Applied Ethics

Applied ethics is the third of the three ethical viewpoints presented in this unit. Make sure you can distinguish between these concepts, since they will appear often throughout this course.

Applied ethics is a field of ethics that deals with ethical questions specific to a professional, disciplinary, or practical field. Subsets of applied ethics include medical ethics, bioethics, business ethics, legal ethics, and others.

Many analytic philosophers did not focus on normative or practical ethical questions during the early part of the twentieth century. However, throughout the century various issues such as pollution, human rights abuses, abortion, human cloning, poverty, and others raised pressing ethical questions and applied ethics became an increasingly important field of philosophy.

Because of the complexity of each ethical issue, a philosopher often has to also consider fundamental questions of metaphysics, epistemology, and theories of human nature; in addition, philosophers must collaborate with scholars from other fields.

There are generally two approaches taken in applied ethics. The first is to apply ethical principles, such as utilitarianism and deontological ethics to each issue or question; the second is to generate a situation-based discourse that uses multiple ethical theories.



Ethics and other philosophical fields

Ethical questions in practical fields often lead to questions beyond ethics. For example, euthanasia, an issue in medical ethics, leads to questions regarding life, death, aging, happiness, suffering, and human existence. In the history of philosophy, however, philosophers have tried to establish ethical theories independent of other philosophical fields, particularly metaphysics.

To avoid stepping into unsettled disputes on fundamental philosophical questions outside of ethics, philosophers often attempt to find practical, agreeable, solutions. Some philosophers who take a case-based reasoning approach called casuistry set aside even ethical theories altogether in order to find a mutually agreeable, plausible, and practical solution.


Interdisciplinary collaboration

Applied ethics requires knowledge of specific fields and, oftentimes, multiple fields. For example, in order to address the ethical questions concerning global warming, a central issue in environmental ethics, philosophers often have to consider social, economic, and political implications. Furthermore, applied ethics often require not only a theoretical analysis but also practical, feasible solutions. For this reason, a team of professionals from different disciplinary fields often collaborate as a team.



There are basically two approaches in applied ethics: one is to approach ethical issues by applying the principles of ethical theories, and the other is to develop situation based discourses without presupposing the validity of any ethical theory.


Application of the principles of ethical theories

The first approach is to find ways to apply the principles of ethical theories. Philosophers attempt to revise classic formulations of ethical principles in order to apply them to current ethical questions. Two major ethical theories that are used today are utilitarianism and deontological ethics; other ethical theories include virtue ethics, such as Aristotelianism, Confucianism, and religion-based ethical theories.

This approach, however, has its own difficulty. Each ethical theory is established upon distinct principles and has a certain plausibility, yet no one theory can comprehensively cover all aspects of a problem; at the same time, combining different theories requires a tremendous mind and is nearly impossible.


Situation-based approach

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 principle-based paradigm of 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, for example, 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. Consequently, 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.


Major subfields

Applied ethics can be found in almost all kinds of professional fields or social practices. While medical ethics, environmental ethics,  business ethics, and legal ethics are major subfields, applied ethics is found in human rights, war, media, communication, sports, academic research, publication, and other areas.


Business ethics

Business ethics examines ethical principles and moral or ethical problems that arise in a business environment or economic activities.

In the increasingly conscience-focused marketplaces of the twenty-first century, the demand for more ethical business processes and actions (known as ethicism) is increasing. Simultaneously, pressure is applied on industry to improve business ethics through new public initiatives and laws (e.g. higher UK road tax for higher-emission vehicles).

Business ethics can be both a normative and a descriptive discipline. As a corporate practice and a career specialization, the field is primarily normative. In academia, descriptive approaches are also taken. The range and quantity of business ethical issues reflects the degree to which business is perceived to be at odds with non-economic social values.

Historically, interest in business ethics accelerated dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s, both within major corporations and within academia. For example, today most major corporate websites lay emphasis on commitment to promoting non-economic social values under a variety of headings (e.g. ethics codes, social responsibility charters). In some cases, corporations have redefined their core values in the light of business ethical considerations (e.g. BP's "beyond petroleum" environmental tilt).

Business ethics also discusses ethical questions in marketing, accounting, labor including child labor and abusive labor practices, human resource management, political contributions, business acquisitions such as hostile take-overs, production, use of toxic material, intellectual property, information management including information leak, and others.


Legal ethics

Legal ethics refers to an ethical code governing the conduct of people engaged in the practice of law. In the United States, for example, the American Bar Association has promulgated model rules that have been influential in many jurisdictions.

The model rules address the client-lawyer relationship, duties of a lawyer as advocate in adversary proceedings, dealings with people other than clients, law firms and associations, public service, advertising, and maintaining the integrity of the profession. Respect of client confidences, candor toward the tribunal, truthfulness in statements to others, and professional independence are some of the defining features of legal ethics.

American law schools are required to offer a course in professional responsibility, which encompasses both legal ethics and matters of professionalism that do not present ethical concerns.


Environmental ethics

Environmental ethics is the part of environmental philosophy that considers the ethical relationship between human beings and the natural environment. It exerts influence on a large range of disciplines including law, sociology, theology, economics, ecology, and geography.

Some of the main topics are global warming, pollution, and issues are closely tied to those of poverty, sustainability, and economic and social justice. Furthermore, since environmental problems often affect beyond the boundaries of nation-states, the issues are tied to the fields of international relations and global governance.


Medical ethics and bioethics

Medical ethics deals with the study of moral values and judgments as they apply to medicine. As a scholarly discipline, medical ethics encompasses its practical application in clinical settings as well as work on its history, philosophy, theology, and sociology. Medical ethics shares many principles with other branches of healthcare ethics, such as nursing ethics.

Medical ethics tends to be understood narrowly as an applied professional ethics, whereas bioethics appears to have worked more expansive concerns, touching upon the philosophy of science and the critique of biotechnology and life science. Still, the two fields often overlap and the distinction is more a matter of style than professional consensus. Some topics include abortion, cloning, euthanasia, eugenics, and others.

Source: New World Encyclopedia,
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