Applied ethics is a discipline of philosophy that attempts to apply ethical theory to real-life situations.
The discipline has many specialised fields, such as engineering ethics, bioethics, geoethics, public service ethics and business ethics.
Applied ethics is used in some aspects of determining public policy, as well as by individuals facing difficult decisions.
The sort of questions addressed by applied ethics include:
- “Is getting an abortion immoral?”
- “Is euthanasia immoral?”
- “Is affirmative action right or wrong?”
- “What are human rights, and how do we determine them?”
- “Do animals have rights as well?”
- “Do individuals have the right of self-determination?” (BBC, 2013)
A more specific question could be:
- “If someone else can make better out of his/her life than I can, is it then moral to sacrifice myself for them if needed?”
Without these questions, there is no clear fulcrum on which to balance law, politics and the practice of arbitration—in fact, no common assumptions of all participants—so the ability to formulate the questions are prior to rights balancing.
But not all questions studied in applied ethics concern public policy. For example, making ethical judgments regarding such questions as the following, is prior to any etiquette:
- “Is lying always wrong?”
- “If not, when is it permissible?”
People, in general, are more comfortable with dichotomies (two opposites).
However, in ethics, the issues are most often multifaceted and the best-proposed actions address many different areas concurrently.
In ethical decisions, the answer is almost never a “yes or no”, “right or wrong” statement.
Many buttons are pushed so that the overall condition is improved and not to the benefit of any particular faction.
Particular Fields of Application
Bioethics is the study of controversial ethics brought about by advances in biology and medicine.
Bioethicists are concerned with the ethical questions that arise in the relationships among life sciences, biotechnology, medicine, politics, law and philosophy.
It also includes the study of the more commonplace questions of values (“the ethics of the ordinary”) that arise in primary care and other branches of medicine.
Bioethics also needs to address emerging biotechnologies that affect basic biology and future humans.
These developments include cloning, gene therapy, human genetic engineering, astro ethics and life in space (Legacy Books, 2004), and manipulation of basic biology through altered DNA, RNA and proteins, e.g. “three parent baby, where baby is born from genetically modified embryos, would have DNA from a mother, a father and from a female donor (Freemont and Kitney, 2012).
Correspondingly, new bioethics also need to address life at its core. For example, biotic ethics value organic gene/protein life itself and seek to propagate it (Mautner, 2009).
With such life-centered principles, ethics may secure a cosmological future for life (Mautner, 2000).
Business ethics (also corporate ethics) is a form of applied ethics or professional ethics that examines ethical principles and moral or ethical problems that arise in a business environment, including fields like medical ethics.
Business ethics represents the practices that any individual or group exhibits within an organisation that can negatively or positively affect the businesses core values.
It applies to all aspects of business conduct and is relevant to the conduct of individuals and entire organisations.
Business ethics has both normative and descriptive dimensions.
As a corporate practice and a career specialisation, the field is primarily normative.
Academics attempting to understand business behaviour employ descriptive methods.
The range and quantity of business ethical issues reflect the interaction of profit maximising behaviour with non-economic concerns.
Interest in business ethics accelerated dramatically during the 1980s and 1990s, both within major corporations and within academia.
For example, today most major corporations promote their commitment to non-economic values under headings such as ethics codes and social responsibility charters.
Adam Smith said, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” (Smith, 1776/1952, p.55).
Governments use laws and regulations to point business behaviour in what they perceive to be beneficial directions.
Ethics implicitly regulates areas and details of behaviour that lie beyond governmental control (Berle and Means, 1932).
The emergence of large corporations with limited relationships and sensitivity to the communities in which they operate accelerated the development of formal ethics regimes (Jones, Parker et al, 2005; Ferrel, 2015).
In Moral Machines: Teaching Robots Right from Wrong, Wendell Wallach and Colin Allen conclude that issues in machine ethics will likely drive advancement in understanding of human ethics by forcing us to address gaps in modern normative theory and by providing a platform for experimental investigation (Wallach and Allen, 2008).
The effort to actually program a machine or artificial agent to behave as though instilled with a sense of ethics requires new specificity in our normative theories, especially regarding aspects customarily considered common sense.
For example, machines, unlike humans, can support a wide selection of learning algorithms, and controversy has arisen over the relative ethical merits of these options. This may reopen classic debates of normative ethics framed in new (highly technical) terms.
Military ethics are concerned with questions regarding the application of force and the ethos of the soldier and are often understood as applied professional ethics (Cook and Syse, 2010).
Just war theory is generally seen to set the background terms of military ethics. However individual countries and traditions have different fields of attention (Goffi, 2011).
Military ethics involves multiple subareas, including the following among others:
- What, if any, should be the laws of war
- Justification for the initiation of military force
- Decisions about who may be targeted in warfare
- Decisions on choice of weaponry, and what collateral effects such weaponry may have
- Standards for handling military prisoners
- Methods of dealing with violations of the laws of war
Political ethics (also known as political morality or public ethics) is the practice of making moral judgements about political action and political agents (Thompson, 2012).