Rethinking ethics and personhood in philosophy and in practice
Submitting InstitutionOpen University
Unit of AssessmentPhilosophy
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Philosophy and Religious Studies: Philosophy
Summary of the impact
Chappell's recent work developing an anti-systematic philosophical
ethics, and in particular his
work on the notions of personhood and second-personality, has had an
impact on (1) provision of
public and health services, (2) policy-making, and (3) cultural life. He
has presented work on ethics
and persons to public audiences in Northampton, Mexico City, Oxford, St
Andrews, Leeds, Milan,
and Sydney. Besides a general intellectual-cultural impact on these public
audiences, he has had
specific impacts on thinking and practice (1) in paediatrics at The
Northampton General Hospital
and (2) in religious and educational constituencies in Britain and
During the REF period, Chappell was Professor of Philosophy at The Open
At least since Ethics and Experience (2009a), Chappell has been
sceptical about the systematic
moral theory that dominates academic ethics. Developing an alternative is
now Chappell's main
research programme. Parts of this programme are visible in his REF
research portfolio. A full
presentation of the programme is in his forthcoming monograph Knowing
What To Do: Virtue,
Imagination, and Platonism in Ethics (OUP, 2014).
Chappell argues that the kind of virtue ethics derivable from Plato and
Aristotle constitutes an
ethical outlook rather than a systematic moral theory (2009a).
Plato was engaged, and Aristotle to
some degree succeeded (2009b), in articulating an understanding of the
ethical role of the
imagination and the passions. Aristotle was officially interested, and
Plato unofficially, in how these
passions, as educated by the virtues, were expressed in (for example)
poetry and tragedy.
These interests gave Plato and Aristotle significant advantages over some
theorists. Three particular ways in which academic moral theory today can
easily disconnect itself
from extra-academic reality are (1) lack of imagination, (2) professed
(3) insensitivity to the character of actual ethical experience.
These are general flaws and Chappell's research diagnoses their presence
in a number of
contexts (see 2011b). As far back as 1997, Chappell suggested that
philosophers might fruitfully
take a more explicitly value-laden approach to personal identity. Chappell
(2011a) now argues that
all three flaws are present in contemporary discussions of personhood.
Bioethicists now routinely assert that counting as a person simply means
meeting some test or
criterion for personhood—rationality, sentience, emotionality, or the
like. They assume (1) that
there is no conceivable alternative to such criteria and no practical
problem about applying them,
(2) that `success' or `failure' in these tests is best judged from an
standpoint, and (3) that any counter-intuitive consequences of the
application of such criteria for
personhood are to be toughed out as `sentimentality' or otherwise
Chappell (2011a) rejects all three assumptions.
(1) As soon as we apply our imaginations to thinking what it would be
like to actually judge
`candidate persons' by such criteria, the psychological unreality (and
inhumanity) of the procedure
becomes blatant. What we do in practice is take characteristics like
rationality and sentience not as
criteria for admission to the `persons club', but as dimensions
of interpretation of creatures that we
already take to be persons.
(2) Our actual engagement with other persons is neither value-neutral nor
impersonal. It is
essentially second-personal: it can be described with a useful pun as an
exercise of the
principle of charity.
(3) That our actual engagement with other persons is always an exercise
of compassion for each
other's essential vulnerability, given that we are all what MacIntyre
calls `dependent rational
animals' — this explains how (at our best) our intuitive response to
humans who are very young,
very disabled, very ill, or very unconscious is not to dismiss them as
`non-persons' because they
fail some armchair a priori test, but to embrace them as
References to the research
Chappell, T. (2009a) Ethics and Experience, London, Acumen.
Chappell, T. (2009b) `Naturalism in Aristotle's political philosophy' in
Balot, R.K. (ed.) A Companion
to Greek and Roman Political Thought, pp. 382-89, Oxford, Blackwell.
Chappell, T. (2011a) `On the very idea of criteria for personhood', Southern
Journal of Philosophy,
vol. 49, no. 11, pp. 1-27.
