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What is applied ethics?

applied ethics audio

Applied ethics is the most practical of the three divisions of the philosophy of ethics. The most esoteric is metaethics, which is the study of the terms and basis of ethics. The next is normative ethics, which is the attempt to develop a comprehensive framework against which actions can be judged. Applied ethics is the actual application of ethical theory for the purpose of choosing an ethical action in a given issue.

Applied ethics is usually divided into various fields. Business ethics discusses ethical behavior in the corporate world, while professional ethics refers directly to a professional in his field. Biomedical and environmental ethics delve into health, welfare, and the responsibilities we have towards other people and our environment. Organizational ethics defines what a group values in relation to its stated goal. International ethics tries to determine if a nation’s primary responsibility is to itself as a sovereign entity or to the world community at large. Sexual ethics speaks to issues such as homosexuality and polygamy, while cyberethics tries to get a handle on issues in the Information Age.

Although these groupings can be convenient, we still need some kind of a judgment system on which to base our actions. Normative ethics endeavors to provide frameworks to determine if an act is ethical, but even the most developed theory is not always practical, and the average person is unfamiliar with the different schools, anyway. Another option is to determine which ethical characteristic is most valuable. Standard choices are personal welfare, the common good, individual rights, justice and need, and personal virtue. The third method, casuistry, compares a current situation to one that has already been analyzed. The more similar the situations, the more likely moral guidance will be found.

The Bible has much to say about how to determine an ethical course of action. Second Timothy 3:16-17 tells us where to find ethical standards: "All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work." Scripture tells us to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading (John 14:26), obey governing authorities (Romans 13:1), exemplify the character of God (Galatians 5:22-23), and most importantly, love God and love others (Matthew 22:34-36).

Although the Bible does not categorize ethics, it does speak to each of the different fields. For instance, the Bible tells businesses to treat both employees and customers fairly (Leviticus 25:43; Proverbs 11:1). And it speaks to environmental issues in regard to the land (Leviticus 25:3-5) and animals (Proverbs 12:10). Significantly, the Bible prescribes the same behavior in all venues; honesty, for example, is always appropriate. We are expected to follow biblical standards in every situation.

Applied ethics may be the most practical division of the philosophy of ethics, but the study of right and wrong outside of the relevance of God is merely intellectual calisthenics. As Ecclesiastes 12:11-14 says,

The words of wise men are like goads, and masters of these collections are like well-driven nails; they are given by one Shepherd. But beyond this, my son, be warned: the writing of many books is endless, and excessive devotion to books is wearying to the body. The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022