What’s Applied Ethics?

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In moral philosophy, applied ethics is the branch that consists of the analysis of specific, controversial moral issues that primarily concern private and public life within society (1). However, for a topic to be considered an issue under the “applied ethics” category it needs to at least meet two criteria or have the following features (2):

1. The first requirement is that the issue needs to be controversial. In this case there needs to be significant groups of people both in favour of and against the issue. For example, the crime of rape would not be considered an applied ethics issue because nearly everyone views rape as a moral evil. There are no significant parties or organizations lobbying for the right for certain segments of the population to rape. However, the issue of abortion would be considered an applied ethics because there are significant voices on both sides of the spectrum.

2. Secondly, the issue must be a distinctly moral one. Things like tax and zoning laws are important but are not considered moral issues even though they involve and impact human beings. However, topics like abortion and euthanasia are considered moral issues.

Applied ethics interacts with the normative ethical approaches, and seeks to apply some of their principles to specific moral issues. For instance, if one is a deontologist and holds the view that taking the life of a human being is absolutely wrong, then euthanasia will always be considered wrong independent of the outcome. Moreover, a utilitarianist who in the present moment is considering the issue of abortion might consider the idea that if having an abortion produces greater benefit than disbenefit for an individual then, according to his way of thinking, it would be morally acceptable to have the abortion. Nonetheless, given the countless principles found within normative ethics and their approaches much debate regarding application can be had. It might be difficult to apply principles from just a single ethical approach to some complex moral issues, hence the importance of one’s familiarity with and ability to critically engage the normative approaches and their principles. Philosopher Joel Dittmer captures there overlapping natures,

“… we should consider whether or not the three branches [of normative ethics] are as distinct as we might think that they are. Of course, the principle questions of each are distinct, and as such, each branch is in fact distinct. But it appears that in doing applied ethics one must (or less strongly, may) endeavor into the other two branches”

Dittmer employs his reasoning in an analogy,

“Suppose that one wants to come to the conclusion that our current treatment of non-human animals, more specifically our treatment of chickens in their mass production in chicken warehouses, is morally impermissible. Then, if one stayed away from consequentialist theories, they would have either a deontological or virtue-based theory to approach this issue. Supposing they dismissed virtue-theory (on normative ethical grounds), they would then approach the issue from deontology. Suppose further, they chose a rights-based theory. Then they would have to defend the existence of rights, or at least appeal to a defense of rights found within the literature. What reasons do we have to think that rights exist?  This then looks like a metaethical question. As such, even before being able to appeal to the issue of whether we’re doing right by chickens in our manufactured slaughtering of them, we have to do some normative ethics and metaethics. Yes, the three branches are distinct, but they are also related” (3).

Areas of Applied Ethics

Given moral and technological developments there was little doubt that along with these unforeseen moral issues and conundrums would too arise. For example, questions like editing the genomes of children, the privacy of users on social media, and even colonizing other planets are new moral challenges resulting from unparalleled technological sophistication. Other moral issues that we are still facing today are not exactly circumstances that only contemporary societies are facing. Murder and sexual violence have been with us since the dawn of civilization. It is impossible to reduce all of these issues and questions to that of a mere paragraph alone, however, ethicists have postulated several categories within which they put moral issues that applied ethics attempts to address (4).

Firstly, Biomedical ethics focuses on a number of moral issues faced in clinical settings. For instance, a large and ever growing body of literature engages the moral questions relating to abortion, euthanasia, experimentation on human beings, surrogate mothering, genetic manipulation of fetuses, patient rights, physician responsibilities, and so on. If we are able to alter the genome of children in order prevent genetic defects in them then should we do it? And if so, where do we stop? Business ethics examines moral issues relating to business practice. Business practices are are fundamental to us human beings because they are a means of survival. This is suggestive of the importance of examining the moral issues that result when human beings deal with one another in such settings through the exchanging of goods and services. Important topics would include child labour, deceptive advertising, employee rights, and job discrimination etc. Thirdly, Environmental ethics not only focuses on issues relating to the natural world but also on the rights of animals. For example, implementing policies related to pollution control, deforestation, the preserving and protection of endangered animals, and so on are considered. There is also much overlap between Environmental ethics and Business ethics given that the natural environment is often the bread and butter for many global corporations that without which their businesses would cease. Questions pertaining to Sexual Morality are also considered. These would include, although by no means limited to, the legality and morality of prostitution, polygamy, homosexual relations, and extramarital affairs. Social ethics analyzes moral question relating to the recreational use of drugs, social roles, racism, gun control, and laws such as capital punishment and those relating to employment opportunities.

It is clear that these are complex moral questions over which many people would passionately disagree. It would also be helpful to both examine and understand why individuals and groups of people viewing the exact same circumstances disagree with each other. In this regard an examination into motive and ideology often yields valuable data and insight for researchers, sociologists, and ethicists. It is furthermore clear that applied ethics is far more of a hands-on approach to ethics than meta-ethics. Meta-ethics examines metaphysical questions of morality such as the objectivity or lack thereof of moral values, its epistemic basis, and so on, whereas much like with normative ethics, applied ethics assumes that moral values exist, and therefore seeks to address moral issues on a practical level.


1. Fieser, J. Ethics. Available.

2. Fieser, J. Ibid. .

3. Dittmer, J. Applied Ethics. Available.

4. Dittmer, J. Ibid.


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