I was thinking about the method of cases in ethics, and it made me think of what we do when we apply the method as a reverse engineering of conscience. Reverse engineering of software has been one of the most fun things in my life. When I reverse engineer software, in order to figure out what the software does (e.g., how it stores data in an undocumented file format), I typically employ anywhere between one and three of the following methods:
- Observe the outputs in the ordinary course of operation.
- Observe the outputs given carefully crafted inputs.
- Look under the hood: disassemble the software, trace through the execution, do experiments with modifying the software, etc.
But now suppose that this all works, that we really do succeed in reverse engineering conscience, and find out by what principles a properly functioning conscience decides whether an action is right or wrong. Why think this gives us anything of ethical interest? If we have a divine command theory, we have a nice answer: The same being whose commands constitute rightness and wrongness made that conscience, and it is plausible to think that he made it in order to communicate his commands to us. Perhaps more generally theistic theories other than divine command can give us a good answer, in that the faculty of conscience is designed by a being who cares immensely about right behavior. Likewise, if we have a natural law theory, we also have a nice answer: The faculty of conscience is part of our nature, and our nature defines what is right and wrong for us.
But what if conscience is simply the product of unguided evolution? Then by reverse engineering conscience we would not expect to find out anything other than facts about what kinds of behavior-guiding algorithms help us to pass on our genes.
So if all we do in the method of cases is this kind of reverse engineering, then outside of a theistic or natural law context we really should eschew use of the method in ethics.