Box 14, item 1978: What is wrong with applied ethics


Box 14, item 1978: What is wrong with applied ethics


Typescript with handwritten emendations and annotations. Paper presented at the 1993 Philosophy and applied ethics re-examined conference. [10] leaves.



The University of Queensland's Richard Sylvan Papers UQFL291, Box 14, item 1978


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p. I


Richard Sylvan

There is much that is wrong with and in applied ethics. Specifically, there are three comprehensive
counts where things are wrong with the commodity concerned, applied ethics, that is with applied
ethics so economically viewed.1 Namely on the following three counts:

extraneous, with the supply, delivery, consumption, and the like of applied ethics, AE. The
category prominently includes the delivery of applied ethics: what is done, taught and learnt,
by whom, and how qualified (e.g. whether taught by professionals, professional ethicists or
philosophers in particular). That has tended to presume that the commodity itself is more or
less in order, though the presumption lacks good pedigree, delivery of defective goods being
almost as ubiquitous as business enterprise.
The present focus is not however upon the delivery, or other features of the production and
consumption, packaging and marketing of the goods, but on features of the commodity itself, applied
ethics itself. Thus

intraneous counts, concerning the commodity itself, where a further two things are wrong:
the applied idea, and
what the application is presumed to be made to, established - or, should it be,
establishment - ethics.

Because an implicit premiss in organising the Philosophy and Applied Ethics Re-examined1
Conference seems to have been that the issues to be addressed are predominantly extraneous, and
because most of the papers actually relevant to the Conference topic appear to focus on extraneous
issues, the present exercise, by contrast, concentrates upon intraneous problems, especially the third:
radical deficiencies in what is supposed to be applied, prevailing ethics, and some extensive repairs


The applied count

To begin with, there is something decidedly3 odd, not to say radically unsatisfactory, about the very
idea of applied ethics. To bring out the oddness, the conceptual inadequacy, it helps to consider the
dictionary senses and established usage of applied. The term in the only relevant sense (the other
obsolete sense is that offolded) means: ‘put to practical use; practical as distinguished from abstract
or theoretical' (OED, similarly Concise English). Relevant examples cited are: ‘the applied sciences’
(from Babbage 1832), ‘applied logic (as distinguished from pure)’ (from Thomson 1806).4
It may appear then, that "applied ethics" amounts to pleonasm, a popular tautology (and "pure ethics"
correspondingly to an oxymoron), because ethics itself is already practical, for instance much or all
of it being concerned with practical action and its qualities (such is Maclver s assumption: moral
philosophy is practical - in a way in which other branches of philosophy are not’, p.206). In this
respect "applied ethics", even more "applied morals", is rather like "applied motoring", "applied
nursing" or "applied housekeeping". Conceptual confusion would be considerably reduced by
removing the modifier ‘applied .5 Such a charge of confusion can however be mitigated by properly



What is wrong with applied ethics

distinguishing ethics, which includes philosophy and theory of morality, from morals, thereby
revealing, perhaps, elements of some theory apt for application. No doubt something like this is the
presupposition of those who preach or profit from practical ethics (similarly practical economics, but
doubtfully practical housekeeping): that standing in contrast is a suitably established theoretical ethics
(could it perchance be utilitarianism?) which can rather uncontroversiarbe used to guide practice.
But is there such a theory, apt for application, for translation into practice?

To appreciate what is required for adequacy, consider successful applied subjects. Let us compare
"applied ethics" with^long established applied discipline, namely applied mathematics, which often
boasts a separate department in universities (a discipline I was obliged to study as an undergraduate
in order to proceed further in pure mathematics). In the first place, applied mathematics contrasts with
pure mathematics, applied logic with pure. Where, a naive outsider may ask, is pure ethics that
similarly stands in contrast with applied ethics? Could there decently be separate departments of pure
and of applied ethics?
For the most part, applied mathematics applies to practice, in some wide sense, a body of pure
mathematics that is more or less correct, at least within the assumption framework and contextual
settings where it is applied. (The qualified formulation is given for pluralistic reasons; given the
dominant paradigm, the pure mathematics that is applied is correct without further qualification,
correct period.) A body of substantially correct theory ready for application is then the first of several
pertinent features of that relational object, applied mathematics, the first of several dubiously
matchable by "applied ethics". The proviso ‘for the most part’ (introducing the paragraph) signals
another discrepancy. There is a, presumably derivative, part of applied mathematics that investigates,
in essentially the manner of pure mathematics, theories, algebras, spaces and similar, selected through
postulates, principles or equational sets drawn from standard applied mathematics (thus e.g. Newtonian
theories where classical force laws are satisfied, Hilbert and phase spaces, and so on).6 Such
derivative applied mathematics need not compromise at all normal methodological requirements (such
as they are) of pure mathematics, for rigour, exactness, and similar.

