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Is it wrong to moralise?

Don't be judgemental. Moral judgements are oppressive.

Here are some objections to these claims:

1/ Moral opinions differ - however, one is struck rather by the enormous amount of agreement upon which people/actions are deemed good/bad.

2/ Live and let live - advocating universal tolerance or respect for diversity, is itself a moral stance.

3/ Morality is a private matter - unclear how this could be true. Morality, almost by definition, concerns how we treat each other.

Background assumptions - often unspoken but nevertheless influencing our opinions - are called presuppositions.

A large part of philosophy is about uncovering presuppositions bringing them into the light in order to examine them to see what they are worth.

Nothing we have looked at really represents an escape from ethics.

Emotivism - the view that ethical utterances are merely expressions of the feelings of the speaker and not statements which can be either true or false.

Emotive language - compare 'freedom fighter', 'guerrilla' and 'terrorist', where we have steeply descending degrees of approval.

Words with an especially strong emotive charge are called emotive; they are beloved by poets, but also by advertisers and politicians.

It is vital that we keep our critical faculties awake - that we do not assume something has been proved simply because our feelings have been aroused.

Emotivists tend to see ethics in terms of causes. They view our moral judgements as expressing our emotions, which are themselves just the effects of various causes.

Against it one can argue that at least some of our moral judgements are not just the effect of non-rational causes as they are based on reasons.

The force with which someone expresses an argument is no real recommendation as to its value.


Good reasons are what proper arguments - as distinct from subliminal advertising, seductive images and emotionally charged ranting - are all about.

Situation ethics - the view that since each situation we find ourselves in is different, our judgements about what is right and wrong can only apply to the particular conditions that characterise that situation.

We try to 'judge each case on its merits'.

However, the business of ethics has something about it that is rational. We can reflect on the reasons for our actions. There are general principles. We may even be able to criticise, modify and improve our moral opinions and attitudes, a possibility that the emotivist and situationist both seem to exclude.

Ethical relativism - the view that the correctness or incorrectness of moral beliefs and practices is relative to the culture in which they occur.

Relativists do not simply call attention to the fact that different cultures often espouse different moral codes. They also deny that any one culture can be said to be right or superior in its values, beliefs or practices compared to any other.

The contrary view holds that there are standards of right and wrong that apply across cultures and periods in history. This view goes by a variety of labels, the most common being 'ethical objectivism', 'ethical absolutism' and 'ethical universalism'.

Ethical relativism expresses a rejection of arrogant ethnocentrism.

Ethnocentrism - believing that one's own race or culture is superior to others.

Ethical relativism also implies that you cannot judge the practices of any culture because there is no overarching ethical code above or between cultures (there are no transcultural moral values) that provides you with the necessary criteria - a position that generates some serious problems.

What follows from accepting that no one moral code is correct? Immorality? Indifference to morality?

Pluralism vs Relativism

Pluralism denotes a diversity of views or stands rather than a single approach or method.

It is a condition or system in which two or more states, groups, principles, sources of authority, etc., coexist.

Pluralism does not mean a mishmash of beliefs. It is the forum in which ideas are debated. In our public forums (media, government, education, etc.) the opportunity is available for a plurality of ideas to compete for influence.

Too often we assume “pluralism” is moral relativism: all moral questions are relative — to an age, people or society, with no absolutes. While moral relativism dominates our public discourse, a pluralistic model of public decision-making, gives permission and opportunity to challenge it as the presumptive view.

Pluralism is not about relativism. It is a social agreement which says, people with differing views have a right to have them heard and explored.


An inability to make sense of the notion of moral progress is surely a serious drawback to any ethical theory.

Part of the attraction of ethical relativism is the sheer incredulity people feel when confronted by absolutism. It seems unlikely, to put it mildly, that a moral code with its objective criteria of right and wrong could exist somehow 'out there', applicable to all cultures and periods.

We may take the view that the goal of correct moral judgement is an ideal that can never be finally attained, but can usefully be aimed at: the choice seems to be between dialogue and conflict.

Fact/value gap - the logical difference between statements of fact and value judgements which some argue invalidates any attempt to base the latter on the former.

Is/ought problem - the problem of whether statements of fact ('is' statements) imply moral statements about what ought to be done ('ought' statements).

In general, the conclusion of a valid deductive argument cannot introduce new claims that are not implicit in the premises.

Reductionism - the attempt to explain some complex thing in terms of other supposedly more simple things. Typically, the reductionist says that some X is 'nothing but' Y, thereby reducing X to Y.

Emotivism and relativism are both examples of reductionism.

Ethical naturalism - the view that our ethical judgements should be grounded in what we know about the ordinary properties of the natural world, which includes the physical and psychological attributes of human beings. 'The facts speak for themselves.'

The Kantian approach: universalisability

Hypothetical imperative - a command that has a conditional form, like a piece of advice: 'If you want X, then do Y'.

Categorical imperative:

1/ An unqualified command which has the form 'Do X!'

2/ The fundamental principle of Kant's moral theory:

Always act so that the principle behind your action could be willed as a universal law.

For Kant it is the principle underlying one's action that is the distinguishing mark of moral action, not the particular goal one aims at.

Kant emphasises this respect for agents in another version of the categorical imperative:

Always treat people as an end in themselves, never merely as a means to an end.

This means that we should not use other people as a way of getting what we want.

