10.1 Ethics in the real world

Debates about justice and rights are often, unavoidably, debates about the purpose of social institutions, the goods they allocate, and the virtues they honor and reward. Despite our best attempts to make law neutral on such questions, it may not be possible to say what’s just without arguing about the nature of the good life.

—Michael Sandel, Justice

As we proceed we should keep in mind what is at stake here. We are not simply looking for some technical means of solving problems once and for all. Instead the point of applied ethics is to develop our capacity to think about what it is that we consider a good life in the first place.

In the succeeding chapters we will look at a number of topics in applied ethics in the light of the various theories we have been examining. It turns out that under the surface of many debates in applied ethics there are competing ethical theories and commitments. What makes these debates debates about ethics, and not policy debates about the pros and cons of some topic or other, is that both sides appeal to something that seems like it has a legitimate moral claim to our allegiance. In many cases the major arguments can be roughly divided between those that follow utilitarian ideas and those that appeal to Kantian ethical ideals and principles, but that is not always the case and the particularities of each topic often present obstacles to this simple dichotomy. We’ll see how the different debates we have already examined on a purely theoretical basis play out for each topic.

The particular topics we will examine are euthanasia; individual liberty and the legality of recreational drugs; crime and punishment; ethics and non-human animals; and environmental ethics. Each of these are huge topics and we will only be able to give a bare outline of some of the major ethical issues and argumentative strategies employed by backers of different sides of each issue. The point of this part of the book is to provide a brief overview of some of the major lines of argument in each case. It is my hope that this will be an inspiration for further exploration of these topics.