Ordinary applied mathematics, in its quest, even haste, for practical results, does compromise, or
violate, pure mathematical methodology. For example, shortcuts are taken, simplifications made,
information shed, figures rounded, approximations adopted, and so. Science veers towards art. From
a pure perspective, dreadful things are often done to data or mathematical transformations of data.
Skilled practitioners tend to appreciate what they can get away with in this sort of regard. Again,
none of this, neither the body of information nor the kinds of skills, is really matched in ethics, in
putting ethical theory to practical work.

Next, the mathematics that is applied, a body of pure mathematics, is not thoroughly contested. Ethics
however is. There is nothing in ethics like arithmetic or elementary mechanics; the nearest thing
ethics can offer is some controversial development along axiomatic geometric lines. Mathematics has
its critics, both inside (e.g. intuitionists) and out (e.g., cultural relativists), but none (hard core sceptics
excepted) suggest changing all of it or tampering with most of what is applied. By contrast, in ethics,
there continues to be an array of competing theories, none of which has managed to win broad
allegiance. What pure theory is there to apply, to do dreadful things to? It might be said in response:
whichever of them is adopted!
Even that, a hollow compromise will not stand up for long. For deeper environmental ethics challenge
a broad range of pure theory that is alleged to be applied! What challenges a whole subject, that
would change it, can hardly be an application of it. The rise of such environmental ethics is one
reason why the modifier applied is a misnomer. For deeper environmental ethics is not any sort of


Richard Sylvan


application of ethics; it instead challenges prevailing ethics. Nor is it, like stock "applied ethics", an
adaptation of ethics within an environmental context.
The label applied is substantially, if not entirely, a misnomer. Adjectives in modifier or attributive
roles, in the combination adjective-noun phrase, often enough do not signify application. The
assumption that all modification is application invokes a dubious, presumably false, theory of
adjectival attribution. Consider a few examples involving a relevant adjective, ‘medical’.
Combinations such as ‘medical student’, ‘medical book’, ‘medical trial’ do not signify applications.
A medical s is not normally an application of s to medical matters (of books or students in this
fashion); normally it is a type (an m type) of s.7 There are occasional exceptions, in which case
compounds are liable to be recorded in dictionaries, as with medical jurisprudence which is not a type
of jurisprudence, but ‘the legal knowledge required of a doctor’. There is good reason to think that
ethics induces no exception, that medical ethics, and similarly business ethics, follow the normal
pattern. Thus business ethics is a type of ethics, namely ethics within a specifically business setting,
and accordingly adapted thereto. Observe that such a preliminary account incorporates automatically
(what gives the applied presumption some problemsj^sce-^ppendix T) allowance for variations in
standards, that business corporations for example should not be expected to measure up to standards
set up for ordinary persons (any more than they should iw»t be expected to pay the same levels of

Given the manifold inadequacies of the label applied, amendment of terminology appears warranted.
Amendment, not abandonment. After all, what ‘applied ethics’ is supposed to comprehend, such as
medical ethics, business ethics, even environmental ethics, are not themselves in court, but presently
taken as viable fields. A superior label is field, for field-defined or field-restricted; another is type,
for type-delimited, another domain. Where others speak of "applied ethics", let us discourse about
field ethics. Investment ethics, for instance, is a field ethic, with field investment. An "institute for
applied ethics concentrating upon applications to business" is an institute for field ethics with main
field business. The "applied ethics" movement becomes effectively a field ethics movement.
Observe that professional ethics are field ethics, with the field in each case the profession concerned.
But professional ethics in sum form a quite proper subclass of field ethics; bio-ethics and ecological
ethics are plainly not professional ethics. Less obviously, more importantly, field ethics differs from
practical ethics (as usually poorly defined), with which "applied ethics" is regularly conflated. For,
on the one side, ordinary living and daily life, central to practical ethics, are not fields. On the other,
field ethics are not confined to practice, but may involve considerable theoretical material, particularly
from the fields concerned.


