Overview – Applied Ethics

Applied ethics takes the ethical theories we studied previously and applies them to practical moral issues.

The syllabus looks at 4 possible ethical applications:


Stealing


It’s pretty obvious what stealing is. But to frame it in a philosophical way, people often say that individuals have property rights – i.e. that they have rights over certain things. To steal is to violate these property rights.

Utilitarianism

For act utilitarianism, whether or not it is acceptable to steal something will depend on the situation. There is no moral right to property over and above its utilitarian benefits and so if an act of stealing results in a greater good then it would be morally acceptable to steal.

For example, act utilitarianism would say it is acceptable for a starving person to steal food if it saves their life, because the victim’s loss is outweighed by the thief’s benefit. Similarly, an act utilitarian could argue that it’s morally acceptable for very poor people to steal from very rich people (like Robin Hood), because the rich person’s loss is insignificant compared to the thief’s gain.

However, rule utilitarianism could argue that although there may be individual instances where stealing leads to greater happiness, having a rule of “don’t steal” leads to greater happiness overall. John Stuart Mill (the rule utilitarian person) makes a similar argument in his discussion of justice and property rights.

For example, a society that permitted stealing would be one in which no one could trust anyone. Everyone would live in constant fear of being robbed by someone who had convinced himself that stealing from them would lead to greater happiness. This distrust and fear would lead to a less happy society than one in which stealing isn’t allowed, and so a rule utilitarian could argue that we should follow the “don’t steal” rule.

Kant’s deontological ethics

Kant would argue that a maxim/rule that allowed stealing would fail the first test of the categorical imperative because it would lead to a contradiction in conception:

  • The categorical imperative says: “act only according to maxims you can will would become a universal law
  • My maxim is: “I want to steal this thing”
  • If I will stealing to be a universal law, then anyone could steal whenever they wanted
  • But if anyone could steal whenever they wanted, the very concept of personal property wouldn’t exist (because if anyone is entitled to just take my property from me in what sense is it mine?)
  • And if there is no such thing as personal property, the very concept of stealing doesn’t make sense (because you can’t steal something from someone if it isn’t theirs to begin with)
  • Therefore, willing that “I want to steal this thing” leads to a contradiction in conception
  • Therefore, stealing violates the categorical imperative
  • Therefore, stealing is wrong

Aristotle’s virtue theory

Aristotle says there are some actions that never fall within the golden meanand stealing is one of them. According to Aristotle, stealing is an injustice because it deprives a person what is justly and fairly theirs.

Even in extreme cases, such as stealing £1 from a billionaire to buy bread to save a starving child who will otherwise die, Aristotle would still likely say that stealing is wrong.

The reason for this is that Aristotle distinguishes between unjust actions and unjust states of affairs. A starving child may very well be an unjust state of affairs – an unfortunate situation – but that’s just the way the world is sometimes. According to Aristotle, it is much worse to deliberately and freely choose to commit unjust actions – even if you are committing these unjust actions to counteract unjust states of affairs.


Simulated killing


Simulated killing is about fictional death and murder, such as in video games and films. It’s not about actually killing people (which is more obviously wrong).

This might seem like a non-issue at first – how can just watching or pretending to kill someone be bad? But there are all sorts of moral dimensions you can discuss. For example:

  • The difference between watching a killing (e.g. in a film) and playing the role of the killer (e.g. in a video game)
  • The effects simulated killing has on a person’s character (e.g. whether exposure to simulated killing makes them more violent)
  • Whether simulated killing is wrong in itself (in the UK, for example, video games involving rape and paedophilia are illegal even though they’re just simulations – why not murder too?)

Utilitarianism

The obvious response of act utilitarianism would be that simulated killing is morally acceptable. After all, the person watching the film or playing the video game gets some enjoyment from the simulated killing, and the person being killed doesn’t actually suffer because it’s only fictional. In this situation, simulated killing results in a net gain of happiness.

But from a wider perspective, there are ways simulated killing could possibly decrease happiness. For example, if exposure to simulated killing makes a person more likely to kill someone for real, then maybe this pain would outweigh the happiness? Maybe simulated killing makes people more violent in general?

There are all sorts of studies on this topic, often with conflicting conclusions. If nothing else, these considerations support the difficult to apply objection to utilitarianism. However, if there was an obvious and irrefutable study that showed simulated killing makes people significantly more likely to murder in real life, then rule utilitarianism could say simulated killing is wrong.

Kant’s deontological ethics

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Aristotle’s virtue theory


Eating animals


Utilitarianism

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Kant’s deontological ethics

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Aristotle’s virtue theory


Telling lies


Utilitarianism

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Kant’s deontological ethics

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Aristotle’s virtue theory


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