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Applied Ethics


Prof. Dr. Hugh Desmond

Course Description


Applied ethicists systematically reflect about the very wide range of morally charged contemporary societal developments. Moral dilemma’s arising from scientific and technological developments have been a long-standing concern, but such dilemma’s can also arise from developments in business, politics, and the professions.


This raises two challenges for any introductory course in applied ethics. First, applied ethics is highly interdisciplinary. To do applied ethics requires being informed about developments in science and technology, law and politics. Second, applied ethics is highly heterogeneous, spanning subfields that themselves could easily be subject to their own course. Important subfields of applied ethics include: the ethics of biomedical technologies, AI ethics, environmental and animal ethics, professional ethics (incl. medical ethics and legal ethics), business ethics, the ethics of migration, and the ethics of communication (incl. media ethics). 


The first aim of the course is to give the student a general sense of what applied ethics is about.  To this end, we will examine: (1) the structure of ethical reasoning according to various frameworks: principilism, casuitry, utilitarianism, deontology, care ethics), (2) a number of central concepts and principles (autonomy, justice, virtue), and (3) how ethical debates are influenced by power structures and communication strategies. 


The second aim is to give students the opportunity to do applied ethics. For this, we will focus on a number of topical themes. 


In academic year 2022-’23 we will focus on following themes: 


  • Reproductive ethics (abortion; surrogacy)

  • AI ethics (algorithms and machine learning; social media)

  • Environmental ethics (animal ethics; biodiversity)


Each of these topics could be the subject of its own course, so our approach will be to analyze these topics through the framework in the first part of the course (reasoning schemes; central ethical concepts; interaction between ethics and science). 

Learning Goals


  • The student improves their capacity for complex, nuanced deliberation

  • The student understands the most important argumentative and conceptual frameworks in applied ethics, and is able to apply them. 

  • The student understands the problems facing central guiding ethical concepts, such as autonomy or virtue. 

  •    The student is able to construct a systematic argument concerning some ethical problem, and is able to convey this argument through a paper. 



Office hours

    After appointment: email me at

S.R. 220


Dinsdag 14:00 – 16:00, CST - gebouw R 212




  1. Participation: 

      Discussion and Posts (20%)

  1. Paper (80%)


Students with Disabilities


Students with learning disabilities should get in touch with Maaike Van Hoye ( For facilities, please email Nadine Geens (

Online Discussion


It’s important that all assigned texts are read thoughtfully and critically. 


To this end, for each assigned reading students must post two questions/comments regarding the text: 


  1. A criticism of the text (e.g., which claim or argument was particularly weak?) 

  2. A clarificatory question (what was confusing or unclear in the text?) 

  1. An addition (which claim or argument did you agree with, and how would you like to either extent that claim or argument, or support it further?)  


Where do I post my comments? > Questions/Comments (left menu) > “Questions/Comments on the Readings” > “Questions/Comments on the Readings  for month/day”  > click on ‘beantwoorden’


Nota Bene: Keep the questions/comments short (1-3 sentences is fine). A concise post is more likely to be read!


Deadline: Monday 23u59 (the day before class)




Course Structure

Class 1. Introduction (September 27th) 

  1. The ethics of human nature: science, engineering, power, justice.


Class 2. Eugenics.  (October 11th)


  • Kevles, Oreskes, Levine 


Class 3.  From cosmetic to moral enhancement (October 18th)



  • Douglas, Thomas. 2008. “Moral Enhancement.” Journal of Applied Philosophy 25 (3): 228–45. 

  • “Meet the men paying six figures to get taller—by having their legs broken” – GQ magazine



2. What are the fundaments of applied ethics?


Class 4. The nature of deliberation (October 25th) 



  • Beauchamp & Childress, Principles of Biomedical Ethics (selection)


Class 5. Power, Law, and Communication (November 8th)



  • Oksala, Johanna. The Microphysics of Power. 

  • Foucault, The History of Sexuality (selection)

  • Desmond, Climate Change Narratives:  Trust and Policy Risks


Class 6.  Framing Ethical Issues: a workshop (November 15th) 






3. Ethics and technology


Class 7. Reproduction ethics (surrogacy; abortion; IVF & sperm donors) November 22nd   



  • Savulescu: The Moral Obligation to Create Children with the Best Chances in Life

  • Michael Sandel, Designer Children, Designer Parents



Class 8. Freedom of Speech and the Ethics of Algorithm Engineering OR The Ethics of Social Media (November 29th)



  • Desmond, Reclaiming Privacy and Care in an Age of Social Media

  • Desmond, Engineering Trustworthiness in the Online Environment




4. Ethics and environment


Class 9. Why Value Nature? (December 6)



  • Rolston III, Value in Nature and the Nature of Value



Class 10. Animal Ethics (December 13)



  • Singer, All animals are equal

  • Regan, The Case for Animal Rights




Class 11. Formal Debate (December 20)





The instructor reserves the right to change the syllabus if necessary. Neither the workload nor the general content of the course will be influenced by any changes. 

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