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Applied Ethics


Moral philosophers have traditionally aspired to normative theories of what is right or wrong that are set out in the most general terms. But a practical price is paid for generality in ethical theory: It is often unclear whether and, if so, how theory is to be applied in specific cases and contexts. The terms applied ethics and practical ethics came in vogue in the 1970s, when philosophical ethics began to address issues in professional ethics as well as social problems such as capital punishment, abortion, environmental responsibility, and affirmative action. Philosophers interested in applying their training to such problems share with persons from numerous other fields the conviction that decision making in these areas is fundamentally moral and of the highest social importance.

Philosophers working in applied ethics sometimes do more than teach and publish articles about applications of ethical theory. Their work involves actual applications. They serve as consultants to government agencies, hospitals, law firms, physician groups, business corporations, and engineering firms. Branching out further, they serve as advisers on ethics to radio and educational television, serve on national and state commissions on ethics and policy, and give testimony to legislative bodies. Occasionally, they draft public policy documents, some with the force of law.

Controversies have arisen about whether philosophers have an ethical expertise suited to such work and also about whether the work is philosophical in any interesting sense. Enthusiasm about applied ethics is mixed in academic philosophy. It has been criticized as lacking in serious scholarship, and many philosophers regard it as reducing ethics to engineeringa mere device of problem solving. Some philosophers are not convinced that philosophical theories have a significant role to play in the analysis of cases or in policy and professional contexts, and others are skeptical that philosophical theories have direct practical implications.

Definitional Problems

"Applied ethics" has proved difficult to define, but the following is a widely accepted account: Applied ethics is the application of general ethical theories to moral problems with the objective of solving the problems. However, this definition is so narrow that many will not recognize is as reflecting their understanding of either the appropriate method or content. "Applied ethics" is also used more broadly to refer to any use of philosophical methods critically to examine practical moral decisions and to treat moral problems, practices, and policies in the professions, technology, government, and the like. This broader usage permits a range of philosophical methods (including conceptual analysis, reflective equilibrium, phenomenology, etc.) and does not insist on problem solving as the objective.

Biomedical ethics, political ethics, journalistic ethics, legal ethics, environmental ethics, and business ethics are fertile areas for such philosophical investigation. However, "applied ethics" is not synonymous with "professional ethics" (a category from which business ethics is often excluded). Problems such as the allocation of scarce social resources, just wars, abortion, conflicts of interest in surrogate decision making, whistleblowing, the entrapment of public officials, research on animals, and the confidentiality of tax information extend beyond professional conduct, but all are in the domain of applied ethics. Likewise, professional ethics should not be viewed as a part of the wider domain of applied ethics. The latter is usually understood as the province of philosophy, the former as reaching well beyond philosophy and into the professions themselves.


Philosophers from Socrates to the present have been attracted to topics in applied ethics such as civil disobedience, suicide, and free speech; and philosophers have written in detail about practical reasoning. Nonetheless, it is arguably the case that there never has been a genuine practical program of applied philosophy in the history of philosophy (the casuists possibly qualifying as an exception). Philosophers have traditionally tried to account for and justify morality, to clarify concepts, to examine how moral judgments and arguments are made, and to array basic principlesnot to use either morality or theories to solve practical problems.

This traditional set of commitments began to undergo modification about the time the Encyclopedia of Philosophy was first published in 1967. Many hypotheses can be invoked to explain why. The most plausible explanation is that law, ethics, and many of the professionsincluding medicine, business, engineering, and scientific researchwere profoundly affected by issues and concerns in the wider society regarding individual liberties, social equality, and various forms of abuse and injustice. The issues raised by civil rights, women's rights, the consumer movement, the environmental movement, and the rights of prisoners and the mentally ill often included ethical issues that stimulated the imagination of philosophers and came to be regarded by many as essentially philosophical problems. Teaching in the philosophy classroom was influenced by these and other social concerns, most noticeably about unjust wars, dramatic ethical lapses in institutions, domestic violence, and international terrorism. Increases in the number of working women, affirmative action programs, escalation in international business competition, and a host of other factors heightened awareness. Classroom successes propelled the new applied ethics in philosophy throughout the 1970s, when few philosophers were working in the area but public interest was increasing.