The ethics count

Not only is the applied operation in trouble, ethics also is in deep trouble. Indeed, in a way, the main
problem lies here. There is not a fit, properly satisfactory subject, for some significant applications.
For some "applications" have to change and develop the subject! But, the problems do not vanish
when the amendment to field ethics is made. Satisfactory fieldwork, satisfactory outcomes in field
ethics are seriously hampered by long-standing troubles in ethics. For as field ethics involve ethics,
whatever is wrong with ethics affects field ethics.
To glimpse these troubles, consider recent ambivalence towards ethics. Is ethics even a good good.
There is a most curious contrast in later 20th century attitudes towards ethics. On the one side, there
are great expectations, for instance for what ethics can contribute, to social and professional lite


What is -wrong with applied ethics

especially; but on the other there is serious disquiet, occasionally verging upon despair and into
nihilism, as to ethics, and its role. Virtually the whole spectrum from great expectations through no
expectations to substantial forebodings is selectively represented. A few examples:

Great expectations for ethics, beginning to re-emerge these days, tend to come from outside
professional philosophical ranks, from scientists and social scientists.8 Ethics is seen as taking
up again its grand legitimization and critical roles. It can indeed be used in this respect as
regards to a wide variety of practices, such as in business, economics, government, scientific
experimentation, and so on. Of course it cannot always succeed, because one ethics can be
pitted against another, and each and all challenged.
( p-— These expectations, a bit surprising after the drab days of analytic moral philosophy (where
philosophy could express no interesting moral opinions), contrast sharply with
' /•—•
heavy disquiet or worse as to present ethics. A recent example is afforded by
MacIntyre’s disturbing introduction to After Virtue', that ‘we have - very largely, if not
entirely - lost our comprehension, both theoretical and practical of morality’ (p.2).
Some, like MacIntyre, promise a happy, even a great, outcome, should we return to
proper paths, to a virtue ethic in the tradition of Aristotle. Others are not so sanguine;
there is

no hope for ethics. There are divergent routes here. Either it can play no relevant
role any longer, or it can play only a negative or damaging role (thus e.g. Hinckfuss).
Though both these routes lead badly astray, present (merely classificatory) objectives
do not include showing as much.9
There is, furthermore, reason for at least serious disquiet. Should we care to look closely at, and try
to assess, the total ethical heritage, then what we find is not very promising.

What is on offer is mostly extremely sketchy and very piecemeal, much of it a hotchpotch.
There are extraordinarily few well-worked out and detailed ethics. Spinoza’s Ethics is perhaps
one rare example.

Most of what is on offer is seriously biassed or prejudiced, indeed from a deep environmental
perspective even unethical. Prime examples include

religious bias, heavily constraining or distorting creatures’ lives, and putting them to
work to serve imagined religious objectives.

spiritualistic distortion. Even where an explicit religion does not feature, as in
Platonism and neo-Platonism and in edified Buddhism, the whole of life may be
distorted through promise of an after-life or successor life or extra-material life, where
furthermore some system of rewards or punishments may be dished out for previous
performance. No doubt such biasses help in conferring upon ethics authority,
unwarranted authority (fulfil duties or be dammed, etc.).

humanistic distortion, summed up as human chauvinism. It is upon this prejudice,
critical for environmental ethics, that we concentrate.

A main matter that is wrong with ethics, and ipso facto its practice and its belated appearance in many
professional settings (when it$ should have been in evidence long ago), is its anthropic bias, its
considerable prejudice in favour of (present) humans.10 The matter is highly material in several fields,
most obviously in environmental ethics, but also in medical ethics, bio-ethics, agricultural and
vefinarian ethics, and similar.

