Applied ethics is the philosophical examination, from a moral standpoint, of particular issues in private and public life that are matters of moral judgment. It is thus the attempts to use philosophical methods to identify the morally correct course of action in various fields of human life. Bioethics, for example, is concerned with identifying the correct approach to matters such as euthanasia, or the allocation of scarce health resources, or the use of human embryos in research. Environmental ethics is concerned with questions such as the duties or duty of 'whistleblowers' to the general public as opposed to their loyalty to their employers. As such, it is an area of professional philosophy that is relatively well paid and highly valued both within and outside of academia.
An emerging typology for applied ethics (Porter, 2006) uses six domains to help improve organizations and social issues at the national and global level:
- Decision ethics, or ethical theories and ethical decision processes
- Professional ethics, or ethics to improve professionalism
- Clinical ethics, or ethics to improve our basic health needs
- Business ethics, or individual based morals to improve ethics in a business environment
- Organizational ethics, or ethics among organizations
- Social ethics, or ethics among nations and as one global unit
Much of applied ethics is concerned with just three theories:
- Utilitarianism, where the practical consequences of various policies are evaluated on the assumption that the right policy will be the one which results in the greatest happiness. This theories main developments came from Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill who distinguished between an act and rule utilitarianist morality. Later developments have also adjusted the theory, most notably Henry Sidgwick who introduced the idea of motive or intent in morality, and Peter Singer who introduced the idea of preference in to moral decision making.
- Deontological ethics, notions based on 'rules' i.e. that there is an obligation to perform the 'right' action, regardless of actual consequences (epitomized by Immanuel Kant's notion of the Categorical Imperative which was the centre to Kant's ethical theory based on duty). Another key deontological theory is Natural Law, which was heavily developed by Thomas Aquinas and is the basis of the Roman Catholic Church.
- Virtue ethics, derived from Aristotle's and Confucius's notions, which asserts that the right action will be that chosen by a suitably 'virtuous' agent.
One modern approach which attempts to overcome the seemingly impossible divide between deontology and utilitarianism (of which the divide is caused by the opposite takings of an absolute and relativist moral view) is case-based reasoning, also known as casuistry. Casuistry does not begin with theory, rather it starts with the immediate facts of a real and concrete case. While casuistry makes use of ethical theory, it does not view ethical theory as the most important feature of moral reasoning. Casuists, like Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin (The Abuse of Casuistry 1988), challenge the traditional paradigm of applied ethics. Instead of starting from theory and applying theory to a particular case, casuists start with the particular case itself and then ask what morally significant features (including both theory and practical considerations) ought to be considered for that particular case. In their observations of medical ethics committees, Jonsen and Toulmin note that a consensus on particularly problematic moral cases often emerges when participants focus on the facts of the case, rather than on ideology or theory. Thus, a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, and an agnostic might agree that, in this particular case, the best approach is to withhold extraordinary medical care, while disagreeing on the reasons that support their individual positions. By focusing on cases and not on theory, those engaged in moral debate increase the possibility of agreement.
- Brenda Almond, 'Applied Ethics', in Mautner, Thomas, Dictionary of Philosophy, Penguin 1996
- Porter, R. (2006). The Health Ethics Typology: Six Domains to Improve Care. Socratic Publishing. ISBN 0-9786699-0-8
- Business Ethics Quarterly
- Business and Professional Ethics
- Environmental Ethics
- Ethics (since 1890)
- The Journal of Ethics
- Journal of Applied Philosophy
- International Journal of Applied Philosophy
- International Journal of Philosophical Practice
- Journal of Business Ethics
- Journal of Business Ethics Education
- Professional Ethics
- Teaching Ethics
Library resources about
- Chris Young, How to teach an introduction to applied ethics
- Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University
- W. Maurice Young Centre for Applied Ethics at the University of British Columbia