How Applied Ethics Has Changed


Some thoughts on how “applied ethics” has changed over the years:

[W]hen I was in grad school, ‘applied ethics’ was an embarrassment. It basically involved feeding concocted, simplistic, depoliticized case studies mechanistically through static, caricatured versions of ethical theories. It was also completely ghettoized, and no one else in philosophy paid the slightest attention to anything ‘applied.’

Now, philosophers of science, philosophers of language, social epistemologists, political philosophers, and ethicists work together and separately to take on finely nuanced, tension-ridden, tangible problems. So much of contemporary philosophy focuses our attention on a world that is inescapably structured by power, inequality, economic and material pressures, manufactured ignorance, risk, vulnerability, human difference, and finitude.

That’s Rebecca Kukla, professor of philosophy at Georgetown University and Senior Research Fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, in an interview at the Blog of the APA.

Emmanuelle Moureaux, “100 colors no.11
‘bunshi'”

 

guest
8 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
DocFEmeritus
DocFEmeritus
4 years ago

Don’t know when she was in grad school, but when I was at Loyola U of Chicago in the late 70-80’s, it was a much respected discipline, especially for medical ethics and business ethics. The professors I had there included a number of first rate applied ethicists, including Tom Donaldson, Dave Ozar, Dave Schweikert, Tom Wren, Al Gini and others. I agree that in the late 60’s and early 70’s applied ethics was not a strong field, but I never remember it being a disparaged and disrespected field to the degree the degree mentioned above. The characterization of how applied ethics was taught just does not coincide with my experience both as an undergrad in the 60’s and as a grad student.

Perhaps I was not at a school where philosophers engaged in status based on fields. But my background at three schools, Bradley University, Roosevelt University and Loyola was such that applied ethics was an accepted and respected field.Report

Steve
Steve
4 years ago

I have nothing but respect for Rebecca Kukla, and she is probably right about how people viewed applied ethics, but I am very suspicious of the implication that they were ever right to view it that way. Recently, I had to reread the first few editions of Beauchamp and Childress, and was genuinely impressed by how subtle they were. I don’t doubt that there was also a lot of bad, highly derivative or formulaic, work published in applied ethics at the same time, but I suspect that the same was true of, say, epistemology or logic.

I also suspect that not much has changed, in the sense that there is a lot of highly derivative work in, say, both applied ethics and in metaphysics today. What may have changed is that ‘serious’ departments want both, say, someone who works on both the latest iteration of metaphysics and someone who works in the latest iteration of ‘applied ethics’. This is a genuine advance. I work in applied ethics myself! I just worry about a Whiggish account of this change as reflecting a more fundamental shift in applied ethics. Rote applications of the concept of epistemic injustice are just as problematic as rote applications of the four principles, even if they are now as likely to get you a job as rote contributions to debates over grounding. Again, I don’t mean this as an attack on Kukla, whose work is amazing, nor as an attack on theorists of epistemic injustice (or grounding!) – but I do worry that a narrative of progress hides as much as it illuminates.Report

DocFEmeritus
DocFEmeritus
Reply to  Steve
4 years ago

I like the reference to Beauchamp and Childress, whose texts I used for years! I also would make a distinction between original papers and texts authored for teaching. I think the texts got better and better over the 35 years of my teaching applied ethics, and why? Well, the original papers and topics have gotten better and better. I am reminded of a former colleague who was originally a math major at U of Texas and told me of the rivalry between applied and theoretical mathematicians, vicious. I think maybe the same applies to philosophy between the theoretical meta-physicians, etc, and those in applied fields (be they ethics, phil of law, etc…). There is room for all of this and internecine squabbling is unnecessary. Report

Jessica
Jessica
4 years ago

This “not your mother’s applied ethics” attitude doesn’t pass the smell test at all. Some of the most important, foundational, and philosophically sophisticated texts were published during the 1970s and 80s in bioethics, environmental ethics, and feminist ethics (on practical topics of feminist concern like pornography and sexual harassment). Not just Beauchamp and Childress, but Ed Pellegrino, Tom Regan (RIP), Peter Singer, Andrea Dworkin, Catherine MacKinnon, and on and on.

Report

DocFEmeritus
DocFEmeritus
Reply to  Jessica
4 years ago

I cut my teeth in teaching in the early 70’s and while there were not a host of texts and works to draw on in medical ethics, etc, the ones available were first rate (Gorovitz, et al, on Medical Ethics was especially fine; then there were packets available from the Hastings Center featuring very fine authors such as Franz Ingelfinger, Leon Kass, and others). the names Jessica mentions are certainly first rate, too.Report

Daniel Muñoz
Daniel Muñoz
4 years ago

I wonder if some commenters are misunderstanding Kukla. She was a graduate student in the early and mid 90s, not the 60s, 70s, or 80s.

Does anyone have information on what applied ethics was like specifically in the 90s? Report

DocFEmeritus
DocFEmeritus
4 years ago

If anything it was more respected in my experience, for what it’s worth. Business ethics was booming, same for medical ethics, engineering ethics was floated and became a field, computer ethics later but talked about. But maybe I am wrong since I was teaching at a non-PhD school, but was active in applied ethics conferences every year. I saw no such disparaging.Report

Alan White
Alan White
4 years ago

IMHO Robert Veatch’s career and writings literally transcribe the evolution of bioethics from more abstract theoretical overtones of the 70s and 80s to a pragmatic recognition of the wide spectrum of values at work in the current day-to-day health-care setting as reflected in both moral and legal contexts. His Basics of Bioethics is a tour de force of the history of the evolution of bioethics, though I would add it doesn’t *quite* give the proper place to lawsuits (in the US) in advancing the role of patient’s rights as powerful economic interests in framing current bioethical dialogue.Report