Doing Good and Avoiding Evil

Introduction: The Foundations of the Discipline

The field loosely known as "applied ethics"--comprised of studies in medical ethics, business ethics and professional ethics generally, but extending to all normative ethics with roots in practice--came into existence only recently; it is a product of the old codes of professional ethics (or etiquette), the established discipline of philosophical ethics, and the intense concern over professional use of new technologies that surfaced in the early 1970's. Like all newcomers, especially newcomers that threaten academic turf, its raison d'etre has been challenged even as its popularity has grown. Before either challenge or growth get out of hand, it might be worthwhile to suggest some central premises and purposes for the field, to define its limits and establish its directions.

Field definitions are worth attempting for academic purposes alone, as an exercise in applied logic. But for the practitioner in the field of applied ethics--"ethicists," as we are called--the question is not entirely academic. As a matter of disciplinary progress, a usable definition or formal structure guides research, and unifies and generalizes the results of individual scholars for the benefit of the profession as a whole. Not incidentally, clarity of disciplinary definition can also be a matter of professional identity, hence recognition, hence freedom to pursue these studies in research and teaching. I recall a meeting of the Society of Business Ethics, in Chicago some years ago, where we were privileged to receive a delegation from the Social Issues in Management section of the Academy of Management, the professional society of teachers of management in business schools and MBA programs. We discovered that we had a good many interests in common, including a substantial overlap in subject matter, but we had to acknowledge that we were the "soft" end of both of our associations. Compared to the logicians and the epistemologists, even compared to our colleagues in metaethics, "business ethicists" were barely in the philosophical profession. Compared to the numbers crunchers with their computer printouts, even compared to the Organizational Behavior psychologists with their data on successful manipulation of employees, the "Social Issues'' people looked to the business schools like so many company philosophers--nice to have around, but hardly central to the enterprise. Possibly a solid theoretical foundation will make the fields easier to explain to our colleagues.

The field of applied ethics, I maintain, is generated for at least one set of good moral reasons (among several sets of nonmoral reasons); it is unified by a central quest and a set of premises distinct from those of philosophical ethics or professional tradition; and that, if it will but retain its integrity in the flood of temptations to do otherwise., it holds within itself the promise of restructuring the field of philosophy in the next generation.

Copyright © 2002, Hale Chair. All rights reserved.
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