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These definitions and theories also differ in how they understand what it is to endorse a code in the relevant way. Some hold that morality applies only to those rational beings that have certain specific features of human beings: features that make it rational for them to endorse morality. These features might, for example, include fallibility and vulnerability. Other moral theories claim to put forward an account of morality that provides a guide to all rational beings, even if these beings do not have these human characteristics, e.

Among such theorists it is also common to hold that morality should never be overridden. That is, it is common to hold that no one should ever violate a moral prohibition or requirement for non-moral reasons. Though common, this view is by no means always taken as definitional. Sidgwick despaired of showing that rationality required us to choose morality over egoism, though he certainly did not think rationality required egoism either.

More explicitly, Gert held that though moral behavior is always rationally permissible , it is not always rationally required. Foot seems to have held that any reason—and therefore any rational requirement—to act morally would have to stem from a contingent commitment or an objective interest. And she also seems to have held that sometimes neither of these sorts of reasons might be available.

The role of ethics

Indeed, it is possible that morality, in the normative sense, has never been put forward by any particular society, by any group at all, or even by any individual. That is, one might claim that the guides to behavior of some societies lack so many of the essential features of morality, in the normative sense, that it is incorrect to say that these societies even have a morality in a descriptive sense. This is an extreme view, however. A more moderate position would hold that all societies have something that can be regarded as their morality, but that many of these moralities—perhaps, indeed, all of them—are defective.

That is, a moral realist might hold that although these actual guides to behavior have enough of the features of normative morality to be classified as descriptive moralities, they would not be endorsed in their entirety by all moral agents. Moral realists do not claim that any actual society has or has ever had morality as its actual guide to conduct.

In the theological version of natural law theories, such as that put forward by Aquinas, this is because God implanted this knowledge in the reason of all persons. In the secular version of natural law theories, such as that put forward by Hobbes , natural reason is sufficient to allow all rational persons to know what morality prohibits, requires, etc. Natural law theorists also claim that morality applies to all rational persons, not only those now living, but also those who lived in the past. In contrast to natural law theories, other moral theories do not hold quite so strong a view about the universality of knowledge of morality.

Still, many hold that morality is known to all who can legitimately be judged by it.

1. Descriptive definitions of “morality”

Baier , Rawls and contractarians deny that there can be an esoteric morality: one that judges people even though they cannot know what it prohibits, requires, etc. For all of the above theorists, morality is what we can call a public system : a system of norms 1 that is knowable by all those to whom it applies and 2 that is not irrational for any of those to whom it applies to follow Gert Moral judgments of blame thus differ from legal or religious judgments of blame in that they cannot be made about persons who are legitimately ignorant of what they are required to do.

Act consequentialists seem to hold that everyone should know that they are morally required to act so as to bring about the best consequences, but even they do not seem to think judgments of moral blame are appropriate if a person is legitimately ignorant of what action would bring about the best consequences Singer Parallel views seem to be held by rule consequentialists Hooker The ideal situation for a legal system would be that it be a public system.

But in any large society this is not possible. As a result, sometimes people are held legally responsible for violating rules about which they were legitimately ignorant, and even when it would have been irrational for them to have followed those rules. Games are closer to being public systems and most adults playing a game know its rules, or they know that there are judges whose interpretation determines what behavior the game prohibits, requires, etc.

Although a game is often a public system, its rules apply only to those playing the game. If a person does not care enough about the game to abide by the rules, she can usually quit. Morality is the one public system that no rational person can quit. This is the point that Kant, without completely realizing it, captured by saying that morality is categorical. The rules of a club are inescapable in this way, even though one can escape them by quitting the club.

Rather, the fact that one cannot quit morality means that one can do nothing to escape being legitimately liable to sanction for violating its norms, except by ceasing to be a moral agent. Morality applies to people simply by virtue of their being rational persons who know what morality prohibits, requires, etc.

For example, some Levy might say that psychopaths cannot do so, while others might make the opposite claim Haji Public systems can be formal or informal. To say a public system is informal is to say that it has no authoritative judges and no decision procedure that provides a unique guide to action in all situations, or that resolves all disagreements. To say that a public system is formal is to say that it has one or both of these things Gert 9.

Professional basketball is a formal public system; all the players know that what the referees call a foul determines what is a foul. Pickup basketball is an informal public system. The existence of persistent moral disagreements shows that morality is most plausibly regarded as an informal public system.

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When persistent moral disagreement is recognized, those who understand that morality is an informal public system admit that how one should act is morally unresolvable, and if some resolution is required, the political or legal system can be used to resolve it. These formal systems have the means to provide unique guides, but they do not provide the uniquely correct moral guide to the action that should be performed.