It is difficult to identify landmark events that stimulated philosophers prior to Roe v. Wade (the U.S. Supreme Court decision on abortion in 1973), which deeply affected applied philosophical thinking. But at least one other landmark deserves mention. Research ethics had been poorly developed and almost universally ignored in all disciplines prior to the Nuremberg Trials. This apathy was shaken when the Nuremberg Military Tribunals unambiguously condemned the sinister political motivation and moral failures of Nazi physicians. The ten principles constituting the "Nuremberg Code" served as a model for many professional and governmental codes formulated in the 1950s and 1960s and eventually influenced philosophers as well.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s there emerged a rich and complex interplay of scholarly publications, journalism, public outrage, legislation, and case law. The 1970s and 1980s saw the publication of several books devoted to philosophical treatments of various subjects in applied ethics, concentrating first on biomedical ethics and second on business ethics. Virtually every book published in these applied fields prior to 1979 was organized topically; none was developed explicitly in terms of moral principles or ethical theory. Philosophers had by this time been working in areas of applied ethics for several years with an interest in the connection between theory, principles, practical decision making, and policy. However, in retrospect, it appears that these connections and their problems were not well understood prior to the mid-1980s.

Models of Application, Reasoning, AND Justification

When applied ethics began to receive acceptance in philosophy, it was widely presumed that the "applied" part involves the application of basic moral principles or theories to particular moral problems or cases. This vision suggests that ethical theory develops general principles, rules, and the like, whereas applied ethics treats particular contexts through less general, derived principles, rules, judgments, and the like. From this perspective applied ethics is old morality or old ethical theory applied to new areas. New, derived precepts emerge, but they receive their moral content from the old precepts. Applied work need not, then, generate novel ethical content. Applied ethics requires only a detailed knowledge of the areas to which the ethical theory is being applied (medicine, engineering, journalism, business, public policy, court cases, etc.).

Many philosophers reject this account because it reduces applied ethics to a form of deductivism in which justified moral judgments must be deduced from a preexisting theoretical structure of normative precepts that cover the judgment. This model is inspired by justification in disciplines such as mathematics, in which a claim is shown to follow logically (deductively) from credible premises. In ethics the parallel idea is that justification occurs if and only if general principles or rules, together with the relevant facts of a situation (in the fields to which the theory is being applied) support an inference to the correct or justified judgment(s). In short, the method of reasoning at work is the application of a norm to a clear case falling under the norm.

This deductive model is sometimes said to be a top-down "application" of precepts. The deductive form in the application of a rule is the following:

1. Every act of description A is obligatory. (rule)

2. Act b is of description A. (fact)


3. Act b is obligatory. (applied moral conclusion)

This structure directs attention from particular judgments to a covering level of generality (rules and principles that cover and justify particular judgments) and then to the level of ethical theory (which covers and warrants rules and principles).

This model functions smoothly whenever a fact circumstance can be subsumed directly under a general precept, but it does not adequately capture how moral reasoning and justification proceed in complicated cases. The failure to explain complex moral decision making and innovative moral judgment has led to a widespread rejection of deductivism as an appropriate model for applied ethics. Among the replacements for deductivism as a model of application, two have been widely discussed in the literature: case-based reasoning and reflective equilibrium.

case-based reasoning (a form of casuistry)

This approach focuses on practical decision making about particular cases, where judgments cannot simply be brought under general norms. Proponents are skeptical of principles, rules, rights, and theory divorced from history, circumstances, and experience: One can make successful moral judgments of agents and actions, they say, only when one has an intimate understanding of particular situations and an appreciation of the record of similar situations. They cite the use of narratives, paradigm cases, analogies, models, classification schemes, and even immediate intuition and discerning insight.

An analogy to the authority operative in case law is sometimes noted: When the decision of a majority of judges becomes authoritative in a case, their judgments are positioned to become authoritative for other courts hearing cases with similar facts. This is the doctrine of precedent. Defenders of case-based reasoning see moral authority similarly: Social ethics develops from a social consensus formed around cases, which can then be extended to new cases without loss of the accumulated moral wisdom. As a history of similar cases and similar judgments mounts, a society becomes more confident in its moral judgments, and the stable elements crystallize in the form of tentative principles; but these principles are derivative, not foundational.

