Consent plays a huge role in the legitimation of procedures in medicine and law. But what is consent, and by what moral magic can merely saying it’s OK make it OK? Many of us think it hugely important to discriminate between innocents and non-innocents when planning targets in the conduct of war. But what is the basis of innocence, and who is innocent in the relevant sense? How should we think about the scientific basis of claims about race? Is race a “biological kind” – that is, a category to be found in nature, independently of our categorisation – or a social construction, contaminated by bias and prejudice? In our increasingly information-soaked age, which sources of information should we trust? When so much of the information we received is second-hand, can we still distinguish between authentic and inauthentic sources of knowledge?
The Journal of Applied Philosophy exists as a forum for the philosophical scrutiny of issues of important practical concern. There are of course a huge number of such issues, and those I have illustrated above simply give a flavour of the material covered by the Journal. One of the basic motivations for the Journal is that bringing philosophical understanding to bear on questions of public, practical concern can enrich public debate – that if philosophers adept at dealing with conceptual, normative, metaphysical and epistemological issues are absent from debate about these questions, our understanding of those questions, and our responses to them, will be impoverished.
The Journal of Applied Philosophy (JAP) also exists in order to further philosophical understanding. The idea of “applied” philosophy might suggest the model of philosophers having a ready-formed theory which they then use practical concerns to illustrate. But that is rarely what applied philosophy is like. Rather applied philosophy tends to involve taking up a practical issue, reviewing, criticising and hopefully enriching common-sense understandings of the issue in the light of philosophical techniques, theories and understandings, but also being open to discovering the limitations of the theory when it comes up against the hard reality of practice. Thus detailed attention to the contours of the issues being dealt with is usually important if a writer is to make headway. Furthermore, engagement with practical concerns can in turn serve as a way in which existing philosophical theories can themselves be tested, revised, confirmed or discarded – their assumptions revealed, their limitations explored, in such a way as to deepen our philosophical understanding.
The test for the suitability of a paper for JAP is therefore not only whether it illuminates practical concerns by bringing to bear philosophical understanding, but also whether it advances philosophical understanding by engaging with issues of practical concern.
What are some of the important recent issues and papers published in the Journal? I should make it clear at the outset that this survey can only be a very partial one. But some highlights are certainly worth bringing out.
One issue that JAP has covered in some depth is the ethics of warfare. An early highlight is Jeff McMahan’s consideration of the problems surrounding the applicability of the Doctrine of Double Effect to cases such as killing in war (whether harms that are intended have a different moral status from those that are merely foreseen): “Revising the Doctrine of Double Effect” (vol. 11 no. 2 1994). Vittorio Bufacchi and Jean Maria Arrigo attempt to refute the “ticking-bomb” justification of torture in their “Torture, Terrorism and the State: a Refutation of the Ticking-Bomb Argument” vol. 23 no. 3 2006; while Helen Frowe deals with some of the questions I raised at the opening of this article in her “Equating Innocent Threats and Bystanders” vol. 25 no. 4 (2008). One general theme of these papers has concerned the adequacy of traditional notions of “just war” theorising. A further challenge to traditional ethics of warfare comes from technological innovations in weaponry – on this point Robert Sparrow’s paper “Killer Robots” (vol. 24 no. 1, 2007) worries that one fundamental problem with e.g. drones is that there is no clear answer to the question of who would be responsible if a so-called “autonomous weapon system” committed a war crime.
Another issue coming to prominence among recent papers concerns the wrongness of exploitation. Exploitative transactions seem to us morally problematic. And in the case of transactions where one person profits from another’s misery it is easy to see why. But in some cases exploitative transactions are mutually beneficial – for instance, Western countries’ use of cheap labour may be exploitative, but it may leave the exploited better off than they would have been if they had not entered into those transactions. In which case, is the exploitation still wrong; if it is, where does its wrongness lie; and how should we as citizens of Western countries respond? The basic issues are outlined in Robert Mayer, “What’s Wrong with Exploitation?” (vol. 24 no. 2, 2007); while two recent papers take up specific aspects of the problem. Vida Panitch takes an original look at the ethics of exploitative medical research in “Exploitation, Justice and Parity in International Clinical Research”; while Gerhard Overland looks at the role of exploitation in Thomas Pogge’s claims about the duties of affluent countries towards the poor in “Pogge on Poverty: Contribution or Exploitation?” (both vol. 30 no. 4, 2013).
Another important topic that has stimulated significant debate in the pages of JAP is “enhancement” – that is, the extent to which we can and should seek to “artificially” improve human capacities by pharmaceutical or genetic means (so-called “liberal eugenics”). Biomedical means can be used, on this view, not merely to cure the ill but to improve the healthy. Proponents of enhancement argue that it involves nothing more than what is already achieved by traditional education – it is simply more efficient. Critics argue that it matters hugely how the improvement in human capacities is brought about. Tom Douglas mounts a careful defence of certain types of enhancement (dispelling worries about its “unnaturalness”) in his “Moral Enhancement” (vol. 25 no. 3, 2008); while Robert Sparrow expresses concerns about the power-relations that would exist in any society that had a regimen of enhancement in “Better Living Through Chemistry? A Reply to Savulescu on Moral Enhancement” vol. 31, no. 1 2014).
In addition to these ongoing debates, JAP also publishes excellent individual papers that pick up on current events and deserve further attention. Two examples of such papers are the attention paid to new “word of mouth” marketing techniques in Jeanette Kennett and Steve Matthews, “What’s the Buzz? Undercover Marketing and the Corruption of Friendship” (vol. 25 no. 1, 2008); and Chiara Lepora and Robert E. Goodin, “Grading Complicity in Rwandan Refugee Camps”, which looks at the moral complexities facing NGOs and others in their work in Rwanda.
Applied philosophy is not just ethics. As the questions listed at the outset demonstrate, issues of practical concern raise all sorts of philosophical questions, not just ethical ones. As the Journal of Applied Philosophy proceeds into its fourth decade, we continue to publish and celebrate the variety of ways in which philosophers can engage stimulatingly with real-world problems.