Methods In Applied Ethics

Göran Collste


Within applied ethics moral problems in different spheres of society like medicine, politics and technology are analysed. Applied ethics transcends disciplinary borders. Its point of departure is either ethics or the sphere of application. Thus, one way to do applied ethics is that ethicists use their theories and methods for analysing moral problems in, for example, medicine, politics or technology. Another way is that researchers or professionals confront ethical problems within their sphere or research or practice. Applied ethics is relevant both for ethicists and for researchers in different societal spheres and it has become more and more common that ethicists cooperate with researchers from other disciplines in multi-disciplinary projects.

There are some established methods in ethics. Among them are conceptual analysis to achieve clarity, argumentation analysis to structure and assess arguments and theory construction to develop and justify normative views. These methods are familiar and we can recognise them from the works of Rawls, Dworkin, Kymlicka etc. However, for applied ethics these methods are not sufficient. When the applied ethicist is analysing moral issues in a specific sphere, for example medicine, for the sake of relevance he or she needs empirical knowledge about the sphere in question. The applied ethicist has to acquire empirical knowledge and/or cooperate with researchers within the sphere of application. Hence, it is necessary with multi-disciplinary work in applied ethics. But, when a multi-disciplinary project develops, due to the different disciplinary outlooks of the researchers involved there are many possible misunderstandings and confusions.

Recently, a new multi-disciplinary project titled Personal Health Monitoring – Ethics financed within the European FP 7-program started. Personal health monitoring comprises all technical systems that are collecting, processing and storing data linked to a person, that allows monitoring the parameters of the person and that leads to health-monitoring about the person. Examples of the new technology are sensors in patient’s clothes or implanted in a patient’s body, home facility management systems etc. The aim of the research project is to develop multidisciplinary tools for ethical assessment of emergent technologies for personal health monitoring in order to both achieve new knowledge about the ethical aspects of the technology and to influence the direction of the emergent technologies towards realisation of health care values. Disciplines involved are besides applied ethics, psychology, informatics, and organisation theory. In this paper, the new research project will be used as a case for discussing problems and benefits with multi-disciplinary applied ethics.

From the beginning the researchers involved in the new project had to overcome some terminological misunderstandings and diversities. For example, a first step was to develop “taxonomy”. But what does that mean in this context? Another task was to construct a “dependency map”. What is that? These are just two examples of terms that were foreign to some project disciplines but established within others and hence created some initial misunderstandings. A first aim of the paper is to discuss how terminological differences can be overcome.

What methods in ethics are useful in this kind of projects? Which other disciplinary methods could be used? How can methods in ethics and other disciplines, for example psychology and informatics be combined? These are some question that will be discussed in the paper.

The purpose of the paper is to contribute to the methodological discussion within applied ethics and broader, to the methodology of multi-disciplinary research.