In addition to having a history dating from medieval casuistry, the case method, as it is often called, has long been used in law schools and business schools. Training in the case method is widely believed to sharpen skills of legal and business reasoning as well as moral reasoning. One can tear a case apart and then construct a better way of treating similar situations. In the thrust-and-parry classroom setting, teacher and student alike reach conclusions about rights, wrongs, and best outcomes in cases. The objective is to develop a capacity to grasp problems and to find novel solutions that work in the context: Knowing how to reason and act is more prized then knowing that something is the case on the basis of a foundational rule.

The case method in law has come to be understood as a way of learning to assemble facts and judge the weight of evidenceenabling the transfer of that weight to new cases. This task is accomplished by generalizing and mastering the principles that control the transfer, usually principles at work in the reasoning of judges. Use of the case method in business schools springs from an ideal of education that puts the student in the decision-making role after an initial immersion in the facts of a complex situation. Here the essence of the case method is to present a situation replete with the facts, opinions, and prejudices that one might encounter and to find a way of making appropriate decisions in such an environment.

reflective equilibrium (a form of coherence theory)

Many now insist that the relationship between general norms and the particulars of experience is bilateral (not unilateral). Moral beliefs arise both by generalization from the particulars of experience (cases) and by making judgments in particular circumstances by appeal to general precepts. John Rawls's celebrated account of "reflective equilibrium" has been the most influential model of this sort. In developing and maintaining a system of ethics, he argues, it is appropriate to start with the broadest possible set of considered judgments about a subject and to erect a provisional set of principles that reflects them. Reflective equilibrium views investigation in ethics (and theory construction) as a reflective testing of moral principles, theoretical postulates, and other relevant moral beliefs to make them as coherent as possible. Starting with paradigms of what is morally proper or morally improper, one then searches for principles that are consistent with these paradigms as well as one another. Widely accepted principles of right action and considered judgments are taken, as Rawls puts it, "provisionally as fixed points" but also as "liable to revision."

"Considered judgments" is a technical term referring to judgments in which moral beliefs and capacities are most likely to be presented without a distorting bias. Examples are judgments about the wrongness of racial discrimination, religious intolerance, and political conflict of interest. By contrast, judgments in which one's confidence level is low or in which one is influenced by the possibility of personal gain are excluded from consideration. The goal is to match, prune, and adjust considered judgments so that they coincide and are rendered coherent with the premises of theory. That is, one starts with paradigm judgments of moral rightness and wrongness and then constructs a more general theory that is consistent with these paradigm judgments (rendering them as coherent as possible); any loopholes are closed, as are all forms of incoherence that are detected. The resultant action guides are tested to see if they too yield incoherent results. If so, they are readjusted or given up, and the process is renewed, because one can never assume a completely stable equilibrium. The pruning and adjusting occur by reflection and dialectical adjustment, in view of the perpetual goal of achieving reflective equilibrium.

This model demands the best approximation to full coherence under the assumption of a never-ending search for defects of coherence, for counterexamples to beliefs, and for unanticipated situations. From this perspective moral thinking is analogous to hypotheses in science that are tested, modified, or rejected through experience and experimental thinking. Justification is neither purely deductivist (giving general action guides preeminent status), nor purely inductivist (giving experience and analogy preeminent status). Many different considerations provide reciprocal support in the attempt to fit moral beliefs into a coherent unit. This is how we test, revise, and further specify moral beliefs. This outlook is very different from deductivism, because it holds that ethical theories are never complete, always stand to be informed by practical contexts, and must be tested for adequacy by their practical implications.

Method and Content: Departures from Traditional Ethical Theory

In light of the differences in the models just explored and the enormously diverse literature in applied philosophy it is questionable whether applied ethics has a special philosophical method. Applied philosophers appear to do what philosophers have always done: They analyze concepts, examine the hidden presuppositions of moral opinions and theories, offer criticism and constructive accounts of the moral phenomena in question, and criticize strategies that are used to justify beliefs, policies, and actions. They seek a reasoned defense of a moral viewpoint, and they use proposed moral frameworks to distinguish justified moral claims from unjustified ones. They try to stimulate the moral imagination, promote analytical skills, and weed out prejudice, emotion, misappropriated data, false authority, and the like.

