Over the years, many branches of applied ethics have emerged. If you look at a university calendar you may find courses on computer ethics, environmental ethics, business ethics, and professional ethics, to name but a few. There are even subdisciplines within some of these branches. For instance, within bioethics one can now find research ethics, gen-ethics, and health care ethics, and the list continues. If you are beginning to suspect that there is no type of activity that doesn’t admit some sort of ethical analysis, then you’re right. This is because ethics is a discipline that seeks to answer what is at once a simple, yet extremely difficult, question: What should I (or we) do? One might ask instead, “How should we live?” or, “What is a good life?” However, each of these questions are effectively different ways of asking much the same kind of thing.

It is tempting to rephrase the question “What should I do?” as “What can I do?” “What do I want to do?” “What do other people want me to do?” or “What is in my best interests for me to do?” If you do this, you are confusing an ought with an is. You are taking a normative question—in other words, a question that concerns what ought to be the case or what ought to be done—and trying to replace it with a descriptive question about some fact of the matter. In the case of the rephrased questions above, what is within my capacity, what I desire, what other people desire, or what benefits me, respectively.

Changing the normative question from what I or you (or someone else) should do to a descriptive question is, in effect, an effort to leave the ethical analysis up to someone else. The idea that this is a way of avoiding ethics is, however, an illusion. Most decision-making has a moral dimension. Part of being a mature, rational individual in a society is being accountable for one’s decisions and actions. Even if we don’t make the effort to consider whether our actions are right or wrong, others will.

This primer is a resource for helping you notice ethical issues and think your way through them. The intent is to give you tools to help you figure out what you (or others) should do so that you can weigh these moral considerations against what you can do, what you want to do, what others want you to do, and what is in your interests to do. Sometimes you will be fortunate enough to discover that the answers to these questions line up and you are not faced with a moral dilemma. All too frequently, however, you will find that if you really think about it, what you want to do, what is in your interests to do, or what others want you to do fail to accord with what you should do. What you can do provides the limit of the actions that are open to you. However, carefully considering ethical challenges can often help us revise our own sense of what is possible and recognize that more may be within our power than we might have initially thought.

This primer will not tell you what to do. That’s up to you. Instead, it offers a variety of ways of thinking about ethics for you to apply yourself. Again, rational, adult humans are and should be held accountable for their actions. So, being able to articulate ethically sound reasons for your actions is important for being able to defend yourself to others who might disagree with your choices and behaviour.

Of course, context matters. This is one of the reasons why applied ethics subdisciplines abound. Nonetheless, there are commonalities among these areas as they all engage and take guidance from normative ethical theory. Normative ethics is the systematic study, development, and rational defence of basic values, moral concepts, and ethical theories. Ethicists offer theories that explain why some actions are right and others wrong and why some states of affairs, institutions or, indeed, people are good and others bad.

For well over two thousand years, philosophers from around the globe have been writing down what they take to be the right way to live and giving arguments for why we should act in one way or another. Of course, the practice of ethics is considerably older than the written record and has been an essential part of all human cultures for thousands of years. What we address here simply skims the surface of a few of these theories from a handful of cultures. There is a predominance of theories from the European tradition, which reflects the discourses that have shaped most applied ethics written in English. This should not be taken to imply that the basic ideas in these theories are uniquely European nor that they are in some sense superior to their non-European counterparts.

We are currently in an era of post-colonial correction, and we can expect that many non-European theories will increasingly inform applied ethics. Moreover, the basic approaches discussed below can be found throughout ethical theories globally. So, along with some key figures and theories from European ethics, we will discuss ideas from various so-called “non-Western” traditions.

So, what are the kinds of tools that moral philosophers can offer? First are generic philosophical tools of careful criticism, including the analysis of important concepts, and argumentation. These are skills that are crucial to any philosophical work, which students would acquire and practice in any philosophy course. Second, there are the theories that moral philosophers have developed. Although there are many different theories, we will organize them into four basic approaches that focus on different things: good consequences; right action; good character; and good relationships. Many ethical theories actually touch on all of these aspects but emphasize one of them as a central commitment or starting point. Some moral frameworks and concepts don’t neatly fit into any one of these four approaches, and we will discuss two of these—rights theory and ahimsa—after the rest in Part IV.

While most normative ethicists are concerned to show why the ethical theory they defend is the right one, we will take a rather different approach. We will treat our four approaches as different lenses through which we can assess the various cases and situations that attract our attention.[1] Just as looking at a landscape through lenses that are tinted different colours makes different features of the landscape stand out, so thinking about ethical challenges through each of the basic approaches draws attention to certain moral features of these situations. Of course, one might think that one of these theories is in fact the correct account of morality and, indeed, many normative ethicists take this view and spend their careers defending one or other moral theory. Even so, it is still important to understand other theories to be able to sympathetically consider and assess other people’s approaches to moral problems.

Before we get to the ethical lenses there are some preliminary issues that need to be addressed. In the next section, we will consider issues around moral response, reflection, and reason.

  1. Susan Sherwin, “Foundations, Frameworks, Lenses: The Role of Theories in Bioethics,” Bioethics 13, no. 3/4 (1999): 198-205.


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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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