Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Applied Ethics

Applied ethics is a discipline of philosophy that attempts to apply ‘theoretical’ ethics, such as utilitarianism, social contract theory, and deontology, to real world dilemmas. Topics falling within the discipline include medical ethics, legal ethics, environmental ethics, computer ethics, engineering ethics, media ethics, corporate social responsibility, or business ethics.

Many considerations of applied ethics also come into play in human rights discussions.

Applied ethics seeks to engage formal ethics in attempts to solve actual dilemmas. In so doing, it illuminates the potential for disagreement over the way theories and principles should be applied. Strict, principle-based ethical approaches often result in solutions to specific problems that are not universally acceptable. Drawing on medical ethics for an example, a strict deontological approach would never permit the deception of a patient about their condition, whereas a utilitarian approach would involve consideration of the consequences of so doing, and might permit lying to a patient if the result of the deception was ‘good’. The example demonstrates that a deontologist can derive a different solution to a dilemma than a utilitarian.

One modern approach which attempts to overcome the seemingly impossible divide between deontology and utilititarianism is case-based reasoning, also known as casuistry. Casuistry does not begin with theory; rather it starts with the immediate facts of a particular case. While casuistry makes use of ethical theory, it does not view ethical theory as the most important feature of moral reasoning.

Casuists, like Albert Jonsen and Stephen Toulmin (The Abuse of Casuistry 1988), challenge the traditional paradigm of applied ethics. Instead of starting from theory and applying theory to a particular case, casuists start with the particular case itself and then ask what morally significant features (including both theory and practical considerations) ought to be considered for that particular case. In their observations of medical ethics committee, Jonsen and Toulmin note that a consensus on particularly problematic moral cases often emerges when participants focus on the facts of the case, rather than on ideology or theory. Thus, a Rabbi, a Catholic priest, and an agnostic might agree that, in this particular case, the best approach is to withhold extraordinary medical care, while disagreeing on the reasons that support their individual positions. By focusing on cases and not on theory, those engaged in moral debate increase the possibility of agreement.

List of Subfields of Applied Ethics:

  • Medical ethics / bioethics
  • Business ethics
  • Engineering ethics
  • Environmental ethics (e.g. global warming)
  • Human rights issues (e.g. gender ethics / sexism, racism, death penalty)
  • Animal rights issues
  • Legal ethics
  • Computer ethics
  • Media ethics / journalism ethics
  • Research ethics
  • Marketing ethics
  • Education ethics
  • Sports ethics
  • Military ethics (e.g. just war theory)
  • International ethics (e.g. world hunger)


  • Chadwick, R.F. (1997). Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics. London: Academic Press. ISBN 0-12-227065-7.
  • Singer, peter (1993). Practical Ethics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-4397-X. (monograph)


  • LaFollette, Hugh (2002). Ethics in Practice (2nd Edition). Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 0-631-22834-9.
  • Singer Peter (1986). Applied Ethics. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-875067-6.
  • Frey, R.G. (2004). A Companion to Applied Ethics. Blackwell. ISBN 1-4051-3345-7.


  • Ethics (since 1890)
  • The Journal of Ethics
  • Journal of Applied Philosophy
  • International Journal of Applied Philosophy
  • International Journal of Philosophical Practice

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