Ethics: A practical application of philosophy

Ethics sign postOne of the most common criticisms of philosophy is that it’s not ‘practical’; that is, the study of philosophy doesn’t require students to learn anything useful. I strongly disagree with this charge, of course. For those who are studying philosophy develop many highly valuable ‘meta-skills’, such as those required by activities involving careful analysis and clear communication, that can be applied directly to countless specific endeavors. But there’s one area of philosophy that’s immediately practical par excellence, for it’s concerned with the choices we all make every day of our lives. This, of course, is the study of ethics.

Philosophers aren’t only concerned with what the world is like; they’re also concerned with how we should live in the world. Note the distinction between how we in fact live and how we should live. The former is descriptive in nature, and is studied by sociologists and anthropologists (among others). The latter, however, is normative in nature. It doesn’t merely describe; it prescribes.

Nearly all of us initially acquire our beliefs about how we ought to live from social, cultural, political, and religious authorities. But we all also reach a point in our lives when we notice that these authorities make conflicting demands on us. For example, my religious authorities may tell me that I have an obligation to give to the poor, full stop. That is, this obligation to give to the poor binds me regardless of the cause of their poverty. However, my cultural or political authorities may tell me that many poor folks ought not to be helped because they need to learn self-reliance. Should I give to the poor or not?

In addition to cases of apparent moral conflict, I may simply notice that I’m unable to justify some of the moral beliefs I’ve acquired. Why, for instance, think that I am obligated to give to the poor? Suppose you sincerely believe that you have a duty to help the poor, but a friend disagrees with you. How would you go about trying to persuade her that you’re right and she’s wrong?

Further, when I combine the fact that many of my moral beliefs are inconsistent and unjustified with an increasing awareness of the undeniable diversity of moral views, both inter-culturally and intra-culturally, both presently and throughout time, I may begin to question whether anything is really right or wrong. Why think that when I say something is wrong, I’ve said something that’s true? Haven’t I just expressed a preference? And wouldn’t I have different preferences if I had been raised in a different place or time?

I’d imagine almost all of us have had these sorts of experiences and thoughts, and have asked these sorts of questions. If you have, then although you may not have been aware of it, you’ve been doing philosophy for some time now. That is, moral philosophy is not merely practical; it’s practically unavoidable. The real question, then, isn’t whether philosophy is practical; rather, it’s whether we’re doing it well or poorly.

Eric is studying for the BA Philosophy by distance learning in Rhode Island, USA.

8 thoughts on “Ethics: A practical application of philosophy

  1. I can,t agree more that philosophy has a lot of practical aspects in our everyday life. My domain is the geoscience however my interest in philosophy developed materially my thinking skills like the abstract, critical and analytical thinking and problem solving. I became passionate about the anaytical philosophy, philosophy of science, scientific methods, reasoning and methodology, to name a few,where they are a source of inspiration and mind gymnastics.

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  2. Hi Adel, it’s very encouraging to hear from scientists like yourself who recognize the value of philosophy. Unfortunately, some high profile scientists have in recent years been making disparaging (and, in my judgment, uninformed) claims about philosophy. So it’s nice to know that you’re on board!

    Hi Kowmk, I plan to write a series of posts on this subject. Each post will build on the next, getting more and more detailed as we proceed. I hope you enjoy them, and if you have any questions, please feel free to ask and I’ll do my best to respond.



  3. Sorry to critic you, but you are not answering the question. Whether or not a course is practical depends on whether it allows the graduate to produce something in the real world. A philosophy degree gets you thinking yes, but that does not mean it may produce something, it just makes you a more analytical person. I guess you could touch a bit more about how these skills can actually be applied to careers and organisations. Just my two cents.


  4. Hi Hans,

    No need to apologize! Students of philosophy quickly learn to value legitimate criticisms very highly, so I really appreciate your taking the time to post yours.

    I think I’d respond to your criticism in this way. You said that a course is practical if it ‘allows the graduate to produce something in the real world.’ I think that’s certainly a common way to think about practicality. So let’s consider whether what I said in the post shows that philosophical training satisfies this condition.

