Applied Ethics Research Paper

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Applied ethics is an academic discipline that inquires about the correctness of certain practical human activities, primarily using philosophical methods. This inquiry can be traced to antiquity since ethics is mostly concerned with the practical actions of daily life, and different professions have codes guiding such actions. As an academic discipline, it was conceived in the West in the 1960s due to secularization, technological advances, and a void in public policy. The global dimension in recent years makes these issues more acute. Applied ethics can be further specialized into bioethics, environmental ethics, sexual ethics, business ethics, and social ethics, in additional to newly emerging areas. From a global perspective, this entry will address the debates on the existence of objective moral truths, the sources of morality, the proliferation of competing models, the role of science and technology, the role of religion, and the tension between universal ethics and cultural diversity.


Applied ethics is normally distinguished from metaethics and normative ethics in the field of philosophical ethical inquiry. According to this division, normative ethics deals with different ethical theories that a person may use to derive a correct course of action. It is concerned with determining the rightness or wrongness of certain acts based on different theories of deontology, consequentialism, contractualism, natural law theories, virtue ethics, etc. Metaethics deals with the even more abstract questions regarding the nature of morality and the meaning of moral judgments. It asks questions like what goodness is, why be good, whether there are universal moral truths, the role of subjective emotions and the role of religions in morality, etc.

Applied ethics, often interchangeably used with practical ethics, is concerned with ethical inquiries (based on a certain ethical theory) of the different ambits of human activities, which includes, for instance, business ethics, bioethics, environmental ethics, and the like.

History And Development

Ethics is by nature a practical discipline. Since antiquity there have been writings on the acceptability of certain behaviors in daily life and especially in professional settings. This is most evident in the medical profession, where the Greeks formulated the Hippocratic Oath that proscribes physicians from performing abortion, euthanasia, and sexual harassment of patients while obliging them to keep professional secrecy. This became widely accepted as the code of ethics of Western medicine until recent years. In the East, the Ayurvedic code on medical ethics in India (sixth century BC) formulates some criteria for a good teacher and student of the art. In China, the famous physician Sun Simiao (581–682 AD) wrote about the character formation and virtues expected of physicians. Other cultures also have different writings that are precursors to contemporary applied ethics.

In the West, philosophers from ancient times have wrestled with ethical questions of a practical nature. Plato (fourth century BC), disciple of Socrates, debated on the pros and cons of suicide in Phaedo. Until the Enlightenment, Christianity shaped the ethical thought of the West. Augustine of Hippo (354–430), one of the most famous of Christian theologians, is recognized for delineating the principles of just war theories which are still in use today. Nine centuries later, Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), another influential medieval philosopher and theologian, took up these ethical questions on just war, suicide, truth-telling, usury, stealing, and legitimate self-defense. In the sixteenth century, due to the discovery of new civilizations in the new world, Francisco de Vitoria (1483–1546) reflected on the questions of indigenous rights and was a forerunner of international laws. He also formulated the criteria of ordinary and extraordinary means which has been widely adopted in medical ethics today. However, the sixteenth century witnessed the decline of religious influence in ethics, due variously to religious turmoil, and new discoveries that challenged the medieval worldview especially with the rise of science and industry. The Copernican evolution, the case of Galileo, and Darwin’s evolutionary theories are examples that prompted this process of secularization. In the field of ethics, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) developed his political philosophy based on a somewhat pessimistic view of human nature and paved the way to political ethics. David Hume (1711–1776) overturned the traditional prohibition in his work On Suicide where he elevated human autonomy in deciding one’s own death. As a response to the secularizing tendency in ethics, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) attempted to found his ethics on nonreligious grounds by appealing to the categorical imperative and the principle of universalization. Around the same time, Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873) were influential theorists who proposed utilitarian methods to determine the correctness of human action and wrote extensively on the issues of colonialism, slavery, women’s rights, politics, free speech, privacy, just wage, and animal rights. These became the major contributions of Western ethical thought that prepared the way for present-day applied ethics.