Chappell, T. (2011b) `Glory as an ethical idea', Philosophical
Investigations, vol. 34, no. 2,
Chappell, T. (2014) Knowing What To Do: Virtue, Imagination, and
Platonism in Ethics, Oxford,
Oxford University Press.
During 2011/12 £40,883 was awarded by the AHRC to Timothy Chappell for a
`Making Good Decisions'.
Details of the impact
Chappell's engagement with a diverse range of non-academic and academic
resulted in his research influencing and challenging healthcare
professionals in the NHS to
providing the impetus for an interdisciplinary approach to religious
studies in Latin America.
As Director of the OU Ethics Centre, he seeks out opportunities to
challenge and expand thinking
about ethics, both in the UK and internationally. For example, he has
presented his research on
ethics without moral theory in talks given at the Keble College conference
for schoolteachers (June
2013), the Heythrop College conference on ethics and philosophy for Key
Stage 5 students
(January 2013), and the Pinner Philosophical Group (September 2011). These
made a difference to the outlook, thinking, and action of all sorts of
comments made to him in person have included, `That was a revelation',
`Made me look at things
completely differently', and `I'd never seen it that way before'.
Chappell has research links with the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and
Religion (IRC) in Oxford.
He gave a keynote address at the IRC's public conference in Mexico
(November 2011), El
Congréso Panamericana Ciencia y Religión, held at La Universidad
Panamericana; his topic was
`Varieties of knowledge', including personal knowledge. The IRC credits
him with influence in the
way the conference was organised, and the impact that it had on
Latin-American academics and
members of the public: `...one of the large teams that attended the Mexico
conference in 2011
(Universidad Austral, Argentina) gained experience and expertise. As a
direct result, they have just
secured $0.3m of funding for a project of their own.'
The project will take an interdisciplinary approach to the study of
science, religion, and philosophy
and will have an anticipated direct effect on tens of universities in
Latin America, and an indirect
effect on many thousands of people. As well as benefits to higher
education and research, the
project will create a collection of popular science books `to foster a
more informed debate in society
and will develop open-access websites in Spanish to provide qualified
information and updates on
Chappell has been an invited speaker at public conferences at the
Catholic Institute of Sydney
(`Knowledge of persons', September 2012) and the University of Notre Dame,
humans, and the principle of charity', July 2013). One audience-member at
both these events who
reports that Chappell's thinking has made a difference to the way he does
his job is the
Headmaster of Wollemi High School, New South Wales. He says: `[the] school
[is] known for its
character education initiatives and for the close parenting support we
provide ... in these times
when the stability of marriages and the bond between parents and children
are so challenged, I
believe it is very important to show the link between dedication and
personal fulfilment. Chappell's
work provides a platform for me to do this.'
Chappell has also presented his research about personhood in NHS and
contexts. In June 2009 he presented the research that became `On the Very
Idea of Criteria for
Personhood' (Chappell 2011a) in a `Grand Round' talk at Northampton
General Hospital; this drew
a very positive response from an audience of several hundred healthcare
presentation was part of a continuing working relationship between
Chappell and a consultant
paediatrician at Northampton General Hospital, who said of the talk:
`Professor Chappell used the
lecture not only to demonstrate the necessity of having a meaningful
philosophical structure to
underpin how one lives one's life, but also particularly within the
challenging context of health care,
of making decisions and living with the decisions you have to make.'
Over the last five years Chappell and this paediatrician have cooperated
on a number of projects.
The consultant is the author of several dramas on medical themes, on which
Chappell has worked
as an informal ethical advisor. They have also worked closely together on
a case with a severely
disabled and terminally ill boy and his parents, who were under the
consultant's care up to the
child's peaceful death in 2011. This offered, in delicate circumstances,
an opportunity to observe
how far Chappell's ideas of personhood work in practice.
Sources to corroborate the impact
Headmaster, Wollemi High School, New South Wales.
Director, Catholic Institute of Sydney, Australia.
Director, Ian Ramsey Centre for Ethics, Oxford.
Deputy Vice Chancellor (Sydney Campus), University of Notre Dame,
Consultant paediatrician, Northampton General Hospital.