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.
Applied ethics is the branch of ethical knowledge. Regardless of the solution of the problem of rank attribution of ethics as such (is it considered as an organic part of philosophy – as a “practical philosophy”, either as a private scientific knowledge that has been spun off from it. Or as a science with mixed status, as a “tree of goals” roots in philosophy, and separate branches growing out of its sphere) applied ethics is an indispensable component of ethical knowledge as an integral system. The definition of the nature of applied ethics through the opposition of theoretical ethics is not entirely correct: and at the level of ethical-applied research, our theories are being created. It is preferable to compare ethical-applied knowledge with fundamental knowledge, which, to become applied, must be transformed in a certain way.
The term “applied ethics” is used in two primary senses, determined by the specifics of the object of application of ethical knowledge and the purposes of the application. According to the first criterion, applied ethics includes knowledge of normative-value subsystems that arise through the concretization of public morality. Such processes to a certain extent proved to be familiar to ethics from the time when research began on various branches and subbranches of professional morality (in Europe such a study was undertaken, as evidenced by library indexes, almost from the 16th century) and ethos (labor and management, military and administrative affairs, education, etc.). The analysis of concretization processes in its various aspects was tested by ethics both in the form of codes of some socioprofessional groups and corporations and regarding articulating the set of rules for specific spheres of human activity, .
In the course of discussions on the problems of nature and the properties of professional ethics, judgments were expressed that the process of concretization of norms and values of public morality in relation to a particular type of human activity consists in the discovery of such peculiarities and situations in professional action in which it is necessary to limit common moral requirements. The task of the ethical theory, in this case, is to justify such digressions and minimize them to the utmost, reduce them to single cases, qualifying them not as something positive in the moral sense, but only as an inevitable evil. However, this understanding of concretization, other researchers believe, depreciates the codes of private moral requirements and the corresponding evaluation templates.
In the process of concretization, the question of developing the content of moral commands, prohibitions, and permits, about the development (“development”) of the form of morality, its peculiar “code”, the types of moral responsibility is put and is being decided. At the same time, the results of such development cannot be, as it seems to some researchers, extracted from general concepts and rules according to the axiomatic method – in this case, applied ethics would deal only with elementary application and detail, which to a tiny extent presuppose moral creativity. The development of the content and form of morality in the process of concretization means:
- a certain transformation, and in some cases a rethinking of moral imperative value ideas;
- new accents in the ways of “cohesion,” the coherence of values, norms, rules between themselves and with all others – the extra-moral ones;
- a change in their place in the complex configuration of the value universe; fourthly, the possibility of the emergence of new installations, permissions and prohibitions that have no application anywhere else, except in a particular area of activity, maximally contributing to improving its effectiveness, strengthening the humanistic orientation of activities in these spheres and professions.
The concretization of public morality is not only due to the efforts of the multi-disciplinary cooperation of scientists and leaders or as a result of the implementation of programs of activities of various social institutions: it is the result of a long and mostly spontaneous cultural evolution of society.
From the second criterion, the content of applied ethics is conditioned by the desire of various social institutions and organizations to strengthen, as far as possible, the impact of fundamental ethical knowledge, its ideas, and doctrines, on real moral relations. Traditional ways of such implications are complemented by the involvement of this experience in the development of a particular theory of social management at the macro- and especially microlevels.
Concerning the possibility and necessity of such a supplement in the ethics, two basic approaches crystallized. According to one of them (going back to Hobbes and Bentham), if the functioning of institutions and organizations is correctly put, it should not have an actual need for the target formation of moral qualities among people involved in management for different roles. Only the professional skills, knowledge, intellectual and psychological attributes of a person, allowing to make correct decisions and realize them, are an indispensable condition for effective social management. In extreme form, this approach is expressed in the assertion that the effectiveness of the functioning of institutions and organizations implies either the limitation of such virtues as decency, responsibility, honesty, initiative, the independence of employees in judgments and deeds, or their transformation into “negative virtues” of conformism and “organization”. This position allows for exceptions only for a certain number of those social practices (“small” organizations of artisans, a community of scientists, artists, doctors, athletes), where success can not be achieved without respecting the rules of honesty, decency, trust. In a “big” society based on market institutions and representative democracy governed by bureaucratic structures of corporate type, human activity turns out to be for the supporters of such an approach merely an instrument of achieving power alienated from it, a means of realizing goals that are not coordinated with the internal values of people.
This approach reflects many very real aspects of the moral life of modern civilization, some negative trends in its development. However, another position is traced in ethical knowledge. Separating the moral aspects of the functioning of social institutions and organizations from the proper moral qualities and “civic virtues”, the proponents of this position recognize a certain degree of their mutual correlation.
Within the framework of such a position, the exceptional importance of these virtues, the morally positive motivation of the “organization man”:
- in ensuring the functioning of institutions and organizations,
- in satisfying the never-disappearing need for adaptive changes of these institutions and organizations themselves,
- in ensuring optimal interaction in them of formal and informal relations, which makes it possible to widely use the “human factor” in production and management.
This makes the second kind of application of ethical knowledge necessary – to the target block of social management. Applied ethics in this situation does not pursue utopian goals, does not try to make people’s behavior as close as possible to the moral ideal or to substitute their efforts in the process of moral choice. The purpose of this block is to strengthen the members of the organization “civil virtues”, in creating conditions that limit and displace various types of deviant behavior. Ethics of management plays an irreplaceable role in the target block, administrative, managerial ethics, as well as professional ethics that orient and sanction the behavior of the “organization man”, while avoiding deviations in moralizing and rigorism.
The second kind of applied ethical knowledge is addressed to such theories, whose subject of interest is at least partially morality and moral education. In this sense, ethical-sociological, ethical-psychological, ethical-pedagogical, ethical-medical, ethical-ethnic, ethical-ethnographic, ethical-ecological and research are ethical and applied. From this interaction, interdisciplinary knowledge complexes arise. With their help, the diagnostic information about the state of morals, about the “painful points” and the internal contradictions of the moral life in its various sections is necessary for the preparation and adoption of managerial decisions and for carrying out any social experiments.
Ethical and applied knowledge is based on the methods of humanitarian expertise and counseling, including on the methods of game simulation in the form of ethical-praxeological games. Ethical expertise must reveal the maximum of real options, identifying for this value basis and indicating precedents of solutions in similar situations. Following this, the examination should offer the subject of choice the algorithm for finding solutions and develop in a dialogue with him humanistic choices in their axiological and praxeological aspects. An essential role in this is played by the dissemination of democratic and meritocratic expert surveys.
The development of applied ethics in many countries employs numerous departments, laboratories, institutes, and associations, conducts relevant scientific conferences, practical classes, produces specialized journals, textbooks, normative documents (codes, charters, declarations, interviewing techniques and ethical-praxeological games). The most active searches are conducted on the problems of pedagogical ethics, bioethics, medical ethics, ethics of nonviolence, ethics of business.