While applied ethics is mostly a Western phenomenon, there is also notable presence of ethical reflection in other parts of the world. Both Judaism and Islam have long established norms of ethical behaviors based on their respective revealed texts. Their methodology is legal and seeks authoritative interpretation of these texts throughout the centuries. In the East, Confucianism emphasized the right order of relationships among society members, with great importance given to the family, filial piety, and loyalty to legitimate authority. The emphasis is more on character development of virtues than on ethical norms. In a similar vein, Buddhism and Hinduism focus more on relationship with other humans, nature, and spiritual growth.

Applied ethics developed as an academic discipline only in the last fifty years. Its rise can be traced especially to North America in the 1960s. At that time, moral philosophers were not so much interested in practical ethical dilemmas but were more focused on the conceptual and abstract problems of metaethics. This changed rapidly due to a rising concern of society to address questions that were preeminently practical. In a famous article by Stephen Toulmin (1982), “How Medicine saved the life of ethics,” he noted that the advance of medical technology has posed new and acute moral problems in medicine. Ethicists and philosophers were called to the task. The revival of bioethics and applied ethics can be attributed to various societal factors. First, North America was undergoing a period of secularization where many spheres of traditional influence became eroded, including ethics. Second, technological advances seemingly posed novel questions that traditional responses appeared inadequate to answer. Third, there was a perceived policy vacuum in these questions that demanded a public response, especially in light of revelations of scandals and abuses (Jonsen 1998).

As a matter of fact, since the times of the Enlightenment, the traditional role of religion in vital spheres of the social order including politics, culture, science, economy, judiciary, philosophy, and education began to recede as society became more secular and pluralistic. Even though ethics and theology were traditionally in the hands of religion, they too were scrutinized in the increasing secularized academia. Society was restless, buoyed with exciting medical discoveries that brought with them the age-old questions of just distribution, legitimate use of technology, and justified manipulation of nature. The debate on fertility control in the 1960s was an example of new technology confronting age-old church teaching. Even though theologians made important contributions early on, it was philosophy and law that bioethics eventually fell back on. In the newfound field of bioethics, principlism soon became the dominant philosophical model to be applied in policymaking and at the bedside. Soon, a plethora of competing models surged onto the horizon – virtue ethics, casuistry, narrative ethics, feminist and care ethics, phenomenology, and utilitarian ethics, to name a few – all seeking to relocate ethics in the context of the situation or the character of the moral agent (Tham 2008).

As medical ethics morphed into bioethics, other areas of applied ethics flourished as questions arose regarding just war and military ethics during the Vietnam war, poverty and distribution of wealth, racism and inequality, women’s rights and gender issues, and environment and animal issues. The field of applied ethics continues to widen as a philosophical response to new social questions and dilemmas that arise. As is often the case, developments in the social sciences and the humanities often parallel social change.

As the ethical enterprise widens in the global village, these issues take on a special significance. The question of religious ethics reemerges since in many parts of the world the secular divide between religion and public ethics, characteristic of the West, is simply not present. Another question that has arisen regards the interplay between the universality of ethical reasoning and particular circumstances and respect for cultural diversity.

Conceptual Clarification

A simple definition of applied ethics would be as follows:

The terms “applied ethics” and “practical ethics” are used interchangeably to indicate the application of ethics to special arenas of human activity, such as business, politics and medicine, and to particular problems, such as abortions. (Childress 1986, p. 38)

However, many authors find that this definition is too simplistic and does not reflect the complex nature of applied ethics. It suggests that certain moral theories, if applied correctly, can yield solutions to the specific dilemmas of human activities. Tom Beauchamp believes that theory and principles do not suffice on their own and must be supplemented by other factors such as casuistry, empirical data, organizational experience, etc. He suggests this definition:

… “applied ethics” refers to any use of philosophical methods to treat moral problems, practices, and policies in the professions, technology, government, and the like. This broader usage makes no commitment to the place of general theories or principles and does not insist on problem-solving as the goal. (Beauchamp 2005, p. 3)

There seems to be an agreement that applied ethics can be used interchangeably with practical ethics, highlighting the practical nature of the subject and concerning crucial aspects of human life and social development (Singer 1993). Some authors believe that to make it a subject of applied ethics, these issues need to be controversial, with opinions with opposing camps. Others believe the questions dealt with in applied ethics must be of a moral nature and not questions relating to social policy alone, even though most of the time the two overlap.

