Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Applying Ethics

Many times when people face a difficult moral choice, they feel left to their own devices. Somehow they must decide if Aunt Mary should go into a nursing home or if their company should move a plant overseas just by trying to intuit the right thing to do.

In fact, the collective wisdom generated by several thousand years of deep thinking on moral issues can help us decide how we should act and who we should be. That tradition is ethics. When we draw on this deep thinking to resolve current dilemmas, we are engaging in applied ethics.

In this Issues in Ethics, the play between the philosophical tradition in ethics and the concrete problems of everyday life comes to the fore. Some articles, such as "Spice for the Good Life," begin with philosophy and proceed toward its application. This "Thinking Ethically" feature examines how the virtue of tolerance can help us navigate in our pluralistic society.

Other articles have their roots in the moral problems professionals bump up against in their everyday practice. These authors come to the formal study of ethics as a way to approach such conflicts. Healing the Wounds that Never Heal" is the record of one doctor's struggle to develop fair criteria for selecting patients to receive potentially life-saving treatment.

"An Education in Ethics" traces how schools have wrestled with teaching morality, as they have experimented with self-esteem building, values clarification, ethical decision making, and character development. In each case, the theory is put to the test of making observable differences in student behavior.

On the home front, "Truth and Consequences" tells the story of a mother's humbling experience as she tries to explain the concept of white lies to her daughter-and in the process, consults philosophers from Immanuel Kant to Sissela Bok.

The Center programs described in this issue—the Hospice Ethics Institute, Ethics Camp for Teachers, creating a set of core values with the city of Santa Clara—also engage in applied ethics. In each, the cross-pollination between ethics scholars and professionals in the field fosters a productive dialogue on the important moral problems we face.