Ethics refers to the field of study in philosophy, which involves evaluating the various daily life moral issues that concern analysing what is wrong or what is right. Applied ethics is one of the three branches of ethics; the other two are normative ethics and meta-ethics. Each of these branches deals with the different types of moral dilemma questions. Normative ethics focuses on developing moral theories, which one needs to obey in every situation, and meta-ethics attempts to understand the nature of ethics, it involves questions like What is morality? Contrary to normative ethics and meta-ethics, applied ethics provides a more practical approach to tackling real-life moral dilemmas. In the case of applied ethics, one need not always agree on a particular moral theory to answer the particular moral dilemma, instead, every moral dilemma can be understood by reviewing and analyzing the harms and facts related to that specific dilemma. In this article, we’ll understand the concept of applied ethics and various real-life examples related to applied ethics.
What is Applied Ethics?
Understanding Methods in Applied Ethics with Examples
Applied ethicists generally use two methods to analyse any particular dilemma, i.e., ‘bare-difference argument’ and ‘method of argument.’ Unlike normative ethicists, applied ethicists are not obliged to view a particular case by following any specific moral theory. The following two methods involve evaluating the various moral components associated with the given problems and then finally concluding. Let us discuss the methods in applied ethics.
1. Using Arguments from Analogy
It is said that the advanced study of applied ethics based on the methods of analogies begins with the American philosopher, Judith Jarvis Thomson’s article ‘A Defense of Abortion.,’ which he published in 1971. Through an analogy mentioned in his article, he claimed that abortion should be permissible even if the unborn baby has the right to survive (as claimed by the one who opposes the idea of abortion). Her analogy highlights various moral considerations related to the issue of abortion. Even though the conclusion drawn from this analogy is still a topic of discussion, this analogy shows how applied ethics can be applied to understand any specific issue from the different arguments through analogies. This analogy is often used by many other philosophers to understand various ethical issues.
Following is Thomson’s Analogy as mentioned by him in his article ‘A Defence of Abortion.’
You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, ‘Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you, we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist now is plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.”
Now, what would you do in this situation? Is it morally right for you to stay in that situation? You may be generous and decide to show kindness and save the life of the violinist, but what would you choose if the period would be nine years or more instead of nine months. What if you had to stay in that condition with the violinist for your entire life?
All the people have the right to survive, i.e., both you and the violinist have the right to live. If you choose to stay in this position you are choosing the other person’s life over your own life because being in that position put your life at risk. If we consider the argument of the right to survival it would not be ethically wrong for you to unplug yourself from the body of the violinist, i.e., per this analogy, abortion should be permitted because the pregnant lady has a right on her own body. This conclusion is however criticised by many people due to various shortcomings of this analogy. This analogy may show that abortion is not wrong, but only if both the situations (from the perspective of both mother and the child) are analogous. Following are some of the aspects that show that both situations, i.e., Thomson’s analogy and abortion are disanalogous.
Consent of the Person
In this story, you were not asked whether you want to attach to the violinist or not, rather, you were kidnapped and attached to the violinist without your consent. This shows that you are the victim in this story. However, if the pregnant lady is aware and the sex was consensual, then it can be considered that the pregnant lady does share some responsibility for her pregnancy, i.e., she is responsible for the life of the unborn baby. While in Thomson’s analogy you were not responsible for the fact that the life of the violinist depends upon you, hence you are not obliged to stay attached to the violinist, and it won’t be morally wrong if you disconnect yourself from the violinist. However, in the case of pregnancy, the mother is responsible for the life of her child.
Relationships between the Involved Members
It is a general thought that you have certain duties and responsibilities towards your family members or close relatives that you don’t have for strangers, i.e., you are obliged to follow the responsibilities of your known than the strangers. In case of the Thomson’s story, the person you are attached to is a stranger, while the pregnant lady is attached to her baby. Hence, the fact that you are not obliged to stay attached to the violinist who is a stranger does not justify that the mother is not obliged to attach herself to her baby, and she is free to abort.
