Instructor Notes on Applying Ethics

Applied ethics is "the philosophical examination, from a moral standpoint, of particular issues in private and public life that are matters of moral judgment".2 Applied ethics is the most practical of three distinct levels of moral inquiry.

Metaethics: What is the meaning and nature of ethical terms, judgments, and arguments?

Normative Ethics: What is the correct theory for determining which acts are morally right or wrong, or which people are morally praiseworthy or morally blameworthy.

Applied Ethics: How should we apply our ethical theories to particular cases, or make moral judgments about particular actions or people.

As you will be focusing on the third and most practical level, you do not want to spend your class trying to determine either the correct metaethical view, or the single right theory of normative ethics. We recommend that you present metaethics as a given, and explicitly reject relativism as a meta-ethical view (Meta-Ethical Cultural Relativism).

Once we focus on the task of applying ethics, we can distinguish between three distinct levels of moral thinking.

Three Levels of Moral Thinking

Understanding the variety approaches to applied ethics requires a basic grasp of the distinction between the following three levels of moral thinking:

  • Level 3: Theoretical (Top-down): Applying fundamental moral principles or procedures derived from a (putatively) universal theory of morality to cases to generate moral judgments
  • Level 2: Common Sense (Mid-level): Using principles or rules derived either from theory or from particular cases to construct a view of case(s) that reflects the concerns of both the theoretical and the particular
  • Level 1: Particularist (Bottom Up): Deriving moral judgments, defeasible moral principles or heuristic devices from the details of particular cases

These types of moral reasoning are not necessarily mutually exclusive nor independent. For example, shared principles could be, or be derived from, theoretical principles. Shared principles can also be, or be derived from the generalization of experiences in particular cases. Moral theories, if they are to remain relevant, cannot systematically generate judgments completely contrary to common sense.

Particularist approach (bottom up)

  • Particularism reasons from the bottom up. We begin with the details and context of particular cases, draw analogies to other cases, and generate (through a process of inductive reasoning), a considered moral judgment about the case.
  • The process of moral reasoning is that of deriving (more) general principles, moral guidelines, rules of thumb, or heuristic devices from particular cases through analysis and analogy, and using these to generate considered judgments.
  • Specific particularist moral judgments depend on a variety of resources such as the particulars of cases, history, precedents and context.
  • Any (more) general moral principles generated by bottom up reasoning are taken to be defeasible, that is, they can be overridden by other moral theories, considerations or principles. 
  • These (more) general moral principles are dependent on social practices and norms in the sense that these judgments are not derived in a vacuum, they are the product of reasoning and engaging in a particular social and historical context. 
  • Examples of the particularist approach are case-based reasoning (casuistry), Ethics of Case, and various types of moral particularism.

Theoretical approach (top down)

  • We begin with a general set of rules or principles, which taken together with the facts of the case, generate (through a process of deductive reasoning), a correct or justified judgment about the moral thing to do in this case.
  • The theoretical approach is a form of universalism, so-called because the theories proposed are taken to apply universally – to all people, at all times, in all circumstances. The moral principles central to such theories are taken to be universally true.
  • The process of moral reasoning is that of ‘applying’ principles to cases
A simplistic example would be:
Killing people is always morally wrong (moral principle)
Fetuses are persons (fact)
Therefore: Abortion is morally wrong (deductively justified conclusion)

The top-down approach is generally found in normative moral theories that emphasize individualism and impartiality, such as Utilitarianism and Kantianism.

The Common Sense approach (mid-level)

  • We begin with a set of mid-level principles—principles appropriate to our area of inquiry that have been derived either from particular cases or from putatively universal theories.
  • Mid-level principles can be the result of conscious or unconscious reflection on moral theories and particular cases. Good mid-level principles in an area are those that informed reflective persons agree on as useful moral guidelines in a particular area of moral inquiry.
  • We then use the mid-level principles to construct an interpretation of the case that is responsive both to the particular details of the case and any relevant high or mid level principles. This interpretation informs a considered moral judgment about the case that is sensitive to all available information.
  • The main example of the common sense approach is the Principlism of Beauchamp and Childress which is proposed as a theory of bioethics.

Within ethics, there are those who argue that either the top-down or the bottom-up approaches are the only legitimate way to reason about morality. This is a pragmatically unhelpful debate in the context of teaching applied ethics at the lower level, so we are proposing that you take a flexible approach to using various theoretical tools. When you are using the ethical toolkit, note that the different theories occupy different levels of moral thinking, and the process of applying various different theories, codes, and principles will require you to move amongst the various levels, and ultimately come to a more considered moral judgment through a method of reconciliation, reflective equilibrium.