Differences between ethical theory and applied ethics are as apparent over content as over method. Instead of analyzing general terms such as "good", "rationality", "ideals", and "virtues", philosophers interested in applied ethics attend to the analysis of concepts such as confidentiality, trade secrets, environmental responsibility, euthanasia, authority, undue influence, free press, privacy, and entrapment. If normative guidelines are proposed, they are usually specific and directive. Principles in ethical theory are typically general guides that leave considerable room for judgment in specific cases, but in applied ethics proponents tend either to reject principles and rules altogether or to advance precise action guides that instruct persons how to act in ways that allow for less interpretation and discretion. Examples are found in literature that proposes rules of informed consent, confidentiality, conflict of interest, access to information, and employee drug testing.

However, in philosophy journals that publish both applied and theoretical work no sharp line of demarcation is apparent between the concepts and norms of ethical theory and applied ethics. There is not even a discernible continuum from theoretical to applied concepts or principles. The applied/theoretical distinction therefore needs to be used with great caution.

Competing Theories and Problems of Specificity

One reason theory and application are merged in the literature is that several different types of ethical theories have been employed in attempts to address practical problems. At least the following types of theories have been explicitly invoked: (1) utilitarianism, (2) Kantianism, (3) rights theory, (4) contract theory, (5) virtue theory, (6) communitarianism, (7) casuistry, and (8) pragmatism. Many proponents of these theories would agree that specific policy and practical guidelines cannot be squeezed from appeals to these philosophical ethical theories and that some additional content is always necessary.

Ethical theories have rarely been able to raise or answer the social and policy questions commonplace in applied ethics. General theories are ill suited for this work, because they address philosophical problems and are not by their nature practical or policy oriented. The content of a philosophical theory, as traditionally understood, is not of the right sort. Philosophical theories are about morality, but they are primarily attempts to explain, unify, or justify morality, not attempts to specify the practical commitments of moral principles in public policy or in particular cases. In applied ethics, ethical theory is often far less important than moral insight and the defense and development of appropriate guidelines suited to a complex circumstance.

Every general ethical norm contains an indeterminacy requiring further development and enrichment to make it applicable in a complex circumstance. To have sufficient content, general theories and principles must be made specific for contexts; otherwise, they will be empty and ineffectual. Factors such as efficiency, institutional rules, law, and clientele acceptance must be taken into account to make them more specific. An ethics useful for public and institutional policies needs to prove a practical strategy that incorporates political procedures, legal constraints, uncertainty about risk, and the like. Progressive specification of norms will be required to handle the variety of problems that arise, gradually reducing dilemmas, policy options, and contingent conflicts that abstract theory and principle are unable to handle.

Some philosophers view this strategy of specification as heavily dependent upon preexistent practices. They maintain that major contributions in philosophical ethics have run from "applied" contexts to "general" theory rather than the reverse. In examining case law and institutional practices, they say, philosophers have learned about morality in ways that require rethinking and modifying general norms of truth telling, consenting, confidentiality, justice, and so forth. To the extent that sophisticated philosophical treatments of such notions are now emerging, they move, not from theory application (including specification), but from practice to theory. Traditional ethical theory, from this perspective, has no privileged position and has more to learn from "applied contexts" than the other way around.

Nonetheless, there are problems with attempts to base applied ethics entirely in practice standards. A practice standard often does not exist within the relevant field, group, or profession. If current standards are low, they could not legitimately determine what the appropriate standards should be. Most moral problems present issues that have to be thought through, not issues to which good answers have already been provided, which explains why many in the professions have turned to philosophers for help in developing professional ethics. Applied philosophers are often most useful to those with whom they collaborate in other fields when practice standards are defective or deficient and a vacuum needs filling by reflection on, criticism of, and reformulation of moral viewpoints or standards.

See also Abortion; Affirmative Action; Business Ethics; Communitarianism; Deontological Ethics; Environmental Ethics; Justice; Metaethics; Pragmatism; Rawls, John; Rights; Utilitarianism; Virtue Ethics.


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Tom L. Beauchamp (1996)

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