In his post "cooked up thought experiments and the viciousness of ethics" Matt Brown throws doubts one the usefulness of "schematic" examples or "intuition pumps" of the sort which are popular in many articles on analytic philosophy. He thinks this method is not only useless, but may even have pernicious consequences on the moral sensibility and capacities of the people who practice it.
I am quite sympathetic to the points he makes.
Something in the replies he received strikes me as displaying a lack of sensibility for the points Matt Brown lays forward. In a way, they are enlightening in that they reveal the nature of the problem with which you are dealing. Evan, for example, uses an analogy between physics and morality. This analogy appears less explicitly in many other posts, in that it clearly undergrounds the metaphors which govern ethical thinking in professional analytic philosophy. In particular I refer to the metaphor of values regarded as forces, and the idea that a moral problem has the same "shape" of a first-year problem in Newtonian mechanics. (The idea behind this being that, if we are able to discover the "fundamental laws" of moral reality, the "real mess" that we find out there becomes more manageable.) No doubt this is a powerful metaphor because of its connection to mechanics and engineering, one that is best expressed in the utilitiarian sensibility, and that fits utilitarians preoccupations with "social engineering".
But why should ethics be, even remotely, like physics? It is only the professional teacher of ethics who thinks that it can be useful to understand "ethical laws in the vacuum", as we may call them. Worse than that, it is only and exclusively the philosophers who recognize themselves in the school (scholastic?) of analytic philosophy.
Now there are already some good reasons to doubt that "ethics in the vacuum" is a good methodology, given that it is not even so popular among philosophers. What explains the success of this methodology or style is, I believe, only the irresistible instinct to mock natural science, especially physics. There might be at least three reasons for this. One is that since Descartes we cannot resist the appeal of mocking the methodology of the most successful intellectual activity of our time, and this is widely regarded to be science today. (but is science that good? Many philosophers, especially in Europe, doubt this.) The other might simply be the sociological fact that (I have heard) many people in the U.S. enter philosophy with a background in natural science. Notice that in Europe philosophy is usually regarded to be more connected with literature, and as a matter of fact European or "continental" philosophers regards such "illustrations" as relatively unimportant or even stupid. The last one might be simply the status that science has in U.S. culture, especially in its connection to the idea of technology, which is connected to the idea of money and of power. (American culture is also known for its "anti-intellectualism", a sort of insufferance for the "culture" of the traditional intellectual which cannot prove their utility - and the utility of the knowledge they represent - in practice.)
I believe that if we try to look for a justification, rather than a mere explanation, of why the methodology of "ethics in the vacuum" is so popular, it is difficult to find one. There is clearly no obvious analogy between ethics and physics, as Matt rightly points out. There is clearly no proof that the attempt to connect concrete moral problems to "morality in the vacuum" leads us to be better people.
As Matt points out, this leaves us with another disanalogy between ethics and science. While engineers are infinitely more able to bend the forces of nature to their own will than layman are, it is reasonable to doubt that something similar applies to the sort of "moral knowledge" that philosophers ought to possess. And this is an excruciating problem given that ethics is sometimes called "practical philosophy".
Beside that, this way of doing philosophy is undermined at the epistemological level by theories such as Dancy's particularism, with which the reader of this kind of blogs must be familiar. If Dancy is right, the method based on intuitions pump is flawed, in that there is no guarantee that the "general" principle we use to solve the intuition pump problem will carry to any other problem which differs to the other in some features. Moreover, if we see the matter as particularist do, we must think that the crucial exercise of moral sensibility is the one which consists in sorting out the morally relevant features of a situation. If this is true, the morally relevant and interesting activity takes place when we define an example , by cutting up reality in such a way that we decide what is relevant and what is not in that situation, rather than we propose a solution for it.
I am also stricken by d0031's definition of what ethics is about. He talks about people's beliefs about what is permissible, impermissible, and required. This is a characterization of the subject-matter that clearly virtue-ethicists would reject. Moreover, do you really find it that this is what people look for when they look for ethical guidance? My real-life experience is that the opposite is true. What may sustain the opposite belies is, I guess, the fact that ethical problems and the need for ethical guidance appear in contemporary discourse especially in connection to public issues raised by bioethics and other current political issues. It is in the nature of things that such problems are best dealt with something like a deontological code or with a group of laws. But clearly this is far from showing that ordinary people's knowledge and reflection that is relevant to ethics (such as for example the knowledge they require when they find themselves in cases like the boat example) is centered on the notion of obligation or requirement.
However, it is very difficult to rebel against this entrenched tendency. One of the reasons for this is that good philosophy is, in a very deep sense, good literature, and that "intuitions pump" and "ethics in the vacuum" are in so many ways simply received stylistic features that mark good moral philosophical literature of analytic stile. It is difficult to do away with features that make literature simple, elegant and pleasurable to read without having any clear alternative in mind.
If the success of philosophy in the vacuum is in very deep sense a matter of received canons of style, rebellion against this must work kind of differently from they way theories are improved in times of "normal science". For example, people who do not like that style should try to unite themselves and fight together, should try to get into power, and promote the people who think in similar ways. So this is my suggestion: find other people who share your dissatisfaction with this sort of academic philosophy and try to make some real change. I may join your camp.