Applied ethics, also called practical ethics, is the application of ethics to real-world problems. Practical ethics attempts to answer the question of how people should act in specific situations. For example, is it ethical for a business owner to bluff during negotiations with another company? Or, is it morally permissible for a doctor to engage in mercy killing when a terminal cancer patient begs to be put out of her misery?
Medical ethics, business ethics, engineering ethics, and the like are all branches of applied ethics. Applied ethics is more specific than normative ethics, which is a branch of philosophy that develops moral theories – such as the ethics of care or deontology – about how people should behave. Practical ethics is also different from metaethics, a branch of philosophy that asks questions about the nature of ethics such as, “what is morality?”
Some philosophers argue that real-world ethics should start with moral theory. But finding agreement on which moral theory to apply can be difficult. With a practical approach to ethics, people don’t need to agree on a moral theory. Instead, they can agree to solutions to ethical dilemmas by reviewing the facts and related harms of a specific situation. This is one of the key strengths of applied ethics.