Moral Rules and Principles

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Normative rules and principles say what things are required or permitted or good or bad. In other words, normative rules and principles say what agents ought to do or what agents are allowed to do; or what deserves to be promoted, praised, or approved; or what deserves to be opposed, criticized, or disapproved. Moral rules or principles differ from normative ones of other kinds (such as rules or principles of law, etiquette, or clubs) in that moral rules or principles indicate what agents morally ought to do or are morally allowed to do, or what deserves moral praise and admiration.

Rules and principles are (to at least some extent) generalthat is, they are about kinds of situations or about classes of cases, not about individual instances. So rules or principles are juxtaposed with judgments about a particular instance. The judgment that Martin Elginbrodde ought to feed his hamster at 8 a.m. on July 7, 2007, does not articulate a rule. Rather, it articulates a judgment about what a particular person should do on a particular occasion. Because rules and principles are about kinds of situations or classes of cases, rules or principles entail judgments about particular instances. The principle that people ought to feed their pets entails that Miguel ought to feed his cat, that Janet ought to feed her dog, that Rahul ought to feed his bird, that Jo ought to feed his ferret, and so on for as many pet owners as there are.

Many philosophers have held that moral rules and principles must apply universally. What it is right for one person to do must be right for anyone else to do unless there is some morally relevant difference between the cases. This thought is reflected in the Golden Rule and serves as a cornerstone of the moral philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Richard M. Hare. But one important difference between Kant and Hare concerns the degree of detail and complexity they allow into moral principles. Kant thought moral principles had to be quite simple; Hare thought they could be highly detailed and complex as long as they were formulated in completely universal terms.

How stringent are moral rules and principles? Most people must take moral rules and principles to be very importantin particular, to generate very strong reasons for action. Otherwise, the degree of social cooperation and solidarity that moral rules and principles are supposed to provide is unlikely to be achieved. Some philosophersfor example, Ronald Dworkin (1977)have held that moral rules can be more specific and less stringent than moral principles. A moral rule might be: "Be especially kind to your parents." A more general and stringent principle might be: "Be especially kind to your benefactors." In a case where a parent has not been a benefactor, for example, a father who always ignores the plight of his offspring, the rule "Be especially kind to your parents" might fade to nothing.

Admittedly, even the rule "Be especially kind to your benefactors" can be overridden. To take an extreme example, being kind to benefactors might conflict in some situation with saving many innocent lives. Suppose that for some reason one can either go to thank benefactors or devote the time to saving innocent lives, but not both of these things. With respect to such a case, the principle "Be especially kind to benefactors" seems morally less important than the principle "Prevent harm to others." Many other moral rules or principles are likewise capable of being outweighed or overridden in certain cases by other moral rules or principles.

Are there any rules or principles that always outweigh any opposing moral considerations? Consider the principles "Do not do what is morally wrong" and "Do what you morally ought to do." Such principles concern compliance with all-things-considered moral verdicts. These principles tell us to do whatever is, all things considered, morally required. They give us no indication which moral considerations win out over others to generate all-things-considered moral verdicts.

Are there any rules or principles that both provide information about what morality requires and always outweigh any opposing moral considerations? Two kinds of principles have been suggested. One of these kinds consists of moral principles outlawing evil purposes, such as "Do not, for its own sake, harm others" and "Do not, for its own sake, deceive others." The other kind consists of principles offered as the most general and basic principle of morality, such as Kant's "Act only on maxims that you can will to be universal laws" and the act-utilitarian's "Do whatever acts promote aggregate well-being."

There are other moral theories that put forward other foundational principles. For example, T. M. Scanlon's (1982) contractualist theory of morality claims that moral wrongness is determined by rules for the general regulation of behavior that no one could reasonably reject as the basis of informed, unforced, general agreement. Richard B. Brandt's (1967) rule-utilitarian theory holds that moral wrongness is determined by rules that have the highest expected impartial utility. Rosalind Hursthouse's (1999) virtue ethics holds that an act is wrong if it is one that would not be done by someone with a full set of the character traits that benefit others or the agent.

Some philosophers think that the theories just mentioned are mistaken to claim that morality is so unified. For example, pluralists such as William David Ross (1930) think that there is a plurality of basic moral principles that identify the features that count morally in favor of actions that have them (moral pros) and other features that count morally against the actions that have them (moral cons). These moral pros and cons are the appropriate inputs to moral assessment; a verdict about all-things-considered moral rightness or wrongness is the appropriate output. Rossian pluralists think that these moral principles (and thus the moral pros and cons that the principles identify) can conflict. For example, the fact that an act would benefit others counts in its favor, and the fact that an act would keep one's promise counts in its favor. Sometimes, however, keeping one's promise is not what would benefit others.