It is widely assumed, however, that ethics is inevitably human biassed, that it has to be
anthropocentric. That is not so. Ethics can be repaired. So much is the substance of ethics without
humans. Both morals and ethics can be characterised, in substantially reportive ways, so as to free

Richard Sylvan


them of anthropocentrism and the like.11 Furthermore, the whole superstructural theory can be
developed in a fashion that makes no essential reference to humans or any other biological species.12

These repairs represent, however, only the beginning of adjustment and change - of many changes if
a satisfactory deep-green ethics is to be reached. When repairing goods, there often comes a stage,
increasingly rapidly encountered those days, when it becomes a more attractive proposition to acquire
new items than to persist with repairs. So it may be, it is now suggested, with ethics. So increasingly
it has been suggested this century, with demands for new ethics, new moral philosophies. Those
making such proposals include Schweitzer, Maclver, Leopold, along with many others.13
Suppose we should arrive, through addressing different or new fields, at what amounts to a new ethics,
as many think we do (thus Maclver, p. 179 and many ecocentric philosophers). Then what emerges
is no "application" of a standard ethics, but something different, not an applied standard ethics at all.
Now something similar may appear to occur for normal applied subjects. A newly encountered group
of physical phenomena, for instance, leads not to the elevation of some dusty mathematical theory
buried in archives, what is mostly the case, but to elaboration of a new mathematical theory.
Normally in this event, the main body of pure mathematics would remain untouched; a new annex or
suburb would simply be added to it.14 With ethics, however, things are different. There are grounds
for contending that the green (environmental) revolution has shaken ethics to its (dubious) foundations
and core, and, as coupled with associated non domination themes (as emphasised especially in
ecofeminism), has left comparatively little untouched. The standard city of ethics is not left alone,
Much the same sort of points can be presented in the form of a dilemma, for standard ethics and a
proposed field, such as environmental issues. Either standard ethics will not cover the field (or cannot
be extended to do so because it (or its extension) does not apply, or through being forced upon the
field it twists or damages the data, for instance leaves an indelible anthropic bias. A homely carpentry
analogy may help: there is some cabinet work where delicate hammering would be appropriate, but
the only tool we have is a sledgehammer.15 Likewise, a standard chauvinistic ethic is the wrong tool
to try to use or extend for deeper environmental work.
Unremarkably, the three options emerging, namely (inappropriate) application, extension or adjustment,
and fashioning of something new or different, correspond more or less to the now familiar threefold
division of environmental positions, into shallow, intermediate and deep.16 As before, deep ethics are
not "applications", but near ethics.


Extraneous issues

Among the many extraneous issues concerning field ethics, those that have come to exercise
philosophers do look distinctly partisan:17 namely, the role of philosophers, especially professionals;
the place of philosophy in field ethics; and the poor practice of these ethics, particularly from a
professional philosophical perspective. Here the main thesis to be advanced inclines towards these
professionally unsympathetic lines: insofar as these matters, philosophical extranalities, are of negatixe
impact for philosophy, philosophers have largely themselves to blame, for they are largely of their own
making (or, to sheet some of the responsibility more accurately, of the controlling power elite of the
profession}.18 Let us investigate some of the extraneous issues seriatim.

Because a field ethics concerns the field as well as (relevant parts of) ethics, its investigation, practice
and teaching, requires an intersection of capacities and skills, drawn from both ethics and the field.


What is wrong with applied ethics

This simple observation enables an immediate response to such questions as: if not philosophers, then
who is to investigate, and teach, field ethics? That response is: those from one area or the other who
have acquired requisite knowledge and technique in the other, or less promising, those from outside
(but with some appropriate informational background) who acquire these prerequisites in both. In
medical ethics, where there is perhaps a larger pool of information concerning the field than there is
regarding ethics, a moral philosopher untrained in medicine may have more to learn than a medical
doctor unversed in ethics and lacking philosophical skills. (Really, neither should be let loose on
students before they are duly prepared in the intersection.) It is evident, then, that philosophy enjoys
no natural monopoly in field ethics. The place of philosophy is less exalted, and certainly is not
dominant - still less given recent proposed (but hardly well justified) decoupling of ethics from
There are corollaries regarding the roles of philosophers on committees relating to field ethics, in
decision-making and so on on these topics. Philosophers do not have an automatic place. Unless they
are well-informed as to ethics (many philosophers are not) and as to the field, they do not deserve a
place at all (of course they still may gain a role for want of any better placed). Ousting of
under-informed or unenergetic philosophers is not always such a bad thing.