Many issues of applied ethics originated from professional ethics. However, there is also a difference between professional and applied ethics. Professional ethics bases its practice on a professional body, whereas applied ethics is much more of an academic discipline. Most of the more established professions will eventually associate themselves into a body and with this generate a code of ethics. For instance, the Hippocratic Oath is one of the first codes of ethics for the medical profession. These professional codes of ethics describe the goal of the profession as well as the rules of behaviors expected of their members (see nursing ethics, dental ethics, engineering ethics, journalism ethics). These codes become points of reference for professionals when they make difficult ethical decisions, and at the same time maintain a certain professional standard by making their members accountable. Professional ethics interacts with applied ethics since reflection on ethical principles and applications can impact and improve professional codes which are often under governmental supervision. For example, Nazi experimentation on prisoners led to the formulation of the Nuremberg Code (1946), and the unethical experimentation on patients in the 1960s gave rise to Declaration of Helsinki (1964) by the World Medical Association which has undergone several revisions. Since then, many declarations have been formulated at the local, national, and international levels to protect vulnerable subgroups and correct abuses in technology. Some of the more significant ones are the Belmont Report (1978), International Ethical Guidelines for Biomedical Research Involving Human Subjects of the Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences (CIOMS) (2002), UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993), Universal Declaration on the Human Genome and Human Rights (1997), UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights (2005), and UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (2007). These documents are important sources of reference for reflection, debates, and guidelines in applied ethics.

Applied ethics can generally be divided into different areas of specialization:

  1. Medical ethics focuses on a range of issues which arise in clinical settings and the medical encounter. Traditional topics deal with the beginning of life (abortion, infanticide, prenatal care, etc.), the end of life (euthanasia, living will, assisted suicide, withholding and withdrawing life support, brain death, etc.), sexuality and human reproduction (contraception, sterilization, IVF, sexually transmitted diseases, prenatal diagnosis, preimplantation genetic diagnosis, etc.), clinical ethics (casuistry, patient-doctor relationship, truth-telling, etc.), allocation of healthcare resources (transplant, medical tourism, pharmaceutical ethics, health economics, etc.), and ethics of human experimentation (informed consent, IRB, etc.). Bioethics is wider in its scope, including medical ethics (sometimes jointly termed as biomedical ethics) and also the impact of biotechnological advances on humans (cloning, stem cells, nanotechnology, neuroethics, synthetic biology, etc.) and environmental ethics or ecology (animal rights, GMO, etc.).
  2. Topics on family and sexual morality are sometimes included in bioethics or are seen as a different category under marriage and family studies. The issues examined here include dating, marital fidelity, premarital and extramarital affairs, polygamous, polyamorous and homosexual relationships, gender issues, womanhood, motherhood and fatherhood, prostitution, pedophilia, children welfare, and population control.
  3. As stated above, environmental ethics or ecology studies are sometimes grouped inside bioethics insofar as they deal with the impact of the biosphere on human beings. The issues may include eco-centrism vs. anthropocentrism, protection vs. exploitation of natural resources, the use animals for experimentation and food, preserving endangered species, climate change, pollution control, and obligation toward future generations.
  4. Business ethics examines different economic systems and their social responsibilities. It is mostly centered on the capitalist business model and analyzes the moral status of corporate entities and their responsibilities toward different stakeholders in terms of profit, people, and planet. Issues may include the corporate culture, wage, worker’s rights, false advertising, insider trading, job discrimination, and whistle-blowing. It is related to developmental ethics which inquires about the ends and means of economic development.
  5. Social ethics looks at the just relationship among nations and as one global unit. It examines questions such as solidarity, private property, human rights, distribution of wealth and resources, international trade, just war, nuclear disarmament, arms trade, welfare rights, racism, gun control, and capital punishment.

There are also emergent issues in applied ethics due to shifts in societal concerns brought on by technological advance and changing cultural sensitivities. Some examples are internet and media ethics (privacy, censorship, spamming, trolling, hacking, malware, pornography, addiction, social media, etc.), government ethics (transparency, bribery, corruption, conflict of interest, spying, etc.), military ethics (arms trade, peace, preemptive strikes, international police, UN involvement, etc.), and pharmaceutical ethics (policies, guidelines, research and development, market, profit, pricing, trials, ghostwriting, etc.).