Lack of Originality in Thomson’s Story
Some people argue that Thomson’s story is somewhat fictional. The concept that there is a society of music lovers, you are forcefully attached to the unconscious violinist for his survival seems vague. There does not seem much reliability in this analogy with the relation between the pregnant lady and her fetus except for the time of nine months. The argument that the violinist is dependent upon you is quite different from the fact the fetus is dependent upon the body of its mother for its survival. The violist can use your body for his survival only because of the presence of such a technology in the medical world, while the dependency of the fetus on the mother’s body is a natural process, hence this difference provides the fetus more of a claim on the body of the mother, than the violinist’s claim on your body.
Difference between Killing Someone and Letting Someone Die
Although several philosophers may disagree with this statement, most people assume that killing someone is more worst than letting someone die. In the case of Thomson’s story, you are provided with the choice that whether you want to stay attached to the violinist or you want to disconnect yourself. If you disconnect yourself the violinist will die due to his ailment, i.e., you are allowing the violinist to die. However, the situation is different in the case of abortion. If the pregnant lady is allowing someone to perform the abortion it means that she is allowing that person to kill her baby. Hence, allowing the violist to die can not justify that the mother can get an abortion.
2. Bare-Difference Arguments
Let us understand the bare difference argument method through the following example.
Two brothers, brother-A and brother-B decide to kill their cousin because they have to share a large share of the inherited property with him. Brother-A throws his cousin into a pool, knowing he does not know swimming, and brother-B lets his cousin drown in the pool. The only difference (the bare difference) between the acts of the two brothers is that one killed the cousin while the other let his cousin die.”
Here, the bare difference arguments would be, Is brother A more morally wrong or both the brothers are equally wrong? The answer to this question can guide up to determine that Is there exists any moral difference between letting someone die and killing someone or not. Suppose after evaluating some arguments it is claimed that there does not exist any moral difference between killing someone and letting someone die, then we can apply this analogy to the ethical issue of euthanasia. Euthanasia is the act of killing a patient painlessly, who is suffering from a painful disease or a disease that can not be cured. Euthanasia raises a moral dilemma that Is it right to kill the patient or let the patient die on its own due to its ailment.
Both the methods discussed above can help in evaluating the various moral considerations associated with each moral dilemma. This can help the philosophers to analyse and evaluate the ethical problem related to any particular moral dilemma.
Applied Ethics Examples in Real Life
1. Is Helping Poor Right or Wrong?
Whenever we see someone begging or in need, many of us feel obliged to help or donate money to them, but some people argue that one should not beg from the others if they are capable of earning, and providing money or helping beggers makes the poor rely on the begging rather than being self-sufficient. Now, the question arises Are we obliged to help the poor? Let us try to find the answer to this question by applying the argument methods of applied ethics.
(A) Following is some of the statistical data related to the level of poverty:
- More than 800 million people worldwide suffer from malnourishment.
- More than a billion people worldwide lie below the international poverty line, i.e., they earn less than one dollar per day.
- The rate of death of adults due to starvation is more than 8 million per year.
- The rate of death of children due to starvation or due to preventable diseases or illnesses is more than 10 million per year.
(B) Following are some points that show our ability to help the poor:
- If you donate at least one dollar or less than one dollar a day (nearly 250 dollars per year), you can save the life of a person.
- It can be assumed that the total world population of hungry people can be reduced to half if we spent nearly 60 billion dollars. Now, the astonishing facts are that in the United States, on average people spent nearly 20 billion dollars on pet food, and some nations spent billions of money on wars.
Arguments For Helping the Poor
(A) Following are some points in the favour of helping the poor considering the work of an Australian philosopher Peter Singer,
- Peter singer claimed Utilitarian is the basic reason for helping the poor., i.e., the act of helping gives the feeling of pleasure.
- According to him, it is not just morally right to donate some amount of money to the poor (if one is capable), in fact, it is their moral duty to do so, i.e, it would be morally wrong if they do not help the poor.
If you are living comfortably while others are hungry or dying from easily preventable diseases, and you are doing nothing about it, there is something wrong with your behaviour” – Peter Singer
(B) Based on the Humanitarian Principles:
- According to the strong humanitarian principle (SHP), one should try to prevent anything bad from happening if that act does not involve any loss of something of comparable moral significance.
