Applied ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L005-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 29, 2023, from

4. Critics and opponents

In seeking answers to practical problems, applied ethics runs counter to much recent philosophy. For the view that prevailed during the dominance of empiricism and positivism (the greater part of the twentieth century) is that philosophy can have nothing to say about pressing practical problems.

This view is grounded in two important philosophical arguments: (a) Hume’s objection to arguments that seek to derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’ (see Hume, D. §4; Logic of ethical discourse §2–4); and (b) Moore’s argument that to identify moral characteristics with ‘natural’ or empirical ones is to commit a ‘naturalistic fallacy’ (see Moore, G.E. §1; Naturalism in ethics §3). Both of these arguments must be resisted if applied ethics is to succeed in closing the gap between factual descriptions of situations and moral judgments, and both may partially at least be answered by insisting that some facts ‘speak for themselves’ – torture, child-murder, genocide, for example.

The argument that facts and values are to be kept apart is, however, less of an obstacle to philosophers outside the English-speaking world; the notion of praxis, for example, is familiar from various continental traditions, including Marxism, the Frankfurt School, and the philosophy of Habermas (see Theory and practice §3); while the idea of the philosopher as engagé – as concerned with playing a part in the world – is an important part of French existentialist thought, made familiar in the works of Sartre. These sources have, however, produced a different kind of challenge to the notion of applied ethics as an impartial and essentially reason-based approach to ethical issues in society. Objections to the conception of universal moral norms and to foundationalist procedures in reasoning (the ‘postmodernist’ challenge) are associated with recent developments in Marxist theory, certain feminist approaches to ethics and epistemology, and the deconstructionist movement – schools of thought which may also adopt an analysis of power-structures in society incompatible with belief in individual freedom of action (see Feminism and psychoanalysis; Deconstruction). Supporters of these theoretical positions often make strong claims for the recognition of rights, but this is probably better seen as exploitation of the preconceptions of their opponents, rather than as recognition of universal ethical concepts and human freedom.

Other critiques of traditional ethics may, however, be more sympathetic to applied ethics. On the basis of research revealing the contextuality of many women’s responses to ethical dilemmas, some feminist writers, most prominently Carol Gilligan (1982), have argued that women in general are likely to adopt an ethic of care and responsibility to particular others rather than an abstract morality of principles, rights or justice (see Feminist ethics §1). Such an approach may well seem better adapted to the resolution of ‘hard cases’ in, for example, health care or social work (see Nursing ethics).

Similarly, the approach known as ‘virtue ethics’, with its emphasis on seeking the good in particular situations, may seem well adapted to applied ethics, even if its proponents sometimes appear to view it in opposition, regarding their own stand as more objective, and wrongly equating applied ethics with subjectivism and relativism (see Virtue ethics).

Other stereotypes to be rejected are political: applied ethics has typically been associated with vegetarianism, pacifism, feminism and environmentalism. It should be noted, however, that it also includes criticism and evaluation of these positions: defences of meat-eating or animal experiments, scepticism about feminism, and resistance to new ‘ecological ethics’ are to be found alongside more orthodox publications on library shelves. There is nothing wrong with variety of opinion so long as this is within a broad ethical framework, for it is of the essence of applied philosophy in general to approach individual issues in their own right and not as part of an ideological package-deal.

Applied ethics, then, is part of a whole view of the human condition and takes a broad view of ethical decision-making. Essentially, this is ethical decision-making seen as practical policy that consciously recognizes the constraints of moral norms, rights and ethical principles capable of commanding universal respect. Where this is accepted, the object of applied ethics is plain: it is to gain clearer perceptions of right and wrong, with a view to embodying these insights in manners and institutions.

Citing this article:
Almond, Brenda. Critics and opponents. Applied ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L005-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2023 Routledge.

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