come to the details of the content of this course and its organisation, let me explain why “Ethical Discourse” is an important topic for Philosophers and non-Philosophers.

1.2 Discourse in Philosophy and Ethics

I’d like to start with a story about an important aspect of philosophy:

1.2.1 Story: “This is Philosophy”

A young student visits an old and renown Philosophy scholar in his office. He wants to study Philosophy under his guidance and asked for support. The old Professor says: “You are not ready to understand the depth of Philosophy.”. The youngster inquires that he has a degree from Harvard University and believes his intellectual and logic skills to be high enough to study Philosophy. The Professor decides to give it a chance and offers to test the young man. He tells him this question:

“Two burglars break into a house through the chimney. One comes out of the chimney with a clean face, the other one with a dirty face. Which one will go and wash his face?”

The student replies: “The one with the dirty face, of course!”

The Professor: “No, wrong! Apply your logic! The one with dirty face sees his companion with a clean face, so why would he know he should wash his face? The one with the clean face will wash his face. He can see his companion with a dirty face, so he thinks his face is dirty, too. So he will go and wash it.”

He goes on: “I will give you another chance! Here is the question: Two burglars break into a house through the chimney. One comes out of the chimney with a clean face, the other one with a dirty face. Which one will go and wash his face?”

The confused student says: “Didn’t we just have that? I got it! The one with a clean face will go and wash it!”

Professor: “No, wrong again! First the one with a clean face will go and wash it because he sees the companion with the dirty face. Then the other one must think that he should wash his face, too! So they both go and wash their faces!”

The student agrees but starts feeling miserable about his failure. He humbly asks for another test. The Professor agrees and asks him the same question again: “Two burglars break into a house through the chimney. One comes out of the chimney with a clean face, the other one with a dirty face. Which one will go and wash his face?”

The student, now even more puzzled, explains: “As you just said: They both go and wash their faces!”

Professor: “No, wrong! Neither of them washes the face! The one with the dirty face, seeing the partner with a clean face, feels no urge to wash his face. Therefore, the one with the clean face, even though he believes his face is dirty, too, also doesn’t go to wash his face, because why bother when the partner also doesn’t bother?!”

The student, now almost desperate, asks for one last chance. He is sure, he got it now. The Professor gives him that last chance and asks, again: “Two burglars break into a house through the chimney. One comes out of the chimney with a clean face, the other one with a dirty face. Which one will go and wash his face?”

The student, almost crying, says: “You just said ‘Neither’!”

Professor: “Sorry, wrong again! You see, all your logic doesn’t help! Don’t you think that situation is very unlikely to happen? Two burglars coming in through the same chimney and one having a clean face, the other a dirty face? That is impossible! I told you, you are not ready to understand Philosophy!”

The student replies: “But that is unfair! What can I do when you ask the same question four times and every time the answer is different and even contradictory to the former one?”

Professor: “But THIS IS Philosophy!”


What do we learn from this story? There is almost never only one “right” answer in philosophic inquiry in general and ethical discourse in particular. Cases that can be solved clearly (with one answer) are most likely not an issue on the discourse agenda. Conflicts that arise can be viewed from different standpoints and more than one reasoning strategy is “correct” in the sense that it is consistent, based on acceptable premises and following formal logic without errors. Many of the cases and examples we discuss in this course – at least in the light in that I present them – sound “simple” or approachable from one particular perspective. We must keep in mind, however, that the reality of ethical discourse is not that easy.

1.2.2 Philosophical Inquiry

There are three major fields of interest for philosophical inquiry:


Whenever we ask ourselves what reality is, what it means to “be”, what existence means, we are in the field of “ontology”. Metaphysical reflections and a big part of analytical philosophy (for example, in which way language resembles real entities) fall into this category. Then, there is epistemology (from Greek episteme = knowledge) which investigates what we are able to know and what kind of knowledge is accessible for us with the cognitive system that we are equipped with. Last but not least, there are questions concerning values, virtues and norms, mostly in the form of “What shall we do?”, or “What is good/right (to do)?”. This is known as ethics, the systematic study of normativity and morality, in academic philosophy covered by moral philosophy including meta-ethics. 90% of the course content can be categorised into the ethics field, but we will also have to ask epistemological questions concerning the knowledge that is necessary for a proper discourse. We will not address ontological issues, and given the general viewpoint that this is the most fundamental and difficult part of philosophy, I am inclined to say “Don’t worry! No metaphysics!”.

1.2.3 Forms of discourse

Discourse can, very broadly, be understood as communicative action. I’d like to characterise a discourse as a form of conversation that is more controversial than a “chat” or “small talk” but less aggressive than a discussion, debate or even quarrel. In a discourse two or more participants exchange viewpoints on a topic, disagree about them, but try to figure out whose viewpoint “makes more sense” (whatever that means). It is goal-oriented (finding a common ground or agreement) and content-based (in contrast to personal or emotional). However, we need to be more precise in order to classify the discourse type that we will learn about in this course.


