What is Practical Ethics?

Practical Ethics, sometimes called Moral Philosophy or Applied Ethics, is a branch of philosophy that has developed out of the study of Ethics, and aims to examine and define principles for moral behaviour and apply them to real world scenarios. The study of Ethics has a long tradition and has been a source of fascination for philosophers across the world and through time. Our own ethical tradition in the west can plausibly be said to have started with the discussions Socrates had in Athens with Plato and others. Socrates was very much a practical ethicist - he thought the most important question for any philosopher, indeed anyone, is how we should live. In more recent times, practical ethicists have included Judith Jarvis Thomson, who thought deeply about the ethics of killing, and Peter Singer, who has influenced the way many of us think about global poverty, and our relation to non-human animals.

Practical ethics today is concerned with what we should do in any given situation. It reflects on personal, professional, policy, and social choices and structures and holds them up to scrutiny. It may balance or prioritise different values and interests. Good practical ethics relies on an in-depth understanding of the relevant real-world facts and issues and so it is often interdisciplinary. There are many different approaches to practical ethics, and different ethical theories that could apply. For an example of the wide range of topics addressed by practical ethicists from the Uehiro Centre you can visit the Practical Ethics Channel on YouTube. 

Roger Crisp, Professor of Moral Philosophy and Uehiro Fellow, taking a cue from the great 19th century Cambridge ethicist Henry Sidgwick, says practical ethics ‘is a debate between egoism (the view that each of us has reason only to advance our own good), consequentialism (according to which we should bring about the best state of affairs), and deontology (which states that there are reasons grounded in more than one’s own well-being or the bringing about of the best state of affairs). And each of these views is practical, in so far as it tells us what our ultimate reasons for action are.’

Further reading:
What is ‘Practical Ethics’? Roger Crisp, Ethics in the News blog, published April 2018. 
Future Morality Ed. David Edmonds, OUP (ISBN: 9780198862086)
Philosophers Take on the World Ed. David Edmonds, OUP (ISBN: 9780198753728)
Ethics and the Contemporary World Ed. David Edmonds, Routledge (ISBN: 9781138092051)

You may also like to look at:
Practical Ethics in the News blog: https://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/practical-ethics-news
The Journal of Practical Ethics: https://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/journal-of-practical-ethics
YouTube Practical Ethics Channel: https://www.practicalethics.ox.ac.uk/our-youtube-channel

Why is Practical Ethics important?

Most of us have a sense of right from wrong, but our intuitions can be misleading. We don’t have to look back far in history to find commonly accepted practices that are appalling to us today—and no doubt future generations will reassess our practices in the same way. Practical ethics examines our common and individual morality for inconsistencies, failure to apply agreed principles, and new principles that may have a radical effect on our moral behaviour. It also reassesses our morality in the light of new evidence, for example about free will as we learn more about the ways in which we are influenced beyond our control.

Moreover, in the current era, we are responsible for ever more powerful technology with huge potential for benefit but also for harm. Humanity’s technological success creates new problems and challenges for our traditional institutions and norms, such as climate change and other environmental destruction, weapons of mass destruction and increasing risk that non-state actors can create them, global inequality and globalisation, antibiotic resistance and pandemic disease, genetic engineering and biomedical means of life extension, cognitive and moral enhancements, and artificial intelligence. 

The fate of our planet in the 21st century and the following centuries will be determined by the choices made by human beings, both leaders and citizens of nations. It is the values, principles and wider ethics of these people that will determine their choices. We aim to enable practical ethics to develop and more effectively guide human choice.

The ability to think critically and rationally about the world around us is increasingly important in this era of fake news, and digital image manipulation. But practical ethics should not only advance knowledge by deeper, rational ethical reflection and dialogue, it should also change people’s hearts and so better their own lives and the lives of others. Our goal is not to tell you how to do that, but to create a framework and tools for reflecting more deeply on our behaviours, norms, laws, and institutions.

How can I get involved?

The Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics would love you to get involved with our programmes, and to tell us more about how you would like to engage with us. We offer a range of events aimed at the general public from the prestigious annual Uehiro Lectures to summer classes introducing the basics of practical ethics. We also run competitions for schools and university students, and the annual Festival of Arguments, which aims to provide opportunities for engagement for the youngest to the oldest of us.    
We really like feedback and new ideas, so please do get in touch

The Centre also offers a range of postgraduate-level taught modules, which can be taken cumulatively for a master’s degree. Topics include Well-Being, Disability and Enhancement, Neuroethics, Artificial Intelligence Ethics, Data Ethics and Climate, Environment and Animals.