- According to the weak humanitarian principle (WHP), one should try to prevent anything very bad from happening provided that the act does not involve the loss of anything morally important.
Singer considered both the principles right, but to make his point clear about the arguments (in the favour of helping the poor) he only assumed the weak humanitarian principle.
(C) Let us consider the following arguments for better evaluation,
- Argument A: An average American can prevent the lives of the people who die from malnutrition or lack of health treatment due to financial reasons, by donating some percentage of their income to the aid agencies.
- Argument B: If (Argument A), then it is the moral duty of the average American to donate some percentage of their income to aid agencies.
- Conclusion: The average American is obliged to donate some amount of their income to aid agencies.
Here, this conclusion shows that it is obligatory to donate (not just morally right), which means if someone does not donate then it is morally wrong.
(D) Evaluating the above arguments,
- Argument A does not seem much controversial, however, one can arise the question that it is generally seen that the aid agencies sometimes mishandle the money obtained in the donations and use that money for their benefits.
- Argument B preassumes that both the strong humanitarian principle and weak humanitarian principle are true.
Argument Against Helping the Poor
The following Arguments in general do not highlight that it is wrong to donate money to the poor rather it focuses on that the person is not obliged to donate money to the poor, i.e., the person is not morally wrong if he/she is not donating the money to the poor.
(A) According to the egoism principle in philosophy, a person’s actions are always determined by one’s benefits and happiness even if it appears they are not. If we consider egoism, it raises some clear arguments against helping the poor.
- Considering egoism is true, a person is obliged to donate to the poor only if donating makes that person a better off or gives him/her some benefits than not donating.
- Only in particular circumstances, people are obliged to donate.
- Egoism may or may not be true.
(B) One of the strongest arguments could be that a person has the right to the money he/she earns, hence he/she is not obliged to donate his/her hard-earned m0ney to anyone.
- Argument A: Nobody is obliged to donate his/her money to others unless he/she owes it to that other person for any particular reason.
- Argument B: If (Argument A), then the average Americans are not obliged to give some amount of their hard-earned money to the aid agencies.
- Conclusion: The average Americans are not obliged to give their hard-earned money to aid agencies.
(C) The final argument, which is also suggested by an American ecologist Garret Hardin and many others is that helping the poor is not beneficial in the long run.
- Argument A: If giving money to the poor will do more harm than good in the long run then no one is obliged to give money to the poor.
- Argument B: Giving money to the poor do more harm than good in the long run.
- Conclusion: No one is obliged to give money to the poor.
(D) Evaluating the arguments given in point (C):
- Argument A mentioned is supported by many other moral theories say Ross’s theory, the golden rule, and utilitarianism.
- Following are the certain points given by Hardin in support of Argument B, i.e., giving money to the poor do more harm than good in the long run.
- (a) Donating money to the poor result in the rise of the number of poor in the long run as more and more people begins to rely on begging for their survival.
- (b) The poor will stop improving their condition on their own by working instead they rely on relief agencies only.
- (c) Sometimes the relief agencies inappropriately use the donated money for their self benefits rather than using it for the wellness of the poor.
- However, these points of Hardin can be questioned by raising the following points,
- Point (a) can be denied if we believe that equality and fitness now matter more than the better results in the long run.
- Point (b) can be denied if we question some assumptions related to the effects of donating.
- Point (c) can be denied by raising that not all the relief agencies mishandle the money received in donations.
2. Whether Abortion is Morally Wrong or Right?
This question comes under the branch of Bioethics, Although we have discussed the same question earlier in this article through Thomson’s analogy, the conclusion derived from that is questioned by many other philosophers. Let us try to answer this question through the various arguments as follows.
- It should be noted that we are concerned with the question that whether abortion is morally wrong or not, and not whether abortion is legally wrong or not. So, our arguments will be focused on whether the particular action is morally wrong or not rather than whether it is legal or illegal. For example, it might be morally wrong to not greet your parents or teachers but it is not illegal.
- Also, we should not focus on concluding that all abortions are morally right or all abortions are morally wrong, because the thing is that some are morally right and some are not. For example, in case the doctor is performing the abortion even if the patient does not want it could be morally wrong.
