Matching Your Research Interests to Ethical Issues: A Guide

Approach 1:

Talk to an ethicist.  Ethicists are philosophers who specialize in ethics.  Just like other experts they have a deep understanding of their area of specialization and so can help connect your interests to an issue, debate, or particular argument in ethics and social and political philosophy.  They can also help you assess which areas are hot button issues and those that have been largely neglected in and outside of philosophy.  Importantly, they will also be best suited to help you understand how and the extent to which certain lines of research might bear on the issue, debate, or argument most closely associated with your research interests.  Hence, this is the approach we recommend most strongly.  Others may have some knowledge about ethics as it relates to business, medicine, agriculture, etc. and you can always browse the web or books for information on ethics.  But, philosophers trained in value theory are in the best position to help you make strong connections between your interests and ethics.

Ethicists can be found in your school’s philosophy department or at centers like ours.  In fact, our Assistant Director, Adam R. Thompson has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and specializes in value theory.  If your school does not have a philosophy department, you might also check out departments with courses in ethics.  You should be aware, however, that these courses are often not taught by ethicists.  Still, the instructor should be able to help you locate someone in your community that is.  And, of course, you can always try searching for a university or college nearby that has a philosophy department with ethicists on staff.  If you live in the Lincoln, NE area, you’ll find plenty of ethicists at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.  Just click here to find some in our Department of Philosophy or email us at 


Approach 2:

 Do it yourself.  Though talking to an ethicist is by far the best way to connect your research interests to ethics, you may not be well positioned to do so.  Another way, then, to make the connection is to consult books or online sources that survey the area of ethics to which your interests most readily align.

 Empirical research is typically most relevant to particular issues in applied ethics.  Hence, consulting general texts with detailed information about a wide range of applied ethics issues is a good place to start.  We recommend the following:

            Oxford Handbook of Practical Ethics

            Ethics in Practice: An Anthology

            African Ethics: An Anthology in Comparative and Applied Ethics

            Ethics: A Liberative Approach

Empirical research also plays an important role in other areas of value theory.  The area most like the area of applied ethics is social and political philosophy.  You can discover topics related to that area in the books listed above and these:

            Oxford Handbook of Political Philosophy

            Contemporary Political Philosophy: An Anthology

 At the more theoretical level, empirical research can inform discussions in metaethics, normative ethics, and moral psychology.  These books offer keen insights into the ways in which empirical studies bear on topics in those areas of value theory:

             Moral Psychology: A Contemporary Introduction

            Metaethics: A Contemporary Introduction

            A Companion to Ethics

           Oxford Handbook of Ethical Theory

          Ethical Theory: An Anthology

          An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics

Finally, the web is also a valuable resource for discovering topics in ethics related to your research interests.  Valuable resources in this regard are

            Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Online

            Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Those offer survey articles on particular philosophical subjects including just about anything in the area of ethics and social/political philosophy. 

Once you’ve located an ethical issue in practical ethics, you can continue to explore that issue in texts more narrowly focused that attempt to survey the landscape of that particular subject. 

For instance, suppose the debate over whether we should allow physician assisted suicide aligns well with your research interests.  To further explore the issue it is best to do three things.  First, you’ll want to see how that debate intersects other related issues in the context where it finds its proper home.  In the case of physician assisted suicide, medical ethics is its proper home.  So, it would be helpful to read around in a survey text of medical ethics like

            Contemporary Bioethics: A Reader with Cases


Second, you’ll want to study the issue itself in more depth and detail.  Finding a monograph or anthology devoted to the particular subject you’re interested in can serve this purpose.  In the case of physician assisted suicide, you might try

             Medically Assisted Death

            Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide


You might discover that your research will focus on a point of concern that traverses the particular topic.  For example, the topic of autonomy is central to the subject of physician assisted suicide and many other subjects in medical ethics and beyond.  In that case, you’ll want to read through a monograph or anthology devoted to autonomy like these

          Personal Autonomy in Society

         Personal Autonomy: New Essays on Personal Autonomy and Its Role in Contemporary Moral Philosophy


Those offer survey articles on particular philosophical subjects including just about anything in the area of ethics and social/political philosophy. 

Also, like many other disciplines, most debates in ethics take place in professional journals.  If you’re interested in reading professional articles in ethics, you should go to

             Phil Papers

They do an excellent job archiving professional articles in a searchable manner.  They have also take the time to round up articles under particular headings.  So, if you’re interested in exploring a general topic like physician assisted suicide or autonomy by reading professional articles, you can easily locate a number of quality articles through their web resource. 

 As you may discover, you’ll still need to consult an ethicist to make your funding proposal as strong as it can be.  But, this approach can help you home in on ethical topics that interest you and align closely with your own research interests.  Following this approach can also help you discuss your plans with an ethicist once you’re ready to move into the proposal writing stage.