Applied ethics

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Applied ethics is, in the words of Brenda Almond, co-founder of the Society for Applied Philosophy, "the philosophical examination, from a moral standpoint, of particular issues in private and public life that are matters of moral judgment". It is thus a term used to describe 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 of humans towards landscapes or species. Business ethics concerns questions such as the limits on managers in the pursuit of profit, or the duty of 'whistleblowers' to the general public as opposed to their employers. As such, it is a study which is supposed to involve practitioners as much as professional philosophers.[1]

Applied ethics is distinguished from normative ethics, which concerns what people should believe to be right and wrong, and from meta-ethics, which concerns the nature of moral statements.

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 an organization
  • Organizational ethics, or ethics among organizations
  • Social ethics, or ethics among nations and as one global unit


Modern approach

Much of applied ethics is concerned with just three theories:

One modern approach which attempts to overcome the seemingly impossible divide between deontology and utilitarianism 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.

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