The process of globalization makes some of these ethical issues more complex and acute. Here, different branches of applied ethics often overlap. For instance, pharmaceutical ethics is a cross between bioethics and business ethics. At times, ethical values are trumped by economic ones in what George Soros termed “market fundamentalism” where the bottom line is often the maximization of profit margin. For instance, medical tourism is a phenomenon where patients of rich nations travel to developing countries to obtain therapy that is not available or is cheaper than their country of origin. Organs are harvested, sold, and transplanted in these places which have lower ethical standards, and donors are often vulnerable and exploited. Similarly, other medical services such as fertility treatment and maternal surrogacy have become a booming industry in India. Sex and drug trades become international and difficult to tackle. Child pornography goes virtual in an international underground network. Certain untested treatments such as stem cell therapy become readily available in some places like China. Pharmaceutical companies may perform research in third world populations who may not benefit from the drugs and where subjects are not protected under similar standards as in the West. Increased mobility and multinational involvement in a globalized reality make it easy to circumvent regulations as laws are unenforceable across different jurisdictions.

Is There Any Objective Moral Truth In Ethics?

There is a debate about whether the analysis offered in applied ethics is only practical or only theoretical, that is, whether it can solve the ethical dilemma by offering a course of action or can only describe or offer an overview of different opinions but without being geared toward concrete action. The definition of Beauchamp quoted above seems to indicate the latter.

Nevertheless, many writers are not satisfied with description but want applied ethics to be preeminently practical. They believe that the role of applied or practical ethics is precisely to offer a rational, well-argued line of reasoning to justify a certain position on a particular issue. They believe that it is legitimate for ethicists to take a stand on controversial debates as long as they have good arguments (Singer 1993).

Hidden behind this difference is a metaethical debate on the existence of objective moral truths. There are those who hold that there are no moral absolutes or truths attainable by reason. For moral relativists, no universal standard exists by which the truth of an ethical proposition can be assessed, with standards instead being relative to social, cultural, historical, or personal circumstances. Another form of moral relativism is called emotivism which holds that ethical statements (e.g., do not kill the innocent) are not assertive propositions. That is, they do not express factual claims or beliefs and therefore are neither true nor false but express only emotions (e.g., killing is repugnant). They maintain that the function of ethics is not to refer to such values as moral truths but to express feelings of approval or disapproval and to recommend similar emotions to others. Alasdair MacIntyre declares that emotivism is the unprofessed common moral theory of our time that is very much “embodied in our culture” (MacIntyre 1984).

In a slightly different way, Tristram Engelhardt is also skeptical of the role of reason in the ethical discipline. He agrees with the current situation of “moral fragmentation” already observed by MacIntyre as both a social and historical phenomena manifested in our pluralistic society as ethical relativism. He attributes the failure to ground an objective morality in the epistemological error of trying to seek moral truths by means of rational discourse. The secular attempt to draw moral conclusions from reason has fared no better than Western Christianity’s universal moral vision. The failure to ground a canonical understanding of moral rationality is evidenced by a profound and often impassioned and interminable ethical disagreement at all levels. In such a morally fragmented world, moral controversies are resolved by a type of consensus, a minimum condition by which moral strangers may seek to resolve conflicts in a pluralistic society with different conceptions of the good (Engelhardt 1996).

In the absence of moral truth knowable through human reason, some authors are wary of a type of consensus without true content. In the history of American bioethics, consensus may be a result of the ruling political or financial might exerting its influence to attain a predetermined outcome. The bioethics community is at risk of possible collusion with science and business, turning bioethics into an ideology (Evans 2002).

With globalization, this danger of forced consensus and “might makes right” is present. It is found in totalitarian governments like China where academic ethicists cannot criticize the official position of the one-child policy without risking their career. It can also happen in Singapore where financial investment obliges government-funded bioethical departments to walk the party line on certain innovative technology such as embryonic stem cell research. In India, recent laws were passed to encourage medical and fertility tourism without much ethical resistance.

What Are The Sources Of Morality?

