Applied ethics

Applied ethics is the branch of ethics concerned with the analysis of particular moral issues in private and public life.[1] For example, the bioethics community is concerned with identifying the correct approach to moral issues in the life sciences, such as euthanasia, the allocation of scarce health resources, or the use of human embryos in research.[2][3][4] Environmental ethics is concerned with ecological issues such as the responsibility of government and corporations to clean up pollution.[5] Business ethics includes questions regarding the duties or duty of 'whistleblowers' to the general public or to their loyalty to their employers.[6] Applied ethics is distinguished from normative ethics, which concerns standards for right and wrong behavior, and from meta-ethics, which concerns the nature of ethical properties, statements, attitudes, and judgments.[7]

Modern approach

Much of applied ethics is concerned with three theories:

  1. 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 theory’s 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 moral decision making.
  2. 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 an important part of the Catholic Church's teaching on Morals.
  3. 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.

See also


  1. "Applied Ethics" Oxford Bibliographies. Retrieved June 25, 2017.
  2. "Disability and Health Care Rationing" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved June 25, 2017.
  3. "Voluntary Euthanasia" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved June 25, 2017.
  4. "Ethics of Stem Cell Research" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved June 25, 2017.
  5. "Environmental Ethics" Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved June 25, 2017.
  6. "Business Ethics" Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved June 25, 2017.
  7. "Applied Ethics" Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Retrieved June 25, 2017.
  • Chadwick, R.F. (1997). Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics. London: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-227065-7. 
  • Singer, Peter (1993). Practical Ethics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-43971-X.  (monograph)
  • Cohen, Andrew I. (2005). Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-1548-3. 
  • LaFollette, Hugh (2002). Ethics in Practice (2nd Edition). Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-22834-9. 
  • Singer, Peter (1986). Applied Ethics. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-875067-6. 
  • Frey, R.G. (2004). A Companion to Applied Ethics. Blackwell. ISBN 1-4051-3345-7. 

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