Note that Kant's categorical imperative is NOT the same as the 'Golden Rule' or 'Do unto others as you would have others do unto you'.

The Golden Rule both enlarges our sympathies (putting ourselves in another's shoes) AND demands equal treatment.

Kant only demands equal treatment based on our ability to reason.

The Kantian approach may, therefore, lead us to underestimate the importance of sympathy (feeling for another), empathy (feeling with another) and compassion (suffering with another).


Emotivism views morality as based entirely on emotion; with Kant we are in danger of going to the other extreme.

Kant holds that what decides whether or not an action is morally correct is its 'form': does it accord with or contradict some general principle? This is a deontological approach.

Deontology - a duty-based approach to ethics which holds that the consequences of an action are morally irrelevant (perhaps its most serious weakness).

Objections to categorical imperative:

- Offers little help in telling us about content of moral judgements. What should we regard as a duty?
- What do we do when there is conflict of duties?
- Abstract nature - we want some indication of the ends to be willed, and what it is reasonable to will.

Utilitarianism: maximising happiness.

Utilitarianism - the doctrine that the moral worth of an action is determined by the amount of pleasure or happiness ('utility') it produces.

Act utilitarianism - a version of utilitarianism which holds that in any particular situation one should ACT in such a way as to maximise the happiness of all those affected by the action.

Consequentialism - the view that the moral rightness or wrongness an acton is determined by its consequences.

Utilitarianism is also a form of consequentialism.

The central tenet of utilitarianism is usually called the principle of utility.

The basic moral imperative advanced by utilitarianism is that we should try to promote 'the greatest happiness of the greatest number'.

Some attractions to the utilitarian outlook:

1/ Common sense on its side
2/ Advocates a fair and unselfish attitude
3/ If offers a coherent standard: the greatest happiness principle (GHP)
4/ It's a minimum commitment philosophy. In adopting it, we are not required to believe more than the GHP.
5/ It involves calculations and assessments understandable to all.

Problems with Utilitarianism

1/ Can pleasure or happiness be measured?

According to Jeremy Bentham, the various pleasures only differ from one another in 2 respects: intensity and duration. All other things being equal, longer pleasures are better than shorter ones.

However, it is hard not think that some activities like painting the Sistine Chapel are somehow worth more than others (watching the TV), even if the quantity of pleasure is the same.

John Stuart Mill distinguished between 'higher' (intellectual) and 'lower' (sport) pleasures and famously declared that:

'It's better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.'

However, who is to say that enjoying football is a 'lower' pleasure?

2/ Is happiness our only goal?

Words like 'reality', 'truth', and 'authenticity' spring to mind.


3/ Can we - and should we - be motivated by a desire to promote the greatest happiness?

Strict utilitarianism seems to imply that putting the people we love ahead of strangers cannot be morally justified. Claims of loyalty must bow before the claims of 'the greatest number'.

4/ Utilitarianism appears willing to ride roughshod over matters of justice, rights and desert, if doing so is likely to maximise overall happiness.

In response to this objection, we now have a modified version:

Rule utilitarianism - a version of utilitarianism which holds that in any particular situation we should follow general RULES (a moral code) which are thought to promote the general happiness if followed by everyone.

One thing that rule utilitarianism shares with Kantianism is a conception of morality as essentially a matter of establishing and then following a set of clear-cut rules.

Preference utilitarianism - a version of utilitarianism which which focuses on satisfying the desires of the greatest number of people rather than attempting to calculate amounts of pleasure or happiness.

John Stuart Mill (1806 - 1873)

His most widely read works today are 'On Liberty' (1859) where he defends the so-called 'harm principle'. This says that the only legitimate reason for anyone, including governments to limit a person's freedom is to prevent harm to others.

In Utilitarianism (1863) he defends a more sophisticated version of utilitarianism than Bentham had espoused though 'higher' pleasures of the mind and 'lower' pleasures of the body.

Aristotle (384 - 322 BCE)

One of the distinctive features of Aristotle's view of the world is his assumption that everything has a purpose or function.

This kind of teleological thinking is central to Aristotle's ethics since he assumes, from the start, that human beings have a telos. This purpose is to actualise one's potentialities, to achieve self-realisation by cultivating those qualities that we associate with human flourishing.

In a more modern vocabulary we might say that the Aristotelian person is happy because she is not in conflict with herself, but is instead integrated and relatively free from neuroses. This is a way of flourishing.

Virtue ethics claims that our identification of certain qualities as virtues is based on a true understanding of what we are and what we should strive to be. Its strongest argument is that unethical behaviour is also unreasonable, because it does not lead to a flourishing life.


- Emotivism recognises that moral judgements express feeling, but it neglects the role of rational reflection in our moral lives
- Situation ethic calls attention to the importance of context, but exaggerates the uniqueness of these contexts and this fails to see that situational similarities allow us to formulate general precepts.
- Relativism makes us aware of the importance of understanding moral norms in relation to culture, but is unable to justify taking a critical perspective on any particular set of cultural norms and practices.
- Kantian ethics reinstates reason but at the expense of feeling
- The utilitarian reduces ethics to nothing more than a set of prudential rules aimed at maximising happiness, but oversimplifies its account of human motivation and refuses to take seriously moral concerns such as justice and individual rights.
- Virtue ethics is perhaps the most balanced theory, but it tends to take granted assumptions about human nature and the objective validity of normative judgements.

The dream of reducing moral reasoning to a few simple inferences or calculations is an illusion.