Assuming that human reason, imperfect as it is, can guide us to discover certain truths in human activities, the next question concerns what the sources of morality are. First, the question if morality is derived internally or externally to professional activity will be examined. Second, the relationship between science and ethics will be looked at. Finally, the contribution of religion to ethics will be analyzed.

The first question deals with how ethical theories and practices influence each other in applied ethics. Can the old ethical theories be applied in varied and new circumstances, or have these new unprecedented situations prompted the need for new ethical paradigms? Beauchamp groups the problem of moral content of applied ethics into three groups: internal, external, and mixed internal-external accounts (Beauchamp 2005). The internal account defends that ethics is derived solely from the standard practice of the particular profession. So in the medical profession, medical ethics is bound by the specific roles and duties of physicians to patients, the virtues expected of the caregivers, and professional standards that are more or less codified. Similarly, this can be extended to other professions. However, critics observe that these internal standards can and must be open to societal opinions and external values, which is why the codes of ethics continually undergo revision. The external account claims that norms and values are mostly founded outside of the profession in law, philosophy, or theology and are shaped by public opinion and scientific data. Earlier, Childress defines applied ethics as application of an ethical theory to a practical problem. The goal then is to find a common morality which would be acceptable to all parties. The mixed internal-external account believes that moral standards are different for different cultures and religious groups. Thus, members of a profession while adhering to a certain standard must adapt to local variations and cultural norms. In agreement with this position, Engelhardt believes that there cannot be such a common morality and that each moral tradition will have its own standards and norms for its members. This mild form of moral skepticism means that nobody can make an objective judgment on a local practice such as genital mutilation, since with the failure of reason, there are no universal human rights (Engelhardt 1996).

These differences of opinion are a result of the absence of agreement on what constitutes the discipline of bioethics. It is variously defined as a more specialized branch of moral philosophy (a continuation of conventional medical ethics), as a novel autonomous discipline, as a methodology of interdisciplinary comparison between biomedical and human sciences, as a movement of historically changing ideas, or as a demidiscipline which lacks coherent principles and methodology to be a proper discipline but uses academic reports and publications as part of the discussion that takes place in law courts, legislature, professional societies, committees and commissions, healthcare institutions, and the media (Sgreccia 2012). This lack of clarity is also true in many other fields of applied ethics.

The second question is related to the first, in that some consider science and technology to be the only exclusive source of ethics. The historical and philosophical background to this position is scientism or logical positivism. Auguste Comte (1798–1857) first proposed this philosophy in envisioning three stages of progress in human knowledge: theological, metaphysical, and positivist. It is in the last stage that the purest form of human knowledge is attained by measurable and verifiable data of science. Accordingly, metaphysical and religious truths are dubious since they cannot be scientifically demonstrated. If it is true that the only sure source of knowledge comes from what is empirically proven, then ethical evaluations are either irrelevant or must be under the domain of science. That is, scientists can arrive at ethical decisions by using scientific methods like surveys. This position is sometimes called “technological imperative” which exalts science to such an extent that any critiques aimed at it or limits placed upon it would be considered untenable. This philosophy is supported by the high regard the general public has for scientists. This new clout gained by the scientific community makes it very difficult to question the motives and ethicality of scientific research and development. Critics of scientism or technological imperative are often labeled as Luddites or doomsayers who are against the progress of humanity. While science and technology can certainly offer many important advantages to improve our lives, if it ignores ethical implications, it can also be problematic. For example, sociologist John Evans has shown how scientists have influenced secular ethicists by forming an implicit alliance with those who in turn give the official nod to their undertakings (Evans 2002). Joseph Fletcher, one of the fathers of bioethics, was also very progressive in his thinking in advocating the use of technology to transform the human race through the creation of human clones, human-animal hybrids, human-machine cyborgs, etc. His optimism is carried on by the transhumanism movement which proposes to overcome our present human limitations and take control of our evolutionary future with the latest innovations.