Rossian pluralists also think that the principles do not come in a strict hierarchy of importance that would resolve all the possible conflicts among them. This presents the question of what is the right thing to do when the Rossian principles conflict. Rossian pluralists hold that which principle wins when there is conflict among them cannot be captured in a correct, informative, general principle. For example, a general principle that benefiting others always trumps keeping promises is not correct. Neither is a general principle that keeping promises always trumps benefiting others. Instead, in some situations it is right to keep a promise though one could benefit others more if one broke the promise, but in other situations it is right to break a promise if this is necessary in order to benefit others. So Rossian pluralists admit that moral verdicts about right and wrong cannot be systematized in correct informative general principles. They maintain that, when basic principles conflict, the right thing to do is a matter of judgment rather than a further principle. Still, Rossian pluralists think that moral principles have an important place, namely, in identifying the moral pros and cons.

Some philosophers think even principles about what counts as a moral pro or a moral con are incorrect. These philosophers are called moral particularists. Particularists hold that, for any feature of an action or its consequence that is a moral pro in one situation, that same feature might be a moral con in another situation. Whereas Rossians think that the fact that an act would benefit someone is always a reason in favor of the act, particularists think that, in some situations, the fact that an act would benefit someone is morally positive but in other situations it is morally negative. Wiping sweat from a torturer's brow, for example, would benefit the torturer but would not count in favor of the action. More generally, particularists maintain that features of actions can switch moral "polarity," depending on the context. Most will agree that one should try to help the person being tortured rather than wiping the torturer's brow. The question is how to explain what the inputs to that verdict are. Particularists say that the fact that wiping the torturer's brow would benefit him is no reason to do it, but rather, a reason against doing it.

On this issue, antiparticularists divide into two groups. Antiparticularists in one group say that the potential benefit to the torturer is massively outweighed by the importance of trying to help the person being tortured. But antiparticularists in this group hold that the fact that wiping the torturer's brow would benefit him counts at least a little bit in favor of wiping his brow. Antiparticularists in the other group agree with particularists that the fact that wiping the torturer's brow would benefit him is no moral reason to wipe his brow. Antiparticularists in this second group thus agree with particularists that the example about wiping the torturer's brow refutes the claim that benefiting someone is always a moral pro. But these antiparticularists oppose particularism by claiming there is some other feature that does always have the same moral polarity. For example, these antiparticularists might claim that any act with the feature of benefiting an innocent person has at least this in its moral favor. In other words, antiparticularists in this second group abandon the more general claim that benefiting a person is always a morally positive feature, but they insist on the somewhat less general claim that benefiting an innocent person is always a morally positive feature.

The debate over particularism is mostly about whether there are any correct informative general principles, either that specify all-things-considered moral rightness or that indicate which features always operate as moral pros or cons. Antiparticularists win the debate if they come up with correct informative general principles of one or both kinds. Particularists win if they show that every informative general principle put forward is incorrect.

The debate over particularism has other elements as well. On the one hand, particularists say that one can often see not only which features count in which way in a particular situation but also what is all-things-considered morally right in that situation. If particularists are right about that, the question is posed: What is the point of trying to formulate general principles if we can see which particular acts are right without them?

On the other hand, antiparticularists point out that we commonly take being unprincipled as a serious moral flaw. Why is being unprincipled such a moral flaw if acting on principles is not part of being moral? Furthermore, why does moral education start with learning rules and principles if these end up playing no role in determining moral rightness? And why does moral reasoning so often consist in comparing different cases if correct moral judgments are always about particular cases rather than about classes of cases or types of situations?

Particularists pose a challenge to the idea that principles play an essential role in morality. This challenge has forced other moral philosophers to be more specific about which principles they defend and about what roles they think principles must play. Rossian pluralists think correct informative principles are only about moral pros and cons. Many other philosophersfor example, utilitarians, Kantians, contractualists, and virtue ethiciststhink that there is a correct informative general principle specifying a foundational principle of right and wrong, yet there is persisting disagreement among them over what this principle is.

See also Deontological Ethics; Divine Command Theories of Ethics; Duty; Golden Rule; Dworkin, Ronald; Hare, Richard M.; Kant, Immanuel; Moral Dilemmas; Moral Principles: Their Justification; Rights; Ross, William David; Utilitarianism.


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Brad Hooker (2005)

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Moral Rules and Principles

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