What is Applied Ethics?

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). 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 need to be significant groups of people both in favor of and against the issue. For example, 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 of certain segments of the population to rape. However, the issue of abortion would be consideredmade in technology t 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 that if having an abortion produces greater benefit than disbenefit for an individual then it would be morally acceptable to have the abortion. 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 explains that,

“… 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 uses 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 the developments made in technology, there is little doubt unforeseen moral issues would arise. Questions like editing the genomes of children, the privacy of users on social media, and even humanity colonizing other planets are new moral challenges resulting from unparalleled technological sophistication.

Other moral issues we still face today are not those strictly limited to contemporary societies. Murder and sexual violence have plagued humanity since the dawn of civilization. It is impossible to reduce all of these issues and questions to a single paragraph, but ethicists have postulated several categories populated with moral issues applied ethics attempts to address (4).

Biomedical ethics focuses on moral issues in clinical settings. A large, growing body of literature engages questions of abortion, euthanasia, experimentation on human beings, surrogate mothering, genetic manipulation of fetuses, patient rights, physician responsibilities, and so on. If we can alter the genome of children to prevent genetic defects then should we do it? And if so, where do we stop?

Business ethics examines moral issues in business practice. Business practices are fundamental to us human beings because they are a means of survival. This underscores the importance of noting moral issues emerging from business practices. Important questions include child labor, deceptive advertising, employee rights, and job discrimination,he preserving and protection of e etc.

Environmental ethics focuses on issues pertaining to the criminationnatural world and the rights of animals. Implementing policies on pollution control, deforestation, and the preservation and protection of endangered animals are considered crucial. There is a significant overlap between Environmental ethics and Business ethics. The natural world is important to many businesses and global corporations depending on it. This dependence can engender environmental exploitation, destruction, pollution, and a range of other challenges that will become a problem for all of humanity.

Sexual Morality is another domain of applied ethics. Questions include the legality and morality of prostitution, polygamy, homosexual relations, and extramarital affairs.

Social ethics evaluates the recreational use of drugs, social roles, racism, gun control, employment opportunities, and laws regarding capital punishment.

These are all complex morally charged questions over which many people will disagree. It would be helpful, especially to ethicists and sociologists, to try to understand why people looking at the same circumstances will disagree with each other.


1. Fieser, James. n.d. Ethics. Available.

2. Fieser, James. n.d. Ibid.

3. Dittmer, Joel. n.d. Applied Ethics. Available.

4. Dittmer, Joel. n.d. Ibid.


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