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Applied ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L005-2
Version: v2,  Published online: 2011
Retrieved July 15, 2024, from

Article Summary

Applied ethics is marked out from ethics in general by its special focus on issues of practical concern. It is concerned with ethical issues in various fields of human life, including medical ethics, business ethics and environmental ethics. Within these broad areas, it engages with policy issues resulting from scientific and technological change and with the evaluation of social and legal decision-making in public areas such as health care, policing, media and information, and the world of business and finance. It is also concerned with professional codes and responsibilities in such areas.

The boundaries between areas are not solid. For instance, ethical issues arising from the new reproductive technologies inevitably interact with family and human relationships and this can open up broader questions about gender and ethnicity, population and demographic change. Similarly, discussion of the surveillance society has links with crime and punishment, terrorism and war, while the issue of animal experimentation in the laboratory has immediate links with questions about animal rights and ethically based vegetarianism.

Although practical ethical issues like these are often regarded as free-standing, applied ethics sees them in relation to some of the more fundamental questions that have been perennial preoccupations of philosophers, such as: How should we see the world and our place in it? What is the good life for the individual? What is the good society? In this way, applied ethics must take into account basic ethical theory, including utilitarianism, liberal rights theory and virtue ethics. Some see it as necessary to reason from within one of these ethical positions in order to deal adequately with an issue; others adopt a more relativistic strategy, and simply list what they see as the alternative conclusions to be reached from those differing theoretical bases. Others again favour a contextual solution that has affinities to the ancient practice of casuistry. These differences in underlying theory inevitably affect conclusions on practical issues, so that applied ethics is in the end, like other philosophical explorations, a controversial area.

‘Applied ethics’ and ‘applied philosophy’ are sometimes used as synonyms, but applied philosophy can be used more broadly to cover also such fields as law, education, art or artificial intelligence. The difference is that these areas include philosophical problems - metaphysical and epistemological - that are not strictly ethical, while applied ethics focuses more narrowly on ethical questions. Nevertheless, many of the issues it treats do in fact involve other aspects of philosophy. Medical ethics, for example, may raise metaphysical questions about the nature of ‘personhood’ or the definition of death, and conceptual questions about truth and trust.

Citing this article:
Almond, Brenda. Applied ethics, 2011, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L005-2. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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