While the informational situation is now significantly better than in 1945 when Maclver was agonising
over the predicament of moral philosophy, it is still true that ‘academic moral philosophers are not
using ‘every opportunity to make themselves acquainted, so far as possible, with the real difficulties
of those [not merely present humans] who need the help of moral philosophy most... I ... confess that
I myself lack the factual knowledge which would be required to do this work well. I suspect that
many ethic philosophers are in the same position ...20 One of the reasons why philosophy has lost
prestige in recent years is that it has not kept pace’ (pp.204-205). One example Maclver incisively
develops concerns ‘discoveries associated with the name of Freud. The behaviour of philosophers in
this connection is particularly hard to excuse. At first they flatly denied the reality of the alleged
discoveries - maintained that the notion of "unconscious mind" was self contradictory, and so forth.
But all this has now been given up. ... Philosophers no longer dispute ... details of the Freudian
system - but disregard them. If they mention them at all, they talk as if they somehow concerned
none but medical men - as if the same propositions could be sene in medicine and false outside it.
In the light of the recognition of unconscious motives the whole traditional theory of moral
responsibility needs overhauling, but no moral philosopher undertakes this’ (p.205). The reason why
the corresponding philosophical debate (about whether unconscious desires are sometimes evil, whether
relevant moral predicates are restricted to conscious motives, and so forth) had not "by 1945, after 40
years of exposure to Freudian issues, Maclver attributed to the mass of psychological literature which
philosophers have not read and would have to read, reading that is obligatory if moral philosophy is
to be made ‘the subject which it ought to be’ (p.206).
There has been disappointment among some professional philosophers, those with expansionist .
instin^tions, that field ethics has not turned out to be quite the bonanza anticipated, that the expected /
boom in new opportunities and positions began to dissipate as field practitioners started to supply their
own "field ethicists".21 None of this should have been surprising, for broad inductive reasons.
Philosophy had long shed subjects and fields of overlap; and those professionals who have hung in
have become something different (economists instead of social philosophers, computer scientists
instead of logicians22) Nor have philosophers, especially those who have not changed or reskilled, all
the virtues assumed by professionals; e.g. they have little or no theory, they are too fuzzy, they are
indecisive, or vacillate, etc. (remember the sophists; these provide some of the reasons too why
philosophers are often not welcome on committees).


Richard Sylvan


Some outside inputs into ethics, such as field studies or field workers may supply, would not go
astray. For there is theoretically little that is new or interesting on the standard ethics scene. Much
of it is 19th century revival, refinement of utilitarianism or Kantianism, and ornate additions (with
bells and whistles). One of the few "new" offerings is the revival of Aristotelian virtue ethics!
Nothing, however, stops outside inputs. Anyone is free to attempt philosophy. Professionals have no
exclusive rights over philosophy, still less over ethics; nor should they. There is a case for widening
practice of philosophy, and encouraging paraphilosophers. For critical problems emerging are not so
much those of philosophy itself (which could be very different from the way it is practised and
professionalised), but of philosophy as professionalised and as conducted. The immediate future does
not bode well for change in the latter, for several reasons; the prevailing materialistic technological
ethos (which dev^lyes pure intellectual activity), the consequent marginalisation of subjects like
philosophy and continuing narrowness of dominant philosophical activity.
Nor, moreover, have philosophers proceeded well, particularly in the Antipodes, in training and
"^pp^ing students who can readily adapt to become field ethicists. Philosophy has never been strongly
employment-market driven (but has tended to rely on a version of Say’s flawed law); indeed there are
features intrinsic to philosophy, such as its contemplative character, that renders it antithetical to the
veiy idea of responding to markets at all. There are other regional features that compound this sort
of problem: the conservative, and class, bias of philosophy (inherited from similar British
arrangements), which has meant that Australian philosophy has not been innovative in adapting its
topics and emphases to changing circumstances;23 and the heavy concentration, as in British
empiricism (still dominant in Australia), upon epistemology, with ethics and what went into moral
sciences and social philosophy still regarded as second class arenas and not what philosophy was really
about or what first class chaps would mainly concern themselves. These are major reasons why
philosophy lost out, and Reserved to lose.
It is for those latter sorts of reasons in particular, that environmental ethics and environmental
philosophy have been unable to gain more than occasional marginal status in philosophy curricula in
Australian universities. Fuller accounts of the predicament of environmental philosophy have been
given elsewhere.24 Its predicament tends to illustrate a general problem for field ethics, with bioethics
(with its own institutional settings) the only partial exception.
Now that field ethics is being lost to the fields in many cases, there are complaints about the calibre
of what is done and taught, the quality of the investigators and teachers, and so on. No doubt much
of this criticism is warranted; some similar criticism of ethics within philosophy would also be
warranted. Among the justified criticisms are these:

that field ethics as done from the field is divorced from ethical theory (from what theory has
so far been developed). Too much comprises mere case studies, as with business MBAs.

that the field practitioners are not trained in ethical theory, and are often ill-informed ethically
and lacking in analytic and critical skills crucial for satisfactory philosophy.

