How does applied ethics work?

Applied ethics is one of the three divisions of the philosophy of ethics. Normative ethics attempts to develop a framework by which actions can be judged ethical or not. Metaethics is a discussion about ethics; it attempts to define terms, determine the authority of right and wrong, and investigate why people feel the inclination to be ethical. Applied ethics takes these two branches and uses them to definitively state the morality of specific actions. For an issue to be considered by applied ethics it must be moral, as opposed to cultural, and controversial.

Applied ethics are grouped into specific fields of human interest. Each field has unique controversial issues, although some issues overlap. Practitioners need to discuss the morality of different choices in regard to these issues in order to behave ethically in the given field. Probably every applied ethicist divides issues into different fields. Here are a few:

Business Ethics attempts to balance the unwritten responsibilities a business has to its employees and community with the purpose of business, which is to make money. It addresses such issues as marketing, employee rights, unions, insider trading, and even slavery.

Professional Ethics is similar to business ethics but applies to the individual professional more than to the corporation as a whole. Some issues are given the status of law, such as attorney-client privilege or doctor-patient confidentiality. Others are general guidelines, like the responsibility of a professional to do the best work he can for his client.

Biomedical/Clinical Ethics is a broad, issue-rich field. It deals with everything from abortion to experimentation to euthanasia. It overlaps with professional ethics in the issues of doctor-patient confidentiality and the actions of health care professionals. And it combines with business and organizational ethics when comparing the responsibility to heal with the cost of healthcare.

Organizational Ethics refers to what an organization values outside of the law. It could be a dairy company that refuses to sell milk from hormone-treated cows, or a soup kitchen that insists on treating its clients with respect. On the other hand, it could be a sports team that encourages players to injure opposing team members.

International/Social Ethics discusses the responsibilities nations and citizens have toward themselves, each other, and the world as a whole. International ethics is informed by two competing views of the world. The first, cosmopolitanism, emphasizes the commonality of people and cultures. It can manifest as a multi-national political entity such as the European Union or an international sports competition. It suggests decisions should be based on a "citizen of the world" viewpoint. Conversely, anti-cosmopolitanism teaches that sovereign nation-states are the most appropriate unit for governance, international affairs, and resource allocation. "Anti-cosmopolitism" has a negative connotation, however, as it is used of the Stalin-era Russian government that persecuted "cosmopolitan" Jews who had greater allegiance to their ethnicity than to their nation.

Environmental Ethics deals with the responsibility mankind has for animals, ecosystems, waterways, and air quality. Environmental ethics overlap with biomedical ethics when considering the use of fertilizers and genetically modified food products. It can also overlap with international ethics when the pollution from one country affects another.

Sexual Ethics is the field that tries to determine ethical behavior regarding with whom people have sex and how they do so. This includes the issues of polygamy, homosexuality, and prostitution.

Computer/Information Ethics/Cybernetics analyzes the impact of computers, the internet, and information propagation on the world. Computer ethics considers the morality of everything from starting a flame war on another's blog, to a major internet corporation collecting and analyzing browsing data, to certain Nigerian "princes."

Just as there are different fields of applied ethics, there are also different ways of applying ethics to a situation. Decision ethics helps people know how to act. It would be reasonable to assume that once a person had adopted a normative ethical theory, that theory would inform the person's actions. But in the heat of the moment, normative ethics can be too bulky. And normative ethics only claims to determine if an action is ethical—it does not say which action to take. It is decision ethics that says, "Rescue the child from the burning car because it is good to help others," or "Don't cheat on your taxes because you'll go to jail."

Normative applications start with an established framework of normative ethics. The most common frameworks used are utilitarianism (what will result in the most happiness?), deontology (what will best fulfill a rule or law?), and virtue (what would be chosen by someone who is honest, kind, and noble?).

Ethical characteristics are very similar to theories of normative ethics, but they avoid the rigidity of the schools and allow for more precision. There are five basic characteristics: the greatest good or welfare for an individual, the common good of a group, the rights of an individual in conjunction with the duty of the acting agent to support those rights, the virtue of the acting agent, and a balance of justice with particular need. Considering most people are not versed in the specific theories of normative ethics, this is the most intuitive and commonly used system.

Casuistry has a mixed reputation. To determine if an act is ethical, it is not compared with an ethical quality or framework, it is compared to a similar case which has already been determined to be ethical or not. The more similar the act is to the original case, the more likely it is to share the case's ethical situation. An established case may dictate that copying a neighbor's paper on a test is cheating and therefore unethical. The act of using a cheat-sheet of notes to look up information may then also be declared unethical. But the act of using a page of notes that has been approved by the instructor would not be. Because casuistry compares one situation to another situation instead of to an ethical standard, it is very susceptible to abuse and misinterpretation, although it is the most commonly used system in law.

The Bible is clear that the point of ethics is not to indulge in countless circular arguments, but to influence behavior (Ecclesiastes 12:11-14). The Law and much of the Epistles are applied ethics.

Determining ethics in particular fields is very much encouraged in the Bible. The Mosaic Law addresses biomedical (Leviticus 24:19-20), business (Proverbs 20:10), and even environmental (Leviticus 4:11) issues. The New Testament covers international relations (Galatians 3:28) and professionalism (Colossians 3:23).

The Bible also spells out what standards we should use to determine our actions. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that the "normative" field we should use is Scripture. Scripture, then, gives us several ethical characteristics to concentrate on, culminating in love (1 Corinthians 13:12). Both Philippians 3:17 and the "What Would Jesus Do" movement are types of normative virtue ethics. And all of Jesus' parables are examples of casuistry.

The problem with secular applied ethics is that it attempts to base behavior on manmade constructs. Humanity, plagued by ignorance and self-centeredness, cannot create or even identify ethical behavior. Only the sovereign Creator of the universe can know for certain how His creation is designed to act.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, and to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8)

Related Truth:

What is the philosophy of ethics?

How does virtue ethics define morality?

How does pragmatic ethics define morality?

How does consequentialist ethics define morality? What is consequentialism?

How does deontological ethics define morality? What is deontology?

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