Because applied ethics often addresses issues that affect large groups of people this constrains what kinds of reasons and ethical theories are appropriate. We need to stand on ethical common ground if our arguments and judgements are to be seen as reasonable by others. There are certain theories that, although important in the history of ethics, will not prove fruitful in applied ethics contexts in a pluralist or secular society. These are ethical claims and theories that are based on a commitment to a religion. Obviously, some people have deeply held religious convictions and find the laws or principles of their religion a crucial guide for their moral lives. Nonetheless, although such commitments may provide compelling reasons for a practitioner of a given religion, they provide no reason at all for a non-practitioner or someone who is equally strongly committed to an entirely different religion. This is a crucial point because it means that a religious practitioner cannot justify their moral claims or decisions to a non-practitioner, so long as they rest on their religious commitment. Thus, although it may be acceptable to make ethical decisions concerning your own life on the basis of your religious convictions, it is unreasonable to expect others to accept the imposition of ethical prescriptions on them that are based on your (or anyone else’s) religion.
A religious practitioner might reasonably object that they believe that their religion does in fact offer the best guidance for right action, which is why other people should follow their ethical prescriptions. Of course, this is possible. After all, there are many different religions and many more sects within them and at least some, if not most, of them will have important insights into moral life. The problem is that there is no obvious way to determine which religion is the right one and thus which specific ethical rules one should follow.
Mozi, a Chinese philosopher who lived over 2000 years ago (ca. 480-392? BCE), made a similar point. He argued that it is important that people not simply follow conventional views and practices—the kinds of practices that people often unthinkingly follow because they were taught them as children—as these practices might not be morally right. Moreover, because people come from different cultures with different practices, simply following these conventions, particularly in contexts of ethical conflict, inevitably leads to social discord and, in some cases, war. Mozi recognized that accepting a kind of cultural relativism where right and wrong are simply determined by cultural convention isn’t a viable option when people from many different cultures have to live together. Instead, Mozi argued for objective moral standards that everyone should follow.
While Mozi was not an advocate for the kind of general freedom that characterizes contemporary democratic societies, his insights about needing shared ethical standards are still pertinent. This is why applied ethics typically deals with public reason. The idea of public reason is that the ethical rules in our common life must be acceptable or at least justifiable to everyone who is expected to live by them. This means that reasons given in applied ethics contexts should rest on ideas and theories that are not parochial. As we will see when we look at the moral theories below, values like rationality, happiness, and freedom are the kinds of ideas that have the sort of broad appeal that is characteristic of public reason.
Though not strictly necessary, there is a certain sense of fairness implicit in the idea of public reasons. All things being equal, we are all expected to follow the same rules. If there is to be differential treatment, there must be a good reason for it. Indeed, this is really a point about rationality as well as fairness. Like should be treated alike. In ethical contexts, this ideal is called formal justice. It is a part of a broader rational norm of consistency.
To summarize, ethics requires us to do more than simply follow our knee-jerk reactions, our emotional responses, or conventional norms when deciding what to do. It is not that they are irrelevant. They can alert us to moral issues and important aspects of a tricky moral dilemma. However, they can also mislead. Moral reasoning requires not only an assessment of the moral issues with a sensitivity to competing analyses but that we have good reasons for what we ultimately decide. We need to commit to shared standards of rational argumentation and constructive debate if we are to defend our judgements and hold each other accountable for our actions. The ethical theories addressed below help to provide the normative content of these reasons.
- JeeLoo Liu, An Introduction to Chinese Philosophy: From Ancient Philosophy to Chinese Buddhism (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), 108. ↵
- Chris Fraser, "Mohism," in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, (Fall 2020 Edition), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2020/entries/mohism/, §3. ↵