The third question relates to the role of religious input in ethics. As noted, applied ethics became an academic discipline in the department of philosophy. Nonetheless, the prehistory of bioethics demonstrates the early religious roots of bioethics and its eventual and gradual secularization. Callahan bemoans the institutionalization of a secular form of argumentation in bioethics as “some kind of ultimate moral big bang theory.” The emphasis on one narrow form of argumentation is a far cry from the multidisciplinary approach he championed in the early years of bioethics, which had “the distinct advantage of leaving the way open for the insights of religion, of cultural observation and social analysis.. . and of concepts of human dignity and purpose that had a wider scope than mere autonomy.” To his dismay, other disciplines have not raised their voices with the result that there is presently a decidedly secular hegemony in ethical thinking (Callahan 1982).

In recent years, the relationship between science and faith has become popular again. From the debates on evolution and the origin of the universe to the question of cloning and the American federal HHS mandate that obliges employers to provide insurance covering contraception and early abortion, there have been heated debates on many fronts. Since the tragic events of 9/11, a number of writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have targeted religion as the cause of existing woes and conflicts. Continually, there is a certain prejudice that religion is divisive and should be looked upon with a hermeneutics of suspicion. One such example is found in a Thomas Murray article claiming that bioethics should avoid religious input in its normative analysis (Murphy 2012). Murray’s position is consistent with the Enlightenment bias which considers religious input as detrimental to the well-being of society. Conversely, Joseph Ratzinger believes that secular rationality without any limits is not comprehensible to all humanity. He emphasizes that faith and reason need one another, to purify one another from possible excesses:

We have seen that there exist pathologies in religion that are extremely dangerous and that make it necessary to see the divine light of reason as a ‘controlling organ’. Religion must continually allow itself to be purified and structured by reason.. . There are also pathologies of reason, although mankind in general is not as conscious of this fact today. There is a hubris of reason that is no less dangerous. This is why reason, too, must be warned to keep within its proper limits, and it must learn a willingness to listen to the great religious traditions of mankind. If it cuts itself completely adrift and rejects this willingness to learn, this relatedness, reason becomes destructive. (Ratzinger and Habermas 2007, p. 76)

In this famous interchange with Jurgen Habermas, Ratzinger points out the fact that secularization which marginalizes the place of religion in society and politics in the West is in fact an anomaly compared to the rest of the world. Global ethics derived in this manner “remains an abstraction.” Instead, a healthy tension between faith and reason, avoiding the extremes of fideism and rationalism, can take on an intercultural dimension. Faith and reason can purify each other in their attempt to find the truth, helping each other realize its limitations and hubris. Accordingly, fundamentalism and irrationality are not resolved by irreligiosity but by a healthy tension between faith and reason.

The Tension Between Global Ethics And Cultural Diversity

The challenges of ethical behavior in a global village are more relevant than ever. Can an all-encompassing global ethics offer a solution to these difficult questions? Those who espouse moral relativism or skepticism will naturally reject such a claim. Others have raised the question of whether or not global ethics of universal human rights might not be neocolonialism in disguise. Another difficulty is the many models or methodologies available in applied ethics. In the case of bioethics, principlism was the first approach used in policymaking and at the bedside. This method was routinely praised as often as it was thoroughly criticized. Even though the four principles of beneficence, nonmaleficence, autonomy, and justice were considered prima facie and equal in standing, autonomy appeared to triumph over the other principles. Discontents soon brewed and in response to the insufficiency of principlism, other competing models surged on the horizon: virtue ethics, casuistry, narrative ethics, feminist care ethics, phenomenology, utilitarian ethics, pragmatic ethics, consensus ethics, contractual ethics, etc. (Tham 2008). Hence, within the discipline of applied ethics itself, there is no one clear contender to be the method of global ethics.

Three possible contenders for global ethics will be examined. One candidate to global ethics is the “overlapping consensus” of John Rawls. It can serve as the basis of common morality among different visions of the good in a society, by picking the lowest common denominator. Rawls recognizes the lack of broad agreement about what constitutes the good life in modern democratic societies. A plurality of doctrines – religious, political, or philosophical – raises the interrogative as to how society could reconcile these differences. He formulates the possibility of “overlapping consensus” in public debates based on a political conception of justice. Overlapping consensus provides a core of moral standards that all reasonable individuals in a pluralistic society with different comprehensive conceptions of the good would support since they are largely uncontroversial. Overlapping consensus is the area of agreement, shared by all reasonable participants in this social contract (Rawls 2005).

