In my last post, I gave an overview of ethics. I explained that there are three kinds of ethics that individuals engage in: applied ethics, normative ethics and metaethics. In order to understand ethics generally, it is necessary to at least have a basic overview of each of these categories. Applied ethics is simply the application of ethical thinking to an active or productive science.
There are many active and productive sciences including engineering, the health sciences, manufacturing and business. Therefore, there are many forms that applied ethics takes. Bioethics deals with the issues of human life and health – especially as they relate to doctors, nurses and health care professionals. Business ethics is exactly what it sounds like. One could imagine political ethics and scientific ethics as well. Interestingly enough, neither of these fields is recognized as being independent of normative ethics itself. Naturally this has also contributed to the problem of unethical scientists and politicians.
Applied ethics does not necessarily resolve problems dealt with in either metaethics or normative ethics. For example, an applied ethicist may promote the idea that absolute pacifism is always the right answer. Naturally, this position is highly controversial (and wrong). Nonetheless, as long as this ethicist answers questions about how we are to act as doctors or as politicians, then that person is still doing applied ethics. If a different person believed that obligations to the state are always our highest obligation (another controversial and wrong idea), then the same would be true of them. There is no need for applied ethicists to answer questions found in other disciplines.
It is true that any applied ethicist will need to take a position on all of the issues dealt with in both metaethics and normative ethics. In order to explain what our actions should be in particular situations, we must know what is right and wrong in general. In order to know how to apply our actions consistently, we must know why these actions are right or wrong. But this does not mean that we have to explicitly set out our position on everything. There are controversies within these sciences that are do not need to be explicitly addressed in order to give practical advice in most situations. Rare situations may call for answers, but most of time these questions can be left unanswered.
Applied ethicists can provide the best sort of evidence for a normative or metaethical theory by testing it out in practical terms. If the theory cannot be put into practice, then the theory is wrong. This is because ethics is an active science. The theory may fail to address all possible situations, and practical testing may reveal this. Finally, applied ethics may reveal that a particular theory is not at all plausible to the majority of people. This is the weakest form of evidence, but it may become significant with further understanding. Applied ethics cannot provide evidence against a normative or metaethical theory in other ways.