What is a case study?

I will assign one of the Ethics Bowl cases where it is unclear whether or not a course of action described in the case is or would be morally right. You will be asked to evaluate the action in the story in light of one or more of the moral normative theories we've discussed this semester. As an example, consider the following case:

Ms. Jane Bradely is a successful commercial real estate agent. She is 41 years old, recently divorced, and is the mother of a 4 year old son who has Down's Syndrome. She has sole custody of her son, Algernon. Like most people with Down's Syndrome, Algernon is typically good natured, apparently very happy, and is mentally retarded. Ms. Bradely retains the services of a nanny to help take care of Algernon.

Ms. Bradely very much wants to have a healthy child. Towards that end, she opts for artificial insemination. Her physician warns her that the incidence of Trisomy-21 (the chromosomal aberation which results in Down's Syndrome) increases with the age of the mother. Understanding the risk, Ms. Bradely decides to go ahead with the procedure.

After several attempts, Ms. Bradely becomes pregnant. Unfortunately, karyotyping after amniocentesis reveals that the fetus has Trisomy-21. Ms. Bradely is deeply troubled by the news. She is now three months pregnant.

Having carefully evaluated her options, she decides to get an abortion.

After aborting her pregnancy she fully intends to try again in a few months.

Is it morally right for Ms. Bradely to have an abortion?

This case asks us to evaluate the morality Ms. Bradely's action of aborting her pregnancy. Of course the story is complicated, much as actual stories are complicated. There is a great deal to consider in such a case as this. But then there's a great deal to consider in the "real-world" as well.

You are asked to think about the case at length. Is her action right or wrong? Of course, we can't simply say right or wrong. We have to say right or wrong based on some particular conception of what it means for an action to be right or wrong. In other words, you need to select one of the theories we have discussed and reason, on the basis of that theory, about whether her action is right or wrong. Be sure that the theory you assume is defensible. CER, for example, would be a poor choice at this stage. It might be tempting to give an argument like:

Assuming CER, and given that Ms. Bradely is a member of the American Culture, it follows that it is morally right for her to abort her pregancy since she is in the first trimester and abortion is always permissible in the first trimester in the American Culture given the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade.

This is a well-put argument, clearly stating as it does the assumptions and clearly stepping as it does from the assumptions to the moral permissibility of her action. But just because the argument can be clearly stated does not mean that it is a good argument. In particular, this argument is obviously unsound. CER is one of the theories our Standards of Evaluation rejected. CER is self-contradictory and has implications which are absolutely unacceptable. Thus the person who put forward this argument would open themselves up to these and other criticisms, which is surely something to be avoided as much as possible.

Indeed, as we work through the theories we will discover a number that are critically unusuable in light of the assumptions they make. It will only be later that we find usuable theories. Nevertheless, it is important to learn how to apply indefensible theories so as to understand them better.

A further point should be made. The theories we consider should in no way be considered decision boxes where you plug in the facts of the case in the theory spits out an answer--"this action is morally wrong" or "this action is morally right". Ethics, as many of you will note, is never so clear-cut or straightforward. We must wrestle with extremely complicated issues. In the above case, for example, we have added the complication that Ms. Bradely's fetus has Down's Syndrome. The theories serve to make precise a particular conception of what it is for an action to be morally right or morally wrong. That does not mean that they suddenly make it black-and-white or even easy to see whether a particular action is right or wrong. All we can do in studying these often complicated issues is, naturally enough, the best we can. We try to make our assumptions clear and defensible. In particular, we try to make our conceptions of ethics clear and defensible by formulating them into theories which have a chance at passing our pre-established Standards. But then it is up to us to argue back and forth about what is in fact implied by a particular understanding of ethics. Sometimes it is obvious what follows, but sometimes it is not. Perhaps it would be nice if everything were straightforward and mechanical. But would any of us really want it that way? After all, it's nothing less than our lives and how we should live them that we're talking about here.

That said, let us describe each of the three sections in a Case.

The first section is the Argument:

Here you will assume a theory and argue, on the basis of that theory, to a conclusion. Your conclusion will be either "the act of __ is morally right" or "the act of __ is morally wrong". So, for example, in the above case your conclusion will either be "the act of Ms Bradely's aborting her pregnancy is morally right" or "the act of Ms. Bradely's aborting her pregnancy is morally right", whichever conclusion you think best follows from the theoretical assumption you've made. Then you will actually give an argument, preferably in paragraph form, to show that the conclusion does follow from the theory you've assumed. Presumably you will give the best argument you can.

The second section is the Critical Analysis:

Here you have the opportunity to criticize each other's arguments. You will be paired off with a partner and you will exchange your arguments. It is open to you to criticize any of the steps in your partner's argument and any of the assumptions your partner makes--either explicitly or implicitly and including the theory she or he has assumed. It is not open to you to criticize your partner. You are encouraged to see me if you do not understand the difference. You must state your criticisms clearly and carefully and provide appropriate justification.

The third and final section is the Response:

Here you have the opportunity to respond to your partner's criticisms. Your responses should be to show that (and how) your partner's criticisms fail, or to show that a better argument can be made for your conclusion which does not have the same problems as your first argument.

So that's the content of your case. The format should be followed precisely as the following outline.

Case Outline

Following the format precisely means that everything in your email should appear exactly as it does above, except, of course, what is in parentheses. Thus, "ARGUMENT" should be in all-caps and should be preceded by a series of dashes to demarcate the section.

Finally, some students find it odd or disconcerting that their case will include some of their partner's work - i.e., the Critical Analysis. They go to great lengths to include their own critical analysis, which only confuses me. I am very easily confused, so please do not include your critical analysis. A case should read like a point/counterpoint/counter-counterpoint debate. Your partner will include your critical analysis with her case, and you will be duly credited for your work.