Another candidate to global ethics is the approach of natural law which sees a harmony between reason and faith. Rationality is the common basis and the starting point of ethical reasoning, but it is not the only font of knowledge since it is open to transcendental truth and revelation. This is the method espoused in the Catholic tradition. The International Theological Commission (2012) document The Search for Universal Ethics: A New Look at Natural Law is an outstanding update of this approach to common ethics. It highlights the need and awareness of a global solidarity which calls for the “search for common ethical values” amid current challenges. Most interesting is the recognition of the presence of natural reason in “the wisdom traditions and religions of the world” – Dharma and Ahimsa in Hinduism, the five ethical precepts or sila of Buddhism, the Tao or the Way in Taoism, the harmonious virtues indicated by the way of heaven (tian dao) of Confucian thought, the ethics of life in traditional African religions, and the morality of obedience in Islam. The document recognizes the far-reaching applicability of natural law in the global ethics and human rights. Confronting relativistic individualism – in which every subject decides for himself what is good and right – and cautious about democratization of ethics based on consensus, natural law proposes objective moral truths knowable by human reason. Natural reason can engage secular positions in public debate by presenting nonsectarian arguments, which are also directed toward individual and common good. Grounded on our natural capacity to reason, it can concurrently counteract the claims of cultural relativism while permitting intercultural and interreligious dialogue. However, there are also challenges posed by the contemporary culture due to incomprehension of the concept of nature (Tham 2014).

Another frequent appeal to global ethics is found in the language of human rights. After the tragic experience of the Second World War and the Nuremberg trials, many nations felt the need for a safeguard against future abuses and inhuman acts. Thus, in 1948 the United Nations signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Its preamble says: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” These rights are deemed basic to all humans and transcend all cultures and nationality. There are complaints that these declarations never explicitly define the meaning, content, and foundations of human rights. Fortunately, the development of the 1948

Declaration shows that the signing nations looked for a political consensus rather than a moral or philosophical treatise on human nature. Even though many people uphold that some moral propositions such as “slavery is always wrong” can be universally held, they are unable to agree upon the rationale behind this.

Article 12 of the UNESCO Declaration of Bioethics and Human Rights states: “The importance of cultural diversity and pluralism should be given due regard. However, such considerations are not to be invoked to infringe upon human dignity, human rights and fundamental freedoms.. ..” Certainly, the tension between universalism and particularism in ethics is an old one, but it has become more urgent in today’s global context touching a multitude of bioethical issues. Does the claim of global ethics’ universality necessarily stifle local particularism and thus suppress cultural and religious patrimonies? Does the reality of cultural diversity necessarily infer the inevitability of moral pluralism? The answers are not readily available. MacIntyre offers one solution that allows for the expression of cultural diversity and yet eschews moral pluralism. Accordingly, different moral traditions can confront each another on equal footing. In this engagement of culture and traditions, it is possible to enter the conversation with intellectual honesty and “maximal vulnerability” without hiding one’s own defects. In this painstaking, slow, and difficult process of soul-searching, exchanges and comparisons would allow the rival traditions to see their weaknesses and strengths and rationally recognize their own incoherence and the superiority of their rival, with the possibility of abandonment of their own tradition (MacIntyre 1989).


As applied ethics takes on global dimension, it is faced by many challenges as well as promises. Globalization makes us aware that humanity is made up of brothers and sisters sharing their place on earth with a common ideal toward its betterment and striving toward a common good, peace, and justice. It has also opened up the approach to ethics, not merely from the Western perspective, accommodating local and cultural variances while recognizing the place of religion in different cultures. It has also increased our awareness of the dangers posed by market fundamentalism and technological imperatives that can exert undue pressure to diminish our ethical convictions. In all, there is also a greater attention regarding the need of some kind of global governance or international law that can effectively patrol and enforce ethical practices across different borders both real and virtual.

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  18. Chadwick, R. F. (1997). Encyclopedia of applied ethics. London: Academic Press.
  19. Cohen, A. I. (2014). Contemporary debates in applied ethics (2nd ed.). Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.
  20. Frey, R. G., & Wellman, C. H. (Eds.). (2005). A companion to applied ethics (1st ed.). Malden: Wiley-Blackwell.

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