Applied Ethics and Social Problems, by Tony Fitzpatrick

Policy Press, 2008, vi + 270 pp, pbk, 1 86134 859 3, £21.99, hbk, 1 86134 860 9, £60

This book asks the question: ‘If social policy studies the production and distribution of public goods, and if the State has a considerable role to play in maximising welfare and social justice, why and to what extent can the State justifiably regulate and interfere with individual freedom to this end?’ (p.2) and it applies ‘debates, theories and methods from moral philosophy to contemporary ethical issues relating to the disciplinary field (social policy) investigating the interactions of social problems, justice and wellbeing’ (p.5).

Chapter 1 recommends ‘social humanism’ (with the human roots of ethics not disconnected from religion and nature) as a foundation for ethical theory; chapter 2 studies consequentialism (the theory that it is outcomes that matter); chapter 3 explores Kant’s very different ethics (leading the author to principles which guide our choice of action); chapter 4 discusses Aristotle’s ‘virtue’ ethics (which is about the kind of people we are and how we should live); and chapter 5 provides three principles on which the rest of the book is based: common sense, humanism, and equality.

The second part of the book deals with the boundaries of free choice. Chapter 6 concludes that ‘harming is entwined with our social freedoms such that eradicating all instances of the former also threatens the latter’ (p.114); chapter 7 asks that choice be conceptualised in terms of equity; and chapter 8 argues that financial contributions to public services should be either compulsory and indirect or discretionary and direct and that, in general, government should relate to families by ‘maintaining appropriate social environments and welfare systems’ (p.157). Along the way practical policy issues are discussed: the legalisation of drugs, schools admission policies, and the care of the elderly.

Then come chapters on particular controversial issues: chapter 9 on abortion ( – a discussion about appropriate time limits); and chapter 10 on euthanasia ( – in which Fitzpatrick proposes in the first instance the making of living wills compulsory). Of particular interest to readers of this newsletter will be chapter 11 on whether we should restrict the welfare rights of recent immigrants ( – the debate would be different in a context of social equality) and on the compatibility in principle of welfare states and global justice.

This book will be of value to any student of social policy, social ethics, or both. It constantly refers backwards and forwards between ethical theory and practical social policy, and it shows how ‘applied ethics directs our attention to many of the challenges we face and [to how] social policy has a crucial role to play in helping us to face them’ (p.231).

Whilst social, economic, labour market and distributional issues will remain vital components of the now widespread Citizen’s Income debate, continuing to found the debate in a study of social ethics will remain just as important. This book will help us to do that.