A different complaint, of importance, concerns the poor ethical practice, even the unethical practice
in some of the fields, despite the development of field ethics. Such a problem is particularly
conspicuous in the field of business.25 But this has been a long-standing problem for ethics itself;
how to get people to behave as they ought? Teaching agents ethics can certainly enable, and
encourage, them to be moral: but it cannot make them moral. Nor would it be proper for it to do so.
The field ethics movement, successor to the late AE movement, is both important and timely,
especially as regards getting ethics and axiology back into many fields that hard tried, erroneously it
now appears, to eliminate them. The movement will have to be carefully orchestrated however to





What is wrong with applied ethics

avoid capture by the very power structures and disciplinary paradigms that it should transform. These
are certainly grounds for some cynicism about such movements: that they are easy targets for
co-option, that they can bemused to cover up abuses by power structures, and to authorise dubious
procedures, or worse,^with a rubber stamp of ethical approval from appropriate ethics’ committees and
inquiries. Such grounds for cynicism can be reasoned, however, and new hope inaugurated, given
more adequate formulation and development of relevant field ethics (exercises including considerable
theoretical work), along with independent and impartial administration of emerging codes and decision
methods, and with appropriate openness of the formerly abused procedures they are intended to
regulate fairly.


Callicott, J.B., In Defense of the Land Ethic, State University of New York Press, Albany, 1989.

Edwards, J.C., Ethics without Philosophy, University Presses of Florida, Tampa, 1982.
Engel, J.R., Ethics of Environment and Development, Belhaven Press, 1990.
Hinkfuss, I., The Moral Society: Its Structure and Effects, Discussion papers in environmental
philosophy, no. 16, The Australian National University, 1987.
Leopold, A., A Sand Country Almanac, Oxford University Press, New York, 1949.

MacIntyre, A., After Virtue, University of Notre Dame Press, Notre Dame, 1981.
Maclver, A.M., "Towards anew moral philosophy", Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, no. 46
(1945-6): 179-206.

Sylvan, R. "Prospects for regional philosophy in Australasia", Australasian Journal of Philosophy,
Sylvan, R., From Wisdom to Wowserism, typescript, 1991.

Sylvan, R., Deep-Green Ethics, typescript, 1993.
Sylvan, R. and Bennett, H., The Greening of Ethics, White Horse Press, Cambridge, 199^.
Wilson, E.O. (ed.), Biodiversity, National Academy Press, Washington, DC, 1988.


1. For such a treatment of items like ethics, as economic goods, see further Greening of Ethics.

2. The Conference, organised by the University of Newcastle in August 1993, where this paper was
3. Ethical theory has tended to borrow classifications from elsewhere, from apparently more successful
enterprises. Thus, for instance, the (normative) ethics/meta-ethics distinction lifted, none too adeptly,


