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[Home]Applied ethics

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Applied ethics takes some unremarkable ethical theory, such as utilitarianism and applies it to a particular medical, pharmaceutical, political, legal or commercial problem.

The chief difficulty with applied ethics is that many persons can disagree with the selected starting ethical theory. For example, it is known that both Christians and Muslims often disagree with utilitarian solutions.

To avoid this problem, one of the newer approaches to applied ethics is to revive the ancient practice of casuistry. Casuistry attempts to establish a plan of action to respond to particular facts.

In a modern casuistic approach to say, a biomedical issue, two boards of experts are appointed. The ethical board might represent disparate ethical theories, e.g. a Jew, Christian, Buddhist, Humanist and Muslim. The scientific board represents relevant medical, legal, psychological and philosophical disciplines. The ethical board evaluates situations, and recommends and ratifies responses. The scientific board explains the causes and effects of each ethical state and response.

The boards then consider actions that are appropriate for relevant pure cases. For example, most ethical systems agree that assault deserves punishment, while risking oneself to save lives deserves reward. Other cases that are often relevant include theft, gifts, verified truth, verified lying, betrayal, and earned trust.

Taking such cases as data, the board draws parallels with the problem under consideration, and attempts to discover a set of actions to respond to the case under consideration.

For example, medical experiments without informed consent, performed on healthy persons, are often likened to assault with a deadly weapon performed by the experimenter. The experiments usually involve equipment or drugs, which provides the 'weapon.' The experimenter's malice is indicated by the secrecy. Therefore, harmful results can be attributed to the malice, and the degree of damage indicates the degree of assault.

If the experimenter gets informed consent from the subject, the scenario transforms completely because the moral choice moves from the experimenter to the subject. With informed consent, the subject then becomes either a tragic hero if the procedure fails, or a successful hero if the procedure succeeds. The experimenter is then merely offering a brave volunteer an opportunity to contribute to human knowledge, and possibly benefit from the process.

Note that in both cases, "villain & victim," or "scientist & volunteer," the actual experiment might cause the same clinical results. However, the moral relationships of the participants are completely different.

Since casuistry is concerned with facts and actions, rather than theories, it is often remarkably easier to come to agreement. Although many ethical systems disagree about the justification for an action, the actions that they recommend are often remarkably similar.

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Last edited October 24, 2001 4:32 am by Ray G. Van De Walker (diff)