Ethical Theory and Moral Practice

, Volume 15, Issue 4, pp 563–577 | Cite as

Applying Principles to Cases and the Problem of Judgment



We sometimes decide what to do by applying moral principles to cases, but this is harder than it looks. Principles are more general than cases, and sometimes it is hard to tell whether and how a principle applies to a given case. Sometimes two conflicting principles seem to apply to the same case. To handle these problems, we use a kind of judgment to ascertain whether and how a principle applies to a given case, or which principle to follow when two principles seem to conflict. But what do we discern when we make such judgments—that is, what makes such judgments correct? The obvious answer is that they are made correct by whatever makes other moral judgments correct. However, that cannot be right, for a principle can be inconsistent with morality yet still apply in a particular way to a given case. If the principle is inconsistent with morality, then morality cannot be what we discern when we judge whether and how that principle applies to a given case. I offer an alternative account of what makes such judgments correct.


Applied ethics Cases Casuistry Judgement Judgment Moral practice Practical judgment Principles Specification 



I thank Carl F. Cranor, Michael Cholbi, Mark LeBar, Graham McFee, Sean McKeever, Stephen R. Munzer, Michael Zimmerman, and two anonymous reviewers for comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyCalifornia State University, FullertonFullertonUSA

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