I am currently working on the relationship between freedom and nature in Immanuel Kant. At first glance, this seems of little relevance to applied ethics, or indeed anything else! In what follows, I want to say a little bit more about my research and offer a couple of thoughts on the relationship between abstract philosophy and applied ethics in general.
Kant views the natural world as entirely determined by natural necessity, and locates freedom outside of it. This allows him to insulate freedom (and morality) from the world of science. Unfortunately however, in locating freedom outside of nature, Kant finds it hard to account for any interaction between freedom and nature.
In a recent paper, I argued that Kant’s set-up precludes knowledge of other agents. I also recently presented a work in progress at our seminar series, where I argued that Kant cannot account for degrees of responsibility. The basic thought is that, in viewing everything as either entirely determined by natural necessity or entirely free, Kant cannot make sense of varying degrees of freedom or responsibility.
But that’s enough about Kant and me. How does this relate to applied ethics? Well, here are two rough ways in which one might do some applied ethics. The first is bottom-up, and begins with an actual problem: the world presents us with a problem, and we apply the tools of philosophy to help us with it. The second way is top-down, and begins with an abstract problem: philosophy presents us with some problem, which has implications for the world.
Here we can return to Kant. One of Kant’s deepest motivations was to preserve freedom (and morality) in the light of certain developments in the sciences. He offers us a system that makes this possible, but at the same time, this system forces him to say some unacceptable things at the level of our ethical practices. I think this provides good reasons to subject Kant’s fundamental system and its fundamental claims to critical scrutiny. In doing so, we move up and down between approaches, engaging in applied ethics, normative ethics, meta-ethics, epistemology and metaphysics. And I think this is a good thing – it informs and enriches our thought at each level.