Applied Ethics

Author: Chelsea Haramia
Category: Ethics
Word Count: 855

What Applied Ethicists Do

The modern-day, direct study of applied ethics arguably began with Judith Jarvis Thomson’s 1971 article “A Defense of Abortion.”1 Thomson argued that it is permissible to have an abortion even if the fetus is a person with a right to life. Given that many actual abortion opponents argue from the claim that the fetus has a right to life to the impermissibility of abortion, Thomson not only uncovered important moral considerations embedded in a real world debate, but also, she did so by paying heed to actual claims common in the discourse. Her work spawned a lively ethical debate about the issue of abortion that is still in progress, and many since have taken up this approach by applying philosophical analysis to concrete ethical issues.

To date, there are several areas of applied ethical study. Given their situational nature, they are often distinct from one another, though they regularly employ similar methods (detailed below). The following is a representative list of applied ethics foci:

  • Animal Ethics: For example: Is it permissible to eat meat?2
  • Biomedical Ethics: For example: On whom are we allowed to perform medical tests?3
  • Business Ethics: For example: Do corporations have moral status?4
  • Environmental Ethics: For example: Ought we curb climate change for the sake of future generations?5
  • Information Ethics: For example: May I pirate music?6
  • Law: For example: Should personal, recreational drug use be illegal?7
  • Philosophy of the Family: For example: What do children owe their parents?8
  • Practical Distributive Justice: For example: To what extent ought we give to charity?9
  • Procreative Ethics: For example: Is it permissible to abort a fetus?10
  • Sexual Ethics: For example: Should prostitution be legal?11

Notice that applied ethicists qua applied ethicists are more concerned with particular cases than with more abstract theoretical questions. They aim to apply their ethical training to the study of actual ethical situations, and to draw conclusions about the moral status of scenarios that people out in the world actually encounter, and of situations that have real, practical import.

Methods in Applied Ethics

Applied ethicists often employ the methods of argument from analogy and bare-difference argument. Both methods help to uncover the relevant moral components in practical situations, and they thereby help us to draw conclusions about actual cases. Applied ethicists also have the advantage of avoiding arguing from a baseline normative ethical theory, for applied ethicists cannot count on their interlocutors’ adherence to some particular theory; it is preferable to appeal to allegedly widely-shared intuitions.

Here is Thomson’s famous example of an applied ethics question that employs an argument from analogy.12 If you woke up one day to find that you had been kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers, who had hooked you up to an unconscious, famous violinist who needed to be attached to your body for nine months in order to survive, would it be permissible to unhook yourself and go about your own business? While this case might seem at first glance to be overly fantastical, it is meant to serve as an analogy to certain abortion cases. Of course, there are many ways in which the two cases are disanalogous; the applied ethicist often must explain why a given difference is not a morally relevant difference. In these two cases, the similarities match the morally relevant factors—someone ends up connected to another moral subject for nine months in order to ensure that subject’s survival. So, by creating a relevantly analogous case, and by judging the answers provided in response to the questions raised by the analogous case, the applied ethicist can then uncover relevant intuitions and construct an argument regarding a very practical, real world issue—abortion.

Here also is a famous example that employs the method of bare-difference argument.13 Smith and Jones both stand to split a large inheritance with their respective cousins; each resolves to kill his cousin; Smith drowns his cousin; and Jones lets his cousin drown. Arguably, the only difference—the bare difference—between what Smith and Jones did is that Smith killed his cousin and Jones let his cousin die, and we now have a bare-difference argument. Is Smith morally worse than Jones, or are they equally bad? Answering this question will help us to determine whether there is a moral difference between killing someone and letting someone die. If it turns out that there is no moral difference between killing and letting die, then we can apply this discovery to questions of euthanasia, which require us to ask whether it is permissible to kill a terminally ill patient rather than allowing her to die by permitting the illness to take its course. As you can see, both bare-difference arguments and arguments from analogy can be quite illuminating when it comes to assessing applied ethical questions. Ultimately, these assessments can then allow us to go out into the world and act as responsible moral agents when we encounter or judge actual ethical cases.

Philosophers who study applied ethics look to the world around them and analyze the ethical problems they find. By doing so, the applied ethicist is able to use philosophy as a tool to address important moral issues in various practical disciplines.


1Thomson, Judith Jarvis. “A Defense of Abortion” in Philosophy and Public Affairs 1:1 (Autumn 1971): 47–66. Certainly, previous authors had addressed applied-ethics issues, but typically as part of larger works that focus on ethics in general, on social and political philosophy, or on normative ethics. See, e.g.: Kant, Immanuel. 1999. Practical Philosophy. Tr. Mary J. Gregor and Allen W. Wood. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press; Bentham, Jeremy. 1982. An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation. Ed. J. H. Burns and H. L. A. Hart. London: Methuen. Notice that our examples of applied-ethics questions in the following paragraph are typically focused on present-day worries, which would be mostly unfamiliar to pre-20th Century writers.

12Thomson, Judith Jarvis. op cit.

13Rachels, James. “Active and Passive Euthanasia” in The New England Journal of Medicine, Vol. 292 (Jan. 9 1975): 78-80.

Chelsea is a doctoral student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She has an M.A. in Philosophy from CU Boulder, a graduate certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies from CU Boulder, and a B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She is currently interested in metaethics, population and procreation ethics, environmental ethics, animal ethics, and feminist philosophy. She also spends a lot of time trying (in vain) to get her dog and cats to cuddle with each other. Website: