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:


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.


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?)


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

Kant would most most likely have no major objection to simulated killing. Murdering people in video games does not lead to a contradiction in conception, or a contradiction in will, or violate the humanity formula.

In other words, simulated killing does not go against the categorical imperative.

Aristotle’s virtue theory

A key idea of Aristotle’s ethics is that virtue is a kind of practical wisdom (phronesis). According to Aristotle, being a good person is not just about knowing what the virtues are, it’s about acting on them until the virtues become habits.

So, Aristotle might argue that if someone spends a lot of time playing video games that involve simulated killing then they may develop bad habits (or at least not develop good habits/virtues). For example, repeatedly killing fictional innocent people in a game may make someone increasingly unkind or unjust. On the other hand, Aristotle might argue that killing fictional people is not actually unjust or unkind. After all, they’re not real, and so there’s no real injustice. Doing unjust acts develops the vice of injustice, but simulated killing is technically not an unjust act.

Like with any application of Aristotle’s ethics, you have to consider the context – there are no ‘one size fits all’ rules.

A virtuous person might partake in simulated killing in moderation as a form of entertainment and because they enjoy the competitive challenge of gaming. In that context, simulated killing might not be unvirtuous. But doing nothing with your life except killing people in video games just because you love killing people is almost definitely not virtuous.

Eating animals


A conclusion of Bentham’s view that good = happiness is that utilitarian principles must be extended to animals (because animals can feel pleasure and pain just as humans can). Bentham says:

“The question is not, Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer? Why should the law refuse its protection to any sensitive being?”

Peter Singer, another utilitarian philosopher, develops this line of thinking further. To privilege human pain and pleasure over animals is speciesist, he says (in a similar way to how privileging men over women, say, is sexist).

There are, however, ways a utilitarianism could potentially justify eating animals.

According to utilitarianism, an action is good if it results in maximises pleasure and minimises pain. And you could argue that, if it wasn’t for farming animals for food, many animals would never have existed and so would never have been able to experience pleasure and pain in the first place. So, if the animals farmed for food have an overall happy life and a painless death, then eating animals is morally justifiable because it results in a net increase of pleasure.

An implication of this view is that farming conditions and practices are important. Farming animals in cramped or uncomfortable conditions where they have unhappy lives, say, would be morally wrong according to utilitarianism.

Kant’s deontological ethics

Kant’s categorical imperative is only intended to apply to rational beings. Animals, Kant would say, do not have rational will and so are excluded from the categorical imperative.

Kant would say there is no contradiction in conception and no contradiction in will that results from the maxim “it’s ok to eat animals”. And the humanity formula only says don’t treat humanity as a means to an end. Humans have a rational will and so are ends in themselves and should be treated as such. ‘But animals, Kant would say, do not have a rational will and so can be treated solely as means.

One potential issue for this approach is the question of non-rational humans. Newborn babies and people with certain disabilities, for example, do not have a rational will. But surely Kant wouldn’t say it’s ok to eat such humans?

Aristotle’s virtue theory

Aristotle’s discussion of eudaimonia is concerned specifically with the good life for human beings.

Telling lies


As always, whether or not act utilitarianism would say it’s morally acceptable to lie will depend on the situation. If telling a lie leads to greater happiness, then act utilitarianism would say you should lie. For example, if someone asks you whether they look good and they don’t, the utilitarian thing to do is to lie and say “yes”.

But rule utilitarianism could argue that a rule to “never lie” would lead to greater happiness than a rule that allows everyone to lie. For example, if everyone was an act utilitarian and always lied to increase happiness/reduce pain, then nobody could trust anything anyone said. And the rule utilitarian could argue that such a society – where no one can trust anyone else’s word – would be less happy overall.

John Stuart Mill

Kant’s deontological ethics

The point of telling a lie is to get the other person to believe something false. But if everyone always told lies, then people wouldn’t believe each other.

Given this, Kant would argue that the maxim “it’s OK to lie” fails the first test of the categorical imperative because it would lead to a contradiction in conception. If it was always acceptable to lie, the very concept of telling a lie (i.e. saying something is false in order to deceive someone into believing it’s true) wouldn’t make sense. So, according to the categorical imperative, we should always tell the truth.

French philosopher Benjamin Constant challenged Kant’s approach of radical honesty by asking whether you should tell a known murderer the location of his victim when asked. Say, for example, a person is escaping an axe-murderer and you let them hide in your house. Shortly after, a crazy looking guy with an axe and blood-stained clothes asks you “where is he?” According to Kant, you should tell the truth: “He’s in here.” Telling the truth in this situation is seemingly the wrong thing to do, though, and so Kant’s ethics cannot be the correct account of moral action.

Kant’s response to this example is to stick to his guns: You should not lie to the murderer even to save a life. One reason for this is that Kant says the moral worth of actions is determined by whether they are done for the sake of duty, not their consequences. Further, in his essay on lying, Kant argues that it is impossible to know the consequences of our actions. But if we choose not to follow our duty and decide to lie, then we can be held responsible for the consequences. So say, for example, you lie and tell the axe murderer that “he’s next door” and, unbeknown to you the victim has sneaked out and really has gone next door, then you do bear some responsibility for the consequences of not following your duty.

Aristotle’s virtue theory

In his discussion of the ‘social qualities’ of truth and falsehood, Aristotle says:

Falsehood is in itself bad and reprehensible, while the truth is a fine and praiseworthy thing; accordingly, the sincere man, who holds the mean position, is praiseworthy, while both the deceivers are to be censured”

– Aristotle, The Nichomachean Ethics Book IV.VII

Aristotle is talking about lying about oneself: On one side boasting is a vice of excess, and on the other false modesty is a vice of deficiency. Telling the truth – i.e. “the sincere man” – is in the middle (i.e. the golden mean) and so is the virtuous action.

When Aristotle says “falsehood is in itself bad”, he appears to be saying that lying is always wrong. However, Aristotle later describes degrees to which telling lies is bad: Lying to protect your reputation, for example, is not as bad as lying to gain money. Given this, you could potentially argue that there may be situations where it is morally acceptable to lie, such as in the example of saving a life above.

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