    First, note that I linked to a previous post about the many highly practical ‘meta-skills’ that the study of philosophy develops in students. So I’d encourage you to read that post as well! But second, I’d like to address your point about this post directly.

    So, to produce something – and I take it you don’t only mean physical products like homes or computers, but more intangible products like blueprints for homes and programs for computers – you have to make many decisions. And you’ll often find yourself, when producing something, faced with decisions of moral consequence. Further, it’s not always clear what you ought to do, for you may find yourself in a position in which you have conflicting duties (e.g. duties to your family versus duties to your employer, or duties to your employer versus duties to your nation, or duties to your nation versus duties to your religion, and so on). Surely you’d agree that this isn’t only the case at home or when we act in our capacity as citizens, but that it occurs in the workplace as well.

    But when this happens, how do you decide what to do? You have to make a decision, for in most cases of moral conflict, not doing something constitutes a decision, one for which you may be morally culpable. So my argument in the post above was that, no matter what you do, you’re going to find yourself doing philosophy. For when we attempt to think clearly about competing moral obligations, that’s precisely what we’re doing. In that sense, philosophy is eminently practical, since doing it is unavoidable. That is, philosophy will help you to do better some things that you cannot avoid doing. And surely that makes it very practical indeed!


  5. Nice discussion.

    A couple of thoughts from my side, especially in light of Hans’ comment/question.

    The debate over the practical or impractical nature of philosophy has very old roots. It goes back to Plato versus Isocrates.

    As far as I’m concerned, philosophy is a fundamental discipline, with practical implications.

    Today, in particular, we’re facing epochal challenges. Take, for instance, Artificial Intelligence. We definitely need philosophers to address the most ethical and practical of the questions.

    What about the future major displacement of workers due to AI and robotisation? How to cope with societies where rising inequalities might be exacerbated by the divide between wealthy owners of robots and workers? How to transition to a new era without severe social disruptions?

    Ethics should be placed at the core of any such current and future issues. It should guide policy making. But policy making affects the lives of individuals. So, in this respect, Ethics has practical repercussions:

    Evaluation of what’s ethically right => influence of public opinion => policy making/legislation.

    As regards philosophy graduates, we can find them working at tech companies as well as financial institutions, inter alia. Moreover, many philosophers write by profession, as journalists or novelists, for example. Their articles and books influence individuals, who then share their ideas with other individuals. Eventually, those philosophers might influence engineers, physicists, or similar profiles with strictly practical jobs: an indirect way of being practically relevant.

    More generally, philosophers know how to think, by training. Therefore, in principle, they’re able to think logically and solve problems their own unique way. These are some of the most sought-after skills by disparate employers, who don’t always look for automata. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find philosophers working in business management.

    Hence, I’d argue philosophy is not practical in terms of generating graduates who can do jobs like computer programming. It’s practical in that it precedes action itself. It guides human beings, it prescribes – as Eric says – thorough Ethics. This is far more important than merely being practical per se or producing tangible objects.


  6. Hi Oscar,

    Great comment! I think I’m in full agreement with everything you said. I especially like the point about the indirect sense in which philosophy is practically relevant.

    I’m going to use this comment to clarify something about the sense in which I think that the study of moral philosophy is practical. This isn’t a direct response to any of the comments above, it’s just something I left unsaid in the blog post.

    I don’t necessarily think that philosophy provides us with ‘the answer(s)’ to ethical questions. So I’m not claiming that philosophy is practical in that robust sense. Rather, the study of ethics provides one with a nuanced moral vocabulary, a rich conceptual framework, a set of key distinctions and arguments, an awareness of the critical historical dialectic that’s led us to where we are, and a solid understanding of what doesn’t work in ethical reasoning. That is, it provides one with the tools required for grappling, in a sophisticated and serious way, with questions we cannot avoid, questions that competing authorities at time answer very differently. Since the answers we ultimately arrive at have very serious consequences (as Oscar rightly emphasized), it’s critical that we learn how to give these questions the careful, informed attention they deserve.


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