An important example of a moral problem left unsettled by the informal public system of morality is whether fetuses are impartially protected by morality and so whether or under what conditions abortions are allowed. There is continuing disagreement among fully informed moral agents about this moral question, even though the legal and political system in the United States has provided fairly clear guidelines about the conditions under which abortion is legally allowed. Despite this important and controversial issue, morality, like all informal public systems, presupposes agreement on how to act in most moral situations, e.

No one thinks it is morally justified to cheat, deceive, injure, or kill a moral agent simply in order to gain sufficient money to take a fantastic vacation. Many violations of moral rules are such that no rational person would be willing for all moral agents to know that violating the moral rule in these circumstances is morally allowed. However, moral matters are often thought to be controversial because these everyday decisions, about which there is no controversy, are rarely discussed.

The amount of agreement concerning what rules are moral rules, and on when it is justified to violate one of these rules, explains why morality can be a public system even though it is an informal system. The old schema was that morality is the code that all rational persons, under certain specified conditions, would endorse. The improved schema is that morality is the informal public system that all rational persons, under certain specified conditions, would endorse. Some theorists might not regard the informal nature of the moral system as definitional, holding that morality might give precise answers to every question.

Morality, Normativity, and Society

This would have the result that conscientious moral agents often cannot know what morality permits, requires, or allows. Some philosophers deny that this is a genuine possibility.

However, on ethical- or group-relativist accounts or on individualistic accounts—all of which are best regarded as accounts of morality in the descriptive sense—morality often has no special content that distinguishes it from nonmoral codes of conduct, such as law or religion. Just as a legal code of conduct can have almost any content, as long as it is capable of guiding behavior, and a religious code of conduct has no limits on content, most relativist and individualist accounts of morality place few limits on the content of a moral code an exception is Wong Of course, actual codes do have certain minimal limits—otherwise the societies they characterize would lack the minimum required degree of social cooperation required to sustain their existence over time.

On the other hand, for moral realists who explicitly hold that morality is an informal public system that all rational persons would put forward for governing the behavior of all moral agents, it has a fairly definite content. Hobbes , Mill , and most other non-religiously influenced philosophers in the Anglo-American tradition limit morality to behavior that, directly or indirectly, affects others. The claim that morality only governs behavior that affects others is somewhat controversial, and so probably should not be counted as definitional, even if it turns out to be entailed by the correct moral theory.

Kant may provide an account of this wide concept of morality. However, pace Kant, it is doubtful that all moral agents would put forward a universal guide to behavior that governs behavior that does not affect them at all. Indeed, when the concept of morality is completely distinguished from religion, moral rules do seem to limit their content to behavior that directly or indirectly causes or risks harm to others.

Some behavior that seems to affect only oneself, e.

Normative Ethics: The Morality of Consequences (Mill - Utilitarianism (Selections))

Confusion about the content of morality sometimes arises because morality is not distinguished sufficiently from religion. This religious holdover might also affect the claim that some sexual practices such as homosexuality are immoral. Those who clearly distinguish morality from religion typically do not regard sexual orientation as a moral matter. Many secular American colleges and universities prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and it is quite common for these college and university officials, as well as other public officials, to condemn homophobic behavior as immoral just as they condemn racist behavior as immoral.

It is possible to hold that having a certain sort of social goal is definitional of morality Frankena Stephen Toumlin took it to be the harmony of society. Utilitarians sometimes claim it is the production of the greatest good. Gert took it to be the lessening of evil or harm.

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This latter goal may seem to be a significant narrowing of the utilitarian claim, but utilitarians always include the lessening of harm as essential to producing the greatest good and almost all of their examples involve the avoiding or preventing of harm. In favor of the focus on lessening harm, it is notable that the paradigm cases of moral rules are those that prohibit causing harm directly or indirectly, such as rules prohibiting killing, causing pain, deceiving, and breaking promises.

Even those precepts that require or encourage positive action, such as helping the needy, are almost always related to preventing or relieving harms, rather than promoting goods such as pleasure.

Morality, Normativity, and Society

It should be clear that all rational persons would include these paradigm moral precepts in the moral code that they would put forward to guide the behavior of all moral agents. The question is whether they would also include precepts that require or encourage the promotion of positive benefits when such benefits do not count as the relieving of deprivation. For example, if they would include a moral precept encouraging people to be more entertaining or to cook tastier meals, then Gert would be wrong.

Among the views of moral realists, differences in content are less significant than similarities.