Applied ethics

Definition & Introduction

Applied ethics is a field of study that examines how ethical theories and moral principles can be used to address real-world problems or questions. In contrast to theoretical ethics which asks abstract questions about what is right and wrong, applied ethics concerns itself with specific and practical questions such as:

  • Under what conditions is the use of gene editing technologies such as CRISPR ethically permissible?
  • What circumstances dictate whether economic development can be justified over environmental preservation, and vice versa?
  • What responsibilities do nations have for providing foreign aid to countries in need?

Applied ethics isn’t just useful for making difficult technological, economic, or international affairs decisions. It can also be a powerful tool for daily life. The Good Place creator Michael Schur, in conversation with Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal, describes ethics as the rules for good living.

Should you speak up if your boss is asking you to engage in unethical business practices? Should you buy an electric car, even if it’s more expensive than the “gas-guzzling” alternative? Should you address the misinformation a family member is sharing on social media? These are all questions we face day-to-day and answers to these questions can be found through ethics and self-reflection.

Find articles, podcasts, and off-site resources that explore the value of applied ethics across many contexts below.

Michael Schur & Joel Rosenthal at NYU's Center for Global Affairs, Global Ethics Day, October 19, 2022. CREDIT: Terence Hurley.

How to Be an Ethical Individual in an Interconnected World

Michael Schur, creator of the hit TV show The Good Place and author of How to Be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question, joined Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal for Global Ethics Day 2022 to discuss how each of us can apply ethics to improve our daily lives.

Watch the event

How often are you faced with a difficult ethical decision at work?

To Engage or Not Engage: Ethical Challenges and Tradeoffs for U.S. Statecraft in 2023

Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Nikolas K. Gvosdev outlines three differing approaches for policymakers when navigating the ethical challenges of engaging with authoritarian or increasingly illiberal actors.

Read the article

More on ethics from Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal

FEB 6, 2023 Article

Ethics, Escalation, and Engagement in Ukraine and Beyond

DEC 7, 2022 Article

Five Moments That Will Shape Ethics in International Affairs for 2023

How can ethics help us better understand the world in 2023 and the choices we face within it? Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal discusses the FTX meltdown, Russia's invasion of Ukraine, climate change, refugees, and tensions over Taiwan as he previews a tumultuous new year for international affairs.

OCT 13, 2022 Article

Ethics as an Antidote

Against the bleak backdrop of war in Ukraine, climate emergency, food and energy shortages, and multiple refugee crises—true north on anyone’s moral compass is especially hard to find. Let's make Global Ethics Day 2022 a powerful statement and the antidote to the cynicism of our times, writes Carnegie Council ...

The Ethics of Economic Espionage

Economic espionage refers to the covert gathering of economic data from foreign nations and private economic entities, usually leveraged within a national security strategy. Under what conditions is this kind of activity ethical? Read Ross W. Bellaby’s analysis.

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Additional Applied Ethics Resources

A Framework for Ethical Decision Making

Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics details six ethical lenses for individuals to use to assist decision-making.


Applied Ethics – Ethics Unwrapped

University of Texas' McCombs School of Business defined applied ethics as the application of ethics to real-world problems.


The Principle of Beneficence in Applied Ethics

What makes an action beneficent? Read this Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry detailing applied ethics perspectives in biomedical and business contexts.


Moral theories in teaching applied ethics

University of Leeds’ Rob Lawlor argues that moral theories shouldn’t be discussed extensively when teaching applied ethics in medical ethics training.