Applied Philosophy

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Applied philosophy is marked out from philosophy in general by its focus on matters of practical concern. It is often identified with applied ethics, but although this forms a large part of the area of applied philosophy, the broader term includes discussion of philosophical problems, some metaphysical, some epistemological, in fields such as law, education or art, that are not strictly or uniquely ethical. Applied ethics also includes the area of professional ethics; it examines the ethical dilemmas and challenges met with by workers in health-care, business and other areas where specific ethical issues such as confidentiality and truth-telling may arise.

The Proper Preoccupations of Philosophy

Philosophy is often regarded as the most abstract of studies, so the term 'applied philosophy' needs some explanation. It represents the claim that it is possible to build bridges between theory and practice and, in particular, that philosophy is not only an internal movement in philosophy but that it can and should play a role in public debate. This should not be seen, though, as a bid to claim expertise on the part of philosophers but rather as a reassertion of the traditional conception of the philosopher, not as an expert, but as an honest and open seeker after truth. This search involves accepting the possibility of rational argument about normative directions. It does not mean, though, maintaining a posture of uninvolved neutrality As philosophy, indeed, it involves a prior commitment to the values of rationality, impartiality and equality of respect for individuals, and these provide the foundation for the moral values and range of rights that are fundamental to applied ethics. Applied philosophy, then, is part of a whole view of the human condition and takes a broad view of ethical decision-making. It can therefore accept as part of its task the identification and discussion of values capable of securing widespread acceptance in the contemporary world. For philosophy has traditionally been concerned, not only with abstract reflection but also with questions about how we should live and how we should conduct our social life and political affairs.

Today's applied philosophy, then, marks a return to what have always been proper preoccupations of philosophers. Some of these preoccupations are old and could be said to have a perennial interest - intimate relationships and family life, for example, or global issues of peace and war. Others are the product of new technologies, revolutions in communication, new weapons of indiscriminate destruction, and an unprecedented increase in the impact of humans on their environment and support systems. Applied philosophy and especially applied ethics yields scope and space for discussion of these issues of public policy. To all these debates, it can bring clarity, openness, critical analysis, and respect for careful evaluation of arguments.At the same time, it represents a shift from the view that philosophy can only analyse and clarify problems but is not able to take on the task of seeking answers to them.

Applied philosophy differs in style and approach from some mainstream philosophy in other ways, too. It gives greater attention to context and to the detailed texture of complex situations and it is also more holistic in approach - that is to say, it is much more ready to include the insights of psychology, sociology and other relevant areas of knowledge in its deliberations, and to allow the facts it finds there to influence its conclusions. Its method of reasoning could be compared to that of a designer who starts with a blueprint, but has to adapt it to the materials to hand and to the situations in which it is required.

The origins and background of applied philosophy can be traced back to the first of the early Greek philosophers, Thales (c.585 BCE), who could well qualify as the first applied philosopher. Having been scorned for his speculative and impractical interests - he was so preoccupied with studying the stars that he fell down a well! - he decided, very successfully, to go into business and use those observations to make a fortune, thus demonstrating that philosophical abstraction had its uses, and even a potential cash-value.

Later schools of philosophy in ancient times - Pythagoreans, Epicureans, Stoics - offered their followers principles for living and guidance on life-style. Socrates (469-399 BCE.), too, while he avoided preaching any dogma, did offer in his own approach to life and also to death an example of a way of living appropriate to the pursuit of philosophy.

Plato (c.430-347 BCE), the chronicler of Socrates' discussions, described his own blueprint for the good society in his dialogue the Republic, which covered not only political arrangements, but also the way social life should be organised. He set out there his ideals for education, for sexual relations and reproduction, for art, literature and censorship.

In the modern period, too, many philosophers have applied their philosophical insights to practical issues. St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) treated such topics as marriage and the family in his Summa Theologiae. John Locke (1632-1704) wrote on toleration, and also on education; his political theory also provided the philosophical underpinning of the American Declaration of Independence. The principle of human dignity formulated by Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) is central to most modern conventions of human rights, and Kant also treated the subject of suicide, and the question of whether it is ever right to tell a lie from benevolent motives - questions which continue to be important for medical ethics. Utilitarians like Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and John Stuart Mill (1806-73) have a continued if not always acknowledged influence on public policy, while Karl Marx's ( 1818-83) political philosophy has played a dramatic role in the shaping of the modern world.

Applied philosophy, then, is not a new subject. Nevertheless, it suffered a period of neglect as the pendulum in philosophy swung from the speculative metaphysics of the nineteenth century to the materialistic scientism of the twentieth.

A number of factors contributed to the return to applied ethics, dating from approximately the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps the most important of these was the development of new kinds of medical technology, particularly those involving new methods of reproduction, and those affecting the end of life; another has been controversy about war and international relations. The publication of Peter Singer's Animal Liberation (1975) prompted increased academic debate about the relationship between humans and the animal world, and at the same time, there was a dawning public awareness of environmental threats on a global scale. Finally, interest in business and corporate ethics has grown, in reaction to scandals of public and business life. For all these reasons, then, and many others, applied philosophy has today entered a new, more self-conscious and better-defined phase of development.


A large part of an early version of this article was taken from the entry on Applied Philosophy by Brenda Almond (founder of the UK-based Society for Applied Philosophy) in 'Essentials of Philosophy and Ethics', edited by Martin Cohen, (Hodder Arnold 2006) and donated to the Citizendium by the authors.