Richard Sylvan

from logical theory. Thus too the present pure/applied distinction, also purloined. By no means
everything that intelligent agents dream up and promote is entirely in order. Rather uncontroversially
colourless green ideas is one such combination, more controversially human nature, deep ecology and
post-modernism are such. Applied ethics appears to belong to this not-in-satisfactory-order or
out-of-order bunch.
4. ‘Applied. Practical, put to practical use. Applied science. Science of which the abstract principles
are put to practical use in the arts’ (Concise English').
‘2. Put to practical use; practical as distinguished from abstract or theoretical’ (OED). Though
we persevere with these dictionary explications, there are grounds for complaint; there are neglected
nuances. For example, the practical/theoretical contrast (just one of the muddy contrasts with
practical) differs from an applied/pure contrast. A theory can in principle be applied (a plying to, i.e.,
a mapping) in a non practical, or impractical, field. Different again is that concrete/abstract contrast.
And what exactly is practical?
5. The advance notices for the Conference (which look pretty confused, even mumbo jumbo), well
they add insult to injury by invoking talk of a theory of applied ethics. There is said to ‘appear to be
a significant gap between the theory of applied ethics and its practice’; this is said to be why
‘disillusionment has set in’ now. While there may be a theory of applications, talk of a "theory of
applied ethics" heaps confusion (‘theory of) upon confusion (‘applied ethics’). As for gaps (really,
between the theory and practice of ethics), there are two, as we shall see; there is an ambiguity in
‘gap’As for mumbo jumbo, try the following sentence:
‘The teaching and practice of applied ethics has grown rapidly and in an unruly manner across many
disciplines, with many practitioners now not possessing any depth of philosophical knowledge and
expertise and, because of difficulties experienced with the theory and practice given, in some cases
deciding that same is relevant.’ Its sequel is easily unscrambled:
‘We wish to hold a conference to explore this issue for the Australian community and its practical
6. Thus, too, there is a two way process. Application feeds back to inform theory and to enrich the
pure subject. With ethics, as we shall see, something similar or more dramatic happens. Field
developments not merely may inform and enlarge the ethical theory; some may alter it irrevocably.
7. Of course not all adjectives function in this way. butTor. instance without types of responded s.
Thus, e.g. possible, probable, alleged, putative,etc.

8. Examples include Wilson in Biodiversity, Engel.
9. We try to

show as much elsewherey-Routley and HTIF.

10. This is by no means all that is wrong with standard ethics. Another, important for field ethics,
is the lack of an adequate theory of ethical dilemmas, confronting which is a main engine of progress
in ethics.

11. See Greening of Ethics', also ‘Ethics without humans. Philosophy without humans', Observe that
^repairs are not unique.
<y :
12. As to how this is accomplished, see the annular theory, reiterated in Greening'.


What is wrong with applied ethics

13. Maclver suggests ‘that all the old codes are out of date and a satisfactory new one has still to be
discovered. A lost moral code cannot be recovered, and a new one obtained, simply for the asking’
14. Nothing, no paradigm shift as revolution has effected the whole citadel of mathematics; none is
likely to (even dialethism, more threatening than much else, because central areas can be protected by /w roj
due qualification).

15. A different example: an isolated person has an extensive weeding tool in a weed invaded forest,
with the only techniques availabe a broad-acre chemical defoliant.
16. For a classification of environmental positions along the lines of the three options, see Callicott
Introduction, where attention is also drawn to shortcomings in the applied idea.
17. On extraneous issues in ethics, including especially field ethics such as environmental ethics, see
for a detailed treatment Greening of Ethics, part II/.
18. Among other things, philosophers did not act, did not respond to incipient demand, fast enough
in organising appropriate structures for delivery of field ethics.


19. See esp. Edwards, plhieswilhourPhilosophy^

20. Maclver continues ‘and for this reason this conception of the task of moral philosophy is unlikely
to be popular in the profession.’ There are two troubles with the tack: firstly, field ethics do not should not - exhaust ethics; secondly, field ethics are enjoying some popularity.
21. The proposition, from the circulated Conference announcement, that field ethics might rejuvenate
a flagging philosophy, that they had ‘given philosophy a rebirth’ can hardly be taken seriously (for
all that they may have given jaded philosophy departments a fillip). Concrete working examples and
dilemmas might stimulate ethical investigation, but would only exceptionally impact an ethical theory,
and moreover ethics itself has but rarely been a source of growth and development in philosophy.
Field practitioners, who often have their own expansionist and imperialist ambitions and
programs, are unlikely to let a service subject be supplied from elsewhere unless they cannot yet
manage the subject themselves and then only so long as times are good so they do not need the jobs
and can avoid chores involved.
22. Interestingly there has been no similar fuss from professionals regarding the attrition of logicians
within philosophy (for which some of them have responsibility), or the on-going loss of logic to
computing science and mathematics.
23. It is for this sort of reason that philosophy in Australia, unlike that in parts of USA^,missed the
field van.
24. See Sylvan 1986, The Greening of Ethics, From Wisdom to Wowserism.

25. A problem in fact exacerbated under prominent ethical positions, e.g., crude utilitarian fostering
"greed is good" notions, most social Darwinism encouraging cut-throat competition.




Richard Routley, “Box 14, item 1978: What is wrong with applied ethics,” Antipodean Antinuclearism, accessed June 15, 2024,

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