Bernard Gert, Common Morality Part I, The Moral System

Structure of “common morality” (19)

¨  10 moral rules (types of actions forbidden or required unless there is adequate justification to do otherwise) (29-53)

¨   moral ideals (types of actions encouraged or discouraged) [contrast utilitarian ideals (24-25)]

¨  2-step procedure for justifying a violation of a moral rule (55-76, NB procedure’s purpose)

¨   list of morally relevant features (58-74)

¨   room for 4 kinds of disagreement (20)

                NB: presented as a description, not a prescription

What would be a counter-example to Gert’s description of the structure and content of our common morality?

¨  A generally accepted moral rule that is not covered by one of the 10 rules.

¨  Something covered by one of the 10 rules that people generally think is not required/forbidden (needs no justification for violation).

¨  Actions that for Gert are merely encouraged, but that we commonly think are required (or vice versa).

¨  Moral ideals that are supposed to be followed impartially.

¨  Acceptance of a violation of a rule when it does not have adequate justification by the 2-step procedure (or rejection when it does have such a justification)

¨  A recognized moral ideal that has nothing to do with reducing harm. (Is it just a utilitarian ideal?)

¨  A rule whose serious violation is not punishable (e.g. adultery).

Scope of the moral system

¨   applies to all moral agents (=people who know the moral rules and can follow them [26])

¨   protects at least all moral agents (28-29)

¨   disagreement on who else protected by which of the first five rules:

¨   infants and young children (almost all: protected)

¨   fetuses (controversial)

¨   animals (controversial whether “do not kill” protects, especially re animals with rich mental life )

Has Gert accurately described the opinions of thoughtful people on whom morality protects? (Has he omitted some entities that some think are protected? Has he included some that some people don’t think are protected?)

The 10 moral rules (20)

¨  Do not harm. (21, 40)

  1. Do not kill.
  2. Do not cause pain.
  3. Do not disable.
  4. Do not deprive of freedom.
  5. Do not deprive of pleasure

¨  Do not violate trust.  (21)

  1. Do not deceive.
  2. Keep your promises.
  3. Do not cheat.
  4. Obey the law.
  