First of all, we have to be aware that discourse is also an important topic in other disciplines such as linguistics (focused on the semantic content of acts of speech in communication), psychology (especially in conversation therapy, concerned about the effects and implications of certain styles of discourse) and social theory (on the social dimension of communication, especially in politics and media). Here, we will focus on the philosophical aspects of discourse that occurs whenever there is disagreement on something. But what can that disagreement be about?

When I tell you “A whale is a fish!”, you might disagree and inform me that whales belong to the group of mammals. When I try to support my argument with reasons like “But it is swimming in the water, so it is a fish!”, you will insist that this is an irrelevant factor, but instead we need to look at evolutionary pathways and the development of certain anatomic features to see that whales are mammals. This kind of discourse is a cognitive or epistemic one: We need factual knowledge (often delivered by certain branches of science) to find “correct” answers. In principle, we can solve our dispute by going to the library where we find what we need to know. In contrast to that, there are discourses on topics that no factual knowledge and no library can solve, namely those on norms and values. We may call them evaluative discourses. Naturally, ethical discourses fall into this category.

But, again, we need to be more precise. There are many things we value, and not all of them have an ethical character. When I say “I prefer to buy a red car!” while you like blue cars more, it would be pointless to argue who of us is right. We need to distinguish preferences, opinions and personal desires from ethical argumentation and normative prescriptions. It is the latter that we are interested in! Moreover, we need to separate arguments that matter primarily in the private sphere from those that occur in a professional realm. You may argue with your partner about what would be the right thing to do, also in an ethical sense, but that is not necessarily anyone else’s business. In this course, we will focus on those kind of debates that take place in a professional arena, in the public domain, or in a context that affects a larger circle of stakeholders.

1.2.4 Fields of ethical discourse

Instead of presenting a list of “contemporary issues in applied ethics” taken from a text book, I’d like to start from another direction and ask “What is important in your daily life?”. When asking like this, you will come up with many things about your preferences and feelings. Therefore, let me better ask, what are you actually doing all day? Under the assumption that what you do is chosen by you – the result of your conscious decisions – we can get a better picture of what is actually and obviously important for you. So, what is the first thing you do in the morning? Brushing teeth, having breakfast, checking the smartphone for new messages, seeing the News? And then? Going out, taking bus or scooter, going to university? Let’s try to sort these things:

First of all, most obviously, you need to be alive. It means, you need to have a roof above your head, clothes to protect from freezing, enough food to eat, a certain degree of health, and no existential threats like meteors, volcanoes and war. You need to live in a safe and clean environment. When that is secure, you want and need social interaction, both in private (family relations, friend networks, etc.) and in public life (interacting with professionals). Also, you want and need material wealth, for example in the form of money. For all of these things, the society established spheres that deal with these interests: agriculture to provide enough food, medicine to deal with diseases, politics that governs social life and – hopefully – enables freedom by setting up a law-and-order system, Wealth is produced by industry, provided in an economic system and facilitated by a monetary system. All of these spheres are connected in one way or the other with technology which itself is fed and enabled by scientific knowledge.

Now, we can distinguish those of your choices that only affect yourself (having only a personal, individual dimension), those that have a legal dimension (governed by a law), and in between those that have an ethical dimension. We are not so much interested in the first. The second will touch our topic only sometimes. We will focus on those issues that arise when interests or viewpoints collide, when conflicts and dilemmas come up, or when new unprecedented cases occur. Generally: When people meet and interact and one’s decisions, choices and actions impact others.


In all these social realms, there are established fields of “applied ethics” that elaborate on principles and codes of conduct for particular situations and as orientation in cases of conflict. Medical ethics developed strategies and approaches for solving problems arising in the field of medicine and healthcare. Bioethics analyses the ethical status of other life forms and natural entities, and how we should interact with them. Political ethics, legal ethics and social ethics support the governance of social life. Business ethics elaborates principles of business rules and fair economic relations. Profession ethics provides codes of conduct on how to do one’s job right. Environmental ethics discusses standards of sustainability and our responsibilities for a healthy eco-system. Media ethics as a special form of technology ethics plays a crucial role in our modern knowledge society, in which the availability of information and knowledge (often provided by organs of mass media like TV, radio, internet, etc.) has an ethical dimension. And, finally, there is Science and Technology Ethics (S&T Ethics) that deals with issues in scientific and technological progress and development. Many of these practical ethics disciplines overlap in certain ways.

Many of the jobs that exist in our society and from which you will choose one someday are in one of the fields mentioned above. You will work in offices, in the service branch, in industry or science, media or in governance and regulatory agencies. All of these professions face ethical issues, either as part of the job, or whenever conflicts of any form arise. I hope you can see from this that – whatever you choose to do in the future – you will be confronted with ethical discourse.

1.2.5 The role of ethics

Ethics as a philosophical discipline (moral philosophy) developed a few well-established ethical theories. When applying these principles to general cases, covering possible and actual particular cases, it is called a “top-down approach” of ethics, often preferred by philosophers and ethicists. When starting from particular cases and solving them one by one with suitable theories, we call it “bottom-up approach”, often followed by philosophical laymen like sociologists, scientists or ordinary citizen. Both ways proved to be inefficient for professional ethical discourse. As an alternative, a middle way between top-down and bottom-up is the strategy to apply ethical principles to particular cases. This is known as “principlism”. The principles are informed and derived from ethical expert knowledge, the cases are brought in by experts and laymen in the affected fields.


