Putting Ethics Into Practice


What we are (and are not) doing here

Ethics, or moral philosophy, is an activity: it consists in systematic reflection on the nature and content of morality. It is not merely a body of knowledge that can be taught. It is also a skill that must be cultivated. Neither can the diverse methods that moral philosophers have employed, nor the diverse ideas and arguments that they have developed, be studied in any single course of study. Here we are not attempting to give a comprehensive course in ethics, nor even the background for such a thing. The focus of this module is the application of ethical theories, principles and codes to various areas of inquiry. The aims of this module are modest in the extreme. The first is to give instructors a sense of the various kinds of ethical theories and approaches to applied ethics, so that they may choose for further consideration those that seem most appropriate to the contexts of their disciplines and courses. The second is to outline a method for the systematic reflection that is at the heart of ethics, and to give a format for instructors to introduce to students, some basic concepts of and approaches to applied ethics. This course module is not a substitute for a course in applied ethics!

How to use the toolkit

The toolkit provides a step-by-step guide for ensuring that you are focusing on ethical views that are helpful for highlighting the morally significant areas in your discipline. The first two steps in constructing an introduction to applied ethics in your discipline is choose the right cases and theories. To begin, you need to select several cases that elicit moral puzzlement in your area. You then use these cases to choose a few theories, principles or codes that are likely to highlight the morally significant factors that generate this experience of moral puzzlement. The various normative theories, moral principles, and appropriate codes of ethics presented here are intended as mix and match elements of a toolbox that can be used to gain a better understanding of the ethical implications of policies, practices, organizational structures and actions. Most of the resources presented here are intended to help you take these crucial first two steps. The third step is to introduce your students to basic concepts in ethics, and the general process of moral inquiry. You will find an outline for an interactive lecture appropriate for all disciplines that will do exactly this. The fourth and final step outlined here is a method for applying the theories to the cases in a systematic way. This method is a first step that can be taken in teaching the skill at the center of ethics, how to systematically reflect on the nature and content of morality. Note that what you will find here is more of a road map and toolkit, than a plug and play lesson plan.


The term “ethics” is used herein to refer to the philosophical study of morality (i.e., moral philosophy), rather than to the subject matter of that study (i.e., morality). And the terms “ethical” and “moral” are used synonymously.

“Morality” is here used in its normative sense, rather than its descriptive sense. Thus, it does not refer to the morality or moral code of a particular society, group, or individual. Nor does it refer to psychological or social phenomena, such as moral judgment or moral practice.

Perhaps any definition of morality in the normative sense would be controversial. But it might be characterized as that set of moral obligations, rights, principles, etc. that one should accept, or that one would accept if one were reasoning correctly. This formal characterization leaves open many difficult—and contested—philosophical questions, including which moral obligations, etc. one should accept; whether there is one set of moral obligations, etc. that everyone should accept; and what it is to reason correctly about such matters. Thus, it allows us to say that institutions such as slavery or practices such as female genital mutilation can be morally impermissible even within societies or cultures, or for individuals or groups, whose moral codes permit them; but it does not rule out sophisticated forms of moral relativism and moral subjectivism—i.e., those that do not identify (or conflate) morality in the normative sense with those moral obligations, etc. that are, in fact, accepted by particular societies, groups, or individuals (morality in the descriptive sense). And it is, of course, consistent with the view that there is a set of moral obligations, etc. that everyone should accept (a single true morality, if you like), which—it should be said—is alive and well, at least within Anglophone moral philosophy.