On the Notion ‘Practical Ethics’
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Although I am concerned to develop the idea of practical ethics into a more general theory, I will restrict my focus on the distinction between practical ethics and applied ethics. The first part of the paper summarizes some of the key critics of applied ethics, where ‘applied ethics’ refers to applying ethical theory to “real world” situations, as if theory can be developed independently of the so-called real world. For this, a review of James Rachels, Nancy Davis, Annette Baier, Thomas Nagel and Barry Hoffmaster will be used to show how applied ethics fails. The second part of the paper will argue for a re-conceptualization of ethics as an emergent practical discipline. If we accept that human brains, minds, feelings and passions emerge within and because of a particular ecological history (evolutionary process), then we need to accept that all the conditions which make morality possible (rationality being the key) also emerge in evolutionary history. Further, it can be argued that desiring to create an orderly existence together is a second necessary condition for the possibility of moral life. Without this emergent quality, ethics would not have arisen as a concern of human beings. Ethics, practical or otherwise, then, is fundamentally a social function. What legitimates an ethic, therefore, is what people actually seek in developing an orderly existence together. This does not mean, however, that all practical ethics is simply a matter of individual or cultural taste/preference. Leibniz among others has shown how certain universal values of a normative sort characterize all civilizations that have legal/normative traditions. The best we can hope for under these conditions is, however, a contingent universality. The best we can do in formulating these universals is at a very general level – (a) avoid harm, (2) give what is owed, (3) act with integrity/honesty. To know how these universals are to be interpreted in particular contexts, those contexts must be studied.