- The best way to evaluate this moral dilemma is by analysing the following factors,
- Whether both the father and the mother want the abortion or not.
- Is there any risk to the mother’s health involved in it or not?
- Whether the pregnancy is the result of the consensual sex or the forced sex.
- Whether the abortion is to be done by professional doctors or not.
- Whether the abortion is performed in the first trimester of pregnancy or not.
Arguments Against the Morality of Abortion
(A) Initially, the following arguments were proposed by the philosophers, to explain the concept of Abortion.
- Argument A: Every action that involves killing a person is morally wrong.
- Argument B: The act of abortion is killing a person.
- Conclusion: The act of abortion is morally wrong.
(B) However, the above arguments have several shortcomings, for example considering the argument A, what if killing someone is necessary (self-defence or wars); maybe this argument can be improved by adding the word innocent before the humans in the argument A. Perhaps, the following is the best way to restate the given arguments.
- Argument A: Every action that involves killing an innocent person, which does not involve saving someone’s life or something having similar moral importance, is morally wrong.
- Argument B: Almost every abortion is an act of killing an innocent person, which does not involve saving someone’s life or of something having similar moral importance.
- Conclusion: Almost every abortion is an act of killing an innocent person.
(C) Let us evaluate these arguments,
In the arguments mentioned in point (B), the word All has been replaced by the word Almost every, which means that in particular cases abortion is not morally wrong, for example, the case when the abortion is performed to save the life of the mother could not be morally wrong. This makes Argument A in point (B) more plausible than mentioned in point (A).
Now argument B could face some objections as it states that ‘almost every abortion is an act of killing an innocent person, which does not involve saving someone’s life or of something having a similar moral importance.’ This objection can be blocked by considering the following points,
- Most of the embryos that are been aborted are not innocent (although this statement seems vague).
- Most abortions even if the mother’s life is not at risk, could have something that is of comparable moral significance. For example, the mother’s right to her own body and future (although this is also controversial).
- Most of the embryos (aborted) are not people.
Out of all these claims, let us discuss the last claim, which seems much more feasible than the other one, i..e, Are embryos, people?
(D) Are embryos people?
There could be different definitions to describe the word ‘people’ or ‘person.’
Basic View: A person is someone who is a living human being considering the genetic or biological aspect. Now, the problem in this view is that this definition is overly broad as it also comprises the egg cells and the sperms, which are also living like the other cells in the human body. Well, of course, the actions that lead to the death of the egg cell or the sperm can not be described as murder. Let us understand with a modified view.
Modified view: A person is described as a living human being in terms of genetically and biological aspects, which have a complete set of chromosomes. Now, the problem with this view is the difficulty to explain that what is the importance of the full set of chromosomes because most philosophers claim that there is not much difference between an egg and a newly fertilized zygote.
A philosophy professor Harold Noonan however pointed out two differences,
- The newly fertilised egg is more probable of becoming a human being than the unfertilised egg and the sperm.
- The genetic codes on which the traits and certain other factors of the person depends are the full set of chromosomes.
According to the Mary Annie Warren, we should consider that traits that help us to differentiate aliens from the people, following are some of the trails be considered,
- Consciousness (being aware) and sentience (being able to feel)
- reasoning ability
- self-motivated and self-aware
- ability to communicate
If we define a ‘person’ considering these traits, the factors such as consciousness, sentience, and self-motivated seem to be most significant.
Warren suggested that embryos can not be counted among people as they do not possess any of the traits mentioned above. The question now is, Is Warren right?
The embryos certainly do not have these traits as possessed by the adults, but the newly born baby is also not fully aware of his/her surroundings and does not possess many abilities of reading and communication.
Also, we don’t have clear evidence that when and how much the fetus or the embryos possess the abilities of consciousness or sentient. The embryo begins to respond to the stimuli from the second month of the pregnancy, but it is hard to describe it as conscious or sentient. Also, the other views such as ‘soul’ are proposed by some people so it is quite difficult to describe whether the embryo is a person or not.
