The expression ‘applied ethics’ sounds like a contradiction in terms as if ethics consisted exclusively of the theoretical study or passive contemplation of pure ideas, such as patience or justice. Ethics means nothing if its principles are not directly and consistently “applied” to situations requiring a moral response informed by a familiarity with ethical judgements and a degree of personal experience. In this light, ethics is not so much about what we do but about the kind of moral agent we are (Virtue ethics), intend to be (Kantian ethics) or purport to be (Utilitarian ethics).
Applied ethics is the result of two combined historical factors, ultimately leading to a new conception and re-definition of what constitutes a practical moral code. The first historical factor is the slow decline of traditional moral values and gradual loss of faith, spreading across nineteenth-century Europe at a time when science is becoming the new religion of mankind. Darwin unwittingly unleashed a new scientific spirit, not only prepared to defy the last remnants of religious orthodoxy but to deny altogether the very foundations of Judeo-Christian morality. Ethics was suddenly faced with its own moral dilemma: what was the place or point of ethical principles in a world seemingly ruled by blind biological laws? If ethics was no longer to serve its original purpose as guide to ‘the good life’, perhaps its new role could be to act as a bulwark against the unstoppable progress of science and its meddling with the very ‘stuff’ of life, namely conception and death.
Today, science has invaded every aspect of human life and although it has not quite ‘killed’ God, it has certainly minimised his moral influence over individuals and seized its chance to shape the very future of the human species. Applied ethics might not be able nor willing to slow down medical nor technological progress but its mission and duty is to defend and protect the existence of inalienable principles of respect towards any form of life, be it human, animal or vegetable.