Applied ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L005-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved June 23, 2024, from

5. Historical context

The inception of applied philosophy could well be said to coincide with that of the Western philosophical tradition as a whole, for the first of the early Greek philosophers, Thales (c.585 bc), is recorded as having combined his speculative philosophical interests with economic acumen and an interest in legal and political reform. Later schools of philosophy in ancient times – Pythagoreans, Epicureans, Stoics – offered their followers principles for living and even indeed distinctive codes of practice.

For both Plato and Aristotle, ethical and political questions were posed in terms of such notions as the good for man, the ultimate good, or what is good in itself and for its own sake (see Plato §16; Aristotle §21). Their assumption was that this inquiry led both to a way of life for the individual, and to a conception of the good society. They disagreed about whether this would lead an individual necessarily to live according to the ethical insight thus gained, Aristotle, unlike Plato in his earlier writings, allowing for the intervention of weakness of will to divert the person who has recognized the good from pursuing it (see Akrasia).

Subsequent philosophers frequently applied their ethical assumptions to particular cases, and saw this, not as a way of fractionizing moral philosophy – making it the science of the particular – but as a route to formulating guiding principles. Aquinastreated a range of practical issues including marriage and the family in Summa theologiae, and this tradition was developed further by Suárez (1612–21) and Grotius(1625). Locke (1689) wrote on the issue of toleration, Kant (1785; 1797) on suicide and on the question of whether it is ever right to tell a lie from benevolent motives (see Locke, J. §7; Toleration §1; Suicide, ethics of §5). Bentham (1789) put forward a complex theory of punishment, even formulating plans for a new type of prison, to be called the ‘panopticon’. He also wrote on legal and political reform. Hegel’s philosophy included views on the family and on punishment. J.S. Mill’s writings on toleration, paternalism and feminism (1859) continue to be of interest in the present day, as the controversies involved in these areas remain subjects of disagreement and debate (see Feminism; Paternalism), and Dewey’s theories of education (1916) exercised enormous practical influence on education systems in the USA and Britain (see Education, history of philosophy of).

The tradition in moral philosophy unsympathetic to applied ethics is in fact of fairly recent origin. It was associated with the dominance of positivism and empiricism in the philosophy of science, and the vogue for linguistic analysis in epistemology. This is a twentieth-century phenomenon and, right up to the closing years of the nineteenth century, a more generous conception of ethics flourished. If a certain myopia on applied issues is recognized amongst philosophers in the English-speaking world, coinciding roughly with the first half of the twentieth century, various explanations may be offered for the gradual return of visual focus. For those with an interest in medical ethics, a research project in Tuskegee in the USA in which a control group with syphilis remained untreated for decades after safe treatment was known to be possible is often cited as a trigger generating widespread discussion of issues such as autonomy, beneficence and nonmaleficence, medical confidentiality, and the ethics of experiments on human subjects (see Medical ethics §§1–3). This case may have been, however, a symptom rather than a cause, for in general medicine moved during those decades from being a practice with little power to influence the natural course of disease, to being a powerful interventionist tool. Whatever the specific cause, then, from roughly this period medical ethics became an arena of critical and controversial discussion.

Again in the USA, the Vietnam War and the protests which it generated are cited as having promoted discussion of a different range of applied issues (civil disobedience, duty to conscience versus duty to society) and as having led in a fairly direct way to the setting up of the Society for Philosophy and Public Affairs and the journal Philosophy and Public Affairs (see Civil disobedience; Conscience).

Others, focusing on the applied philosopher’s interest in animal welfare, cite the publication of the volume Animal Liberation (1975) by Peter Singer as ushering in a new conception of ethics as a practical and possibly even campaigning area (see Animals and ethics §3). Already, too, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) had alerted the general public to many environmental hazards and thus opened the way to an enlarged philosophical perspective in which developments in science and technology and the way in which these were applied by firms and governments to the environment were seen as matters of ethical concern. It was a decade or so later that the internal operations of businesses became matters for ethical scrutiny, prompted by scandals connected with sharp practices such as insider trading.

Finally, it must be said that philosophy itself no doubt provided a spur to the growth of applied ethics. The preoccupation of academic moral philosophy with entirely minor moral issues in a century which had witnessed two world wars and many accompanying gross violations of human rights, was too remarkable to pass for long, particularly with wider access to higher education and hence to the hitherto elite and somewhat esoteric pursuit of philosophy.

This account of the rise of contemporary applied ethics raises the question of what kind of study applied ethics is. Is it merely another kind of academic study, or is it committed to the promotion of change in the world? Is it conservative or radical? Reactionary or revolutionary? The answer to this last question is that it can be either. Reflection may make one seek to promote change for the better, but it may also cause one to recoil from change and seek to preserve what is best from the past. The controversial nature of most of the issues involved is itself a spur to their philosophical study, for it is probably true to say that until recently, despite differences of religious or ideological background, a common moral approach could in general be assumed, and accepted norms of moral behaviour could be taken as a starting-point for ethical reasoning. Such moral consensus cannot now be presupposed, and, while absolutist approaches are by no means inconsistent with mainstream philosophical ethics, in practice the defence of an absolute conception of morality against relativistic, subjective and utilitarian approaches is often associated with a religious perspective.

Many writers on applied ethics, however, adopt a secular utilitarian stance. These include the Australian philosopher Peter Singer, and the Oxford philosopher Jonathan Glover, who has written especially in the area of medical ethics (see Utilitarianism). R.M. Hare, in Moral Thinking (1981), puts forward a prescriptivist theory which combines utilitarianism with Kantian universalizability (see Prescriptivism). Also influential is the ethic of care mentioned above, which is often linked to gender differences. Other views include those of the Australian philosopher John Passmore, who defends a liberal moral perspective, especially in relation to environmental ethics, and John Rawls, whose notion of reflective equilibrium combines intuitionism with contract theory (see Moral justification §2). Rawls’ A Theory of Justice (1971) inaugurated a new more practical approach in ethics, which had implications for economics, law and political theory. Sissela Bokhas written on the fine texture of issues in public life in Lying: Moral Choices in Public and Private Life (1978) and Secrets (1984) (see Truthfulness); Mary Midgley, in Beast and Man (1978) and elsewhere, has discussed the relations between humans and other species; and Onora O’Neill (1986) has brought a Kantian ethic to bear on the issues of famine and poverty (see Development ethics). The debate between communitarians and libertarians about the ethics of capitalism and the role of welfare can also be seen as a part of applied ethics (see Community and communitarianism; Market, ethics of the). The German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, an influential figure both in continental Europe and the English-speaking world, has put forward a notion of consensus as the object of theory expressed in practice.

Citing this article:
Almond, Brenda. Historical context. Applied ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L005-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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