Warren also suggested that the embryo may not be a person but it has the potential to become a person. Now, the question is whether killing a person and preventing the embryo from becoming a person are both equally morally wrong or not?
Let’s understand it with a comparison, which is more wrong, preventing a person from earning 50 dollars or stealing 50 dollars from him/her. Waren suggested that it is bad to prevent the embryo from becoming the person but not as bad as killing a person.
Arguments in Favour of the Morality of Abortion
Arguments in the Favour of morality can be explained through Judith Jarvis Thomson’s analogy, which we have already discussed above in this article. Let’s evaluate this situation through the arguments.
(A) Thomson’s arguments are based on the assumption that both the situations, i.e., that of the violinist and the abortions are morally similar.
- Argument A: The violinist case and the abortion case have the same moral considerations.
- Argument B: If the violinist case and the abortion case have the same moral considerations, then if it is morally wrong to detach oneself from the body of the violinist many abortions are also morally wrong.
- Argument C: Detaching oneself from the violinist is not morally wrong.
(B) Evaluating the arguments
- Maybe the moral considerations in the violinist case and the abortion case are not similar, this denies Argument A. For example, It was not you who attached yourself to the violinist, while you are responsible for the pregnancies (excluding the rape cases, etc.).
- Maybe it is morally wrong if you detach yourself from the body of the violinist as it may lead to the death of the violinist. This denies Argument C.
We have discussed two examples here by formulating various arguments. In the same manner, one can try to evaluate the answers to various other moral dilemma questions such as Is Deception in Business Right? Should euthanasia. be permitted? Is Death Penalty Right or Wrong? and so on. Formulating Arguments allows the applied ethicists to look at the given moral problem from different aspects. People can evaluate any moral dilemma through various arguments, and conclusions derived from the different arguments may or may not be the same for the different people.
Subsets of Applied Ethics
Nowadays, it is commonly seen that almost every profession follows an ethical code of conduct. The concept of applied ethics is applied in different areas involving the private and the public sectors such as health, medicine, business, leadership, law, and the environment. Let us discuss some main subsets of applied ethics depending on the different areas and fields.
1. Legal Ethics
Legal ethics involves formulating or analysing the ethical code of conduct that governs the moral issues related to legal activities. Legal ethics ensures the regulation of the behaviour of the people working in the legal sector, for example, lawyers, judges, and courtroom activities.
2. Bio-Ethics/Medical Ethics
It is concerned with resolving the moral issues related to life science, for example, issues related to using people for research purposes, experimenting on the animals for testing new drugs, or euthanasia. It also involves evaluating ethical issues related to the various clinical trials and research in the medical sector. Bioethics involves evaluating several questions like whether performing an abortion is right or wrong, Is mercy killing morally right? Is donating one’s organs to save another person’s life morally right? Should marijuana be legalized?
3. Business Ethics/Corporate Ethics
It seeks to understand moral dilemmas related to the various business activities. Usually, the purpose of every business is to make a profit, but business ethics questions whether the business person should only think about his/her benefit or should also consider the benefit of the consumer. It also seeks to resolve issues related to the duties of the whistleblowers to the employer or colleagues and the general public. The occurrence of various issues like discrimination, nepotism, and harassment at the workplace is also dealt with in business ethics. Business ethics allows the smooth functioning of the various business activities by implementing and following the proper business policies.
4. Environmental Ethics
It involves understanding the ethical issues related to the various human activities that could harm the environment. For example, Should we stop using non-renewable resources for our future generations? Is the government responsible for tackling the climatic change? Is it right to cut the trees for building something that will benefit humans only? Is it morally right to destroy the natural habitat of animals and landscapes for the sake of humans? Some of the primary topics concerning environmental ethics are pollution, global warming, and sustainability.
5. Sexual Ethics
It seeks to evaluate various acts of interpersonal relations and sexual activities from the perspective of applied ethics. For example, Should prostitution be permitted?
6. Animal Ethics
It seeks to understand the ethical issues related human-animal relationship. Animal ethics raise voices for the sufferings of wild animals and wildlife and demand various rights and regulations for the welfare of the animals. Is eating meat should be permitted? is one of the examples of the questions that come under the branch of animal ethics.