The third-year-element of the NCH Diploma, Applied Ethics, introduces students to ethical theories and demonstrates how professionals deal with ethical problems in their fields. Importantly, it demonstrates that some ethical problems are intractable, and it may be difficult to find solutions that seem acceptable from all possible points of view.
This is because real-world problems tend to involve constraints. People get sent home from hospital before they have fully recovered, because the hospital needs the beds for other people. Air pollution cannot be eliminated, because fossil fuels are currently essential for maintaining transport systems. However strong the ethical arguments for banning air pollution, the economic constraint cannot be ignored.
It is not widely questioned today whether ethical considerations are relevant to political and economic decision-making. However, is the opposite true? Should economic and political realities be considered when assessing the ethical merits of an issue or policy?
When I teach Economic Development, it is important for me to ensure that students develop an understanding of the key problems, such as poverty, as well as some solutions, such as agricultural reform, industrialisation, or migration. However, for the majority of students, most of their future contact with these topics will not be technical: they will not be asked to name theories of migration or calculate a poverty gap index. But they may well be asked to comment on the topics through an ethical lens. Is foreign aid helpful? Is it appropriate to speak of “poor countries” or “developing countries”, or do these terms imply European superiority? Is Fair Trade really fair?
In order to assess whether the concept of “Fair Trade” is in fact “fair”, it is necessary to know what Fair Trade programmes do, what they are meant to achieve, and who they help. In economic problems, any policy typically moves resources from one group to another, and identifying the two groups is essential before the policy impact can be known. If a British consumer pays more for Fairtrade bananas and the farmer in Ecuador gets a higher price as a result, the result of the Fair Trade policy is a transfer of resources from the British consumer to the Ecuadorian banana farmer. However, there are more elements to the story. For example, it may be easier for Fair Trade organisations to run programmes in peaceful areas than in areas with ongoing conflict. Does this mean that the beneficiaries of Fair Trade tend to be farmers in peaceful places, while farmers with far more difficult lives in war zones are neglected? Is Fair Trade always going to prioritise the already privileged, and is that ethically acceptable?
When our approach to ethics incorporates some examination of constraints, it also challenges lecturers to admit that there may be limitations to what their subject can do for the world. Being able to admit the limitations of one’s intellectual pursuits is healthy: not all problems have solutions, and intellectual humility is often the most productive approach to problem-solving.
The Applied Ethics approach to ethical study challenges the idea that debates can be had in an information vacuum, on a purely theoretical basis. When students are required to build their knowledge about the constraints as well as ethical theories, it introduces interdisciplinarity not as an optional add-on, but instead places it at the centre. To produce an ethical outcome in the physical world, one must consider both limitations and opportunities.