Applied ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L005-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved May 21, 2024, from

2. Theory and practice

Underlying all such issues are questions about justice, rights, utility, virtue and community. The practice of distinguishing between theoretical and applied ethics must, therefore, be treated with some caution. Indeed, some have regarded the term ‘applied’ as redundant, on the grounds that there cannot be an ‘ethics’ which is not applied: on the one hand, they argue, theoretical concepts such as rights and justice should not be viewed as mere abstractions; and, on the other, applied ethics should not be detached from its roots in traditional morality. But while it is important to stress this continuity, there are certain characteristic features of applied ethics which mark it out in practice from theoretical ethics. These are (a) its greater attention to context and detail and (b) its more holistic approach – its willingness to link ethical ideals to a conception of human nature and human needs (see Human nature; Needs and interests). Thus practitioners of applied ethics may be more willing than proponents of traditional academic moral philosophy to recognize that psychology and sociology, a knowledge of culture and history, the insights of good literature, and even an understanding of humans as biological entities, are all relevant to the determination of moral issues in personal and public life.

The demarcation line between applied and theoretical ethics which this suggests may be drawn at that point on the spectrum of ethics where ethical theory stops short of normative recommendations and confines itself to the analysis of moral concepts such as ‘right’, ‘good’, ‘responsibility’, ‘blame’ and ‘virtue’ and to discussion of what might be called the epistemology of ethics – such theories as ethical realism, subjectivism and relativism (see Analytic ethics; Moral knowledge; Moral realism; Logic of ethical discourse). This is the area sometimes described as ‘meta-ethics’. Drawing the line at this point may be useful so long as it is not allowed to obscure the truth that applied and theoretical ethics are not discrete but lie on a continuum from the particular to the general, the concrete to the abstract.

The ultimate focus of applied ethics may well be entirely particular: the individual case-study. And it is this that gives rise to a further characteristic feature of applied ethics: its concern with dilemmas – not necessarily in the hard logical sense of situations in which it is impossible to act rightly because each of two opposite courses of action is either judged to be mandatory or judged to be wrong; but in the looser sense of cases in which a choice between courses of action may be extremely difficult, the arguments on both sides being compelling, and the person who must act being strongly influenced in opposing directions (for example, to sanction drastic medical intervention to save a severely disabled baby which would otherwise die, or to allow nature to take its course). It should be said, though, that choosing between options which are not morally equal is not, strictly speaking, a dilemma, although it is admittedly likely to be emotionally traumatizing, while choosing between moral obligations that are indisputably of equal weight is not a moral problem. The question for applied ethics in such cases may well be whether or not the available options are indeed morally equal.

Because it focuses on individual dilemmas, applied ethics must confront the question of universalization, which may also be seen as a ‘free rider’ problem: many things are judged to be wrong as a result of asking the question, ‘What if everyone did that?’, even though, in a particular case, it might seem harmless and more convenient for an individual to ignore the rule, while benefiting from the fact that everyone else is following it (see Universalism in ethics). The applied ethicist, like the theoretical moral philosopher, must find a way to deal with this problem, but for the applied ethicist, the problem is bound up with the need to employ what is sometimes called moral casuistry. This ancient science is not necessarily to be despised, for while a secondary meaning of the term ‘casuist’ is indeed ‘sophist’ or ‘quibbler’, it was not originally a term of abuse, but simply meant accepting in a theological context people’s desire to work out the ‘right answer’ to a difficult issue of conscience in a particular set of circumstances (see Casuistry).

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

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