Ways of Approaching Nursing Ethics: Some Comparisons and Contrasts

By Fitzpatrick, F. J. | Ethics & Medicine, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Ways of Approaching Nursing Ethics: Some Comparisons and Contrasts


Fitzpatrick, F. J., Ethics & Medicine


Nursing ethics, along with medical ethics, business ethics, journalistic ethics, and so on, is one of the particular areas of study and concern which come under the general heading of `applied ethics'. This title, `applied ethics; has been widely employed in recent moral philosophies to mark out both a particular division of the subject matter of moral philosophy and also a particular way of doing ethics. The point of talking about applied ethics, and of marking off a branch of philosophical inquiry by the use of this title, is clearly to emphasise a distinction between ethical inquiry which is applied and that which is not applied. We might call this a distinction between pure or general ethics, on the one hand, and applied ethics on the other, by analogy with the distinction between pure and applied mathematics. According to this picture, philosophical inquiry first of all establishes and presents certain quite general points about the nature of morality, applicable in principle to all human activity and by no means restricted in application to any one area. Some of these results of the philosopher's inquiry will have to do with the meaning of words-actual meaning of terms such as 'good', 'bad', 'right', `wrong, 'duty' and so on, and of what someone is actually saying when he asserts `You shouldn't have done that' or 'It is your duty to do such-and-such'. The systematic philosophical treatment of these questions of meaning is known as meta-ethics. Such questions are of crucial importance in moral philosophy, and indeed some modern ethical theorists have concentrated their attention on them exclusively. Beyond meta-ethics, however, there is another part of general ethics which involves setting out a systematic ethical theory; that is, a rigorous account of the principles, which determine what it is that makes a human act morally good or bad, right or wrong. It is, of course, a controversial claim that such a list of basic principles of morality can, in fact, be set out and defended; here as elsewhere philosophers divide into distinct camps which may be strongly opposed to one another. Nevertheless, it is clear that if there is to be such a thing as applied ethics there must be something which is applied when someone does serious work in that field; and that 'something' must be certain principles of normative morality, which in themselves are part of general ethics. In this sense, then, general ethics comes first, applied ethics later. The distinction we are looking at can be set out concisely in the following couple of points:

Ethics or moral philosophy systematically considers the morality of human acts It is a field of study, which can be divided into:

(1) General ethics, the consideration of the morality of human acts in general, that is apart from any particular field of application, human occupation, or profession, etc. General ethics, in turn, comprises:

(a) Meta-ethics: the study of the meaning of moral terms and the ways in which they are used in moral discourse.

(b) General normative ethics: a setting-out of basic principles, which deter mine the moral quality of human acts and the way in which our reasoning about moral matters should be conducted.

(2) Applied ethics, in which the general principles of normative ethics are applied systematically to ethical issues which arise within a given specialised field of human endeavour; such as warfare, medicine, nursing, journalism and so on, in an attempt to resolve these ethical issues, and to show, in particular situations and circumstances, what would be the right course of action to take. Close attention is likely to be given to certain deeply perplexing situations in which every one of the available courses of action seems to be open to moral objection.

As set out here, the contrast between general ethical theory and applied ethics appears straightforward and unproblematic. It could, however, be misunderstood in a number of ways. …

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