The idea is very pragmatic: A discourse is only worth the efforts when it comes to practicable, viable, plausible, down-to-earth solutions. While top-down strategies are too theoretical and intellectual, and bottom-up procedures are tedious, repetitive, time-consuming and inefficient, principlism has the advantage of narrowing down the theoretical content to handy principles while allowing many stakeholders with different backgrounds (therefore, interdisciplinary) to engage in the discourse. Stakeholders are entities for which something is at stake, which means something they value and wish to be preserved. The green box is not a mere repetition of applied ethics field as in the previous slide, but to show you that there actually ARE established arenas of such ethical discourses, for example ethics commissions in hospitals, technology assessment institutions, or ethics boards in companies that solve conflicts that arise in daily work life. Hence, we are not discussing something theoretical or academic here, but very practical approaches that are implemented to certain extents in all our daily life’s routines.

1.3 Course organisation

With these considerations in mind, I made this outline for this course:

  • Sep. 27th – Philosophical foundations of Discourse Ethics (From Epistemology to (Meta-)Ethics, communicative rationality)
  • Oct. 11th – Ideal discourse situations (Rules of ethical argumentation, discourse practice)
  • Oct. 18th – Ethics in Discourse 1 (Theories, principles, laymen ethics).
  • Oct. 25th – Ethics in Discourse 2 (Argumentative patterns, top-down and bottom-up ethics, role of ethicists)
  • Nov. 1st – Discourse in Medical Ethics 1 (Ethics commissions in hospitals)
  • Nov. 8th – Discourse in Medical Ethics 2 (Doctor-patient relation, paternalism)
  • Nov. 15th – Midterm exam
  • Nov. 22nd – Political Discourse
  • Nov. 29th – Discourse in Technology Ethics 1 (Stakeholders, participative discourse)
  • Dec. 6th – Discourse in Technology Ethics 2 (Risk and responsibility)
  • Dec. 13th – Discourse in Profession and Business Ethics
  • Dec. 20th – Discourse with absent stakeholders 1 (Environment, biosphere, eco-system)
  • Dec. 27th – Discourse with absent stakeholders 2 (future generations, unborn life, etc.)
  • Jan. 3rd – Discourse and Culture 1 (culture-specificity of discourse conduct)
  • Jan. 10th – Discourse and Culture 2 (Intercultural discourse)
  • Jan. 17th – Final Exam

The next four classes will be a bit more “theoretical” in a sense that we need to have a look at established ethical theories in order to be able to identify and classify argumentative patterns and strategies. We will talk about the conditions for ideal discourses and how to maintain them as active participants of discourses. Then we will come to practice in various realms of applied ethics. Each of them has specific topics and forms of discourse. I don’t want this course to be a one-way presentation of knowledge by me for you. I want you to get active, too! I will ask each of you to prepare a discourse situation and perform it as a kind of role-playing. I will instruct you for that and it will be fun! Also, I want to encourage you to be active in class, ask questions and pick up my hints for practicing argumentation and debating!

In the exams, I will ask knowledge questions that you can answer when you come to the classes, pay attention, and read this script, and questions in which I will ask you to write a statement on a case. Here, I’d like to advise you to practice that (I will give you opportunities for that). What I want to see from you is the ability to make an argument that is consistent, well-reasoned, and based on available knowledge and reasoning strategies. If you do that for the first time in the exam, it will be very difficult for you! Better try that at home with some example cases that I will give you. I also offer to check that for you, if you want.

These are the objectives of the course – what I hope you will achieve here:

  • Contemporary Issues in Applied Ethics
  • Formulating plausible moral arguments and applying them in ethical discourse
  • Learning concepts of “ideal discourse”
  • Practicing discourse performance and argumentative strategies
  • Acquiring skills for professional ethical discourse!

The last point is the most important! You will have jobs in the future in which your opinion counts. You might get into situations in which you have to argue with your boss. It will be important to be able to build your argument onto reasonable and rational foundations, because only then will it beat the hierarchical power of your boss’s argument!

I did not assign particular books that you have to buy to use them in this course. I think, students are poor enough, they shouldn’t be forced to buy expensive books. I will provide this script, which should be sufficient for recapitulating the lessons. Moreover, I will give you relevant articles as additional material for each class on Moodle, maximum 1 per week. However, if you are interested in this topic and wish to learn more, here are a few suggestions:

  • J. Habermas, Justification and Application. Remarks on Discourse Ethics, MIT Press, 1994
  • K.O. Apel, The response of discourse ethics, Peeters, 2001
  • A. Weston. A Practical Companion to Ethics, Oxford Univ. Press, 2006
  • A.I. Cohen, C.H. Wellman, Contemporary debates in Applied Ethics, Blackwell, 2005
  • K. Winston, Ethics in Public Life. Good practitioners in a Rising Asia, Palgrave, 2015
  • W. Rehg, Insight and Solidarity: A study in the discourse ethics of Jürgen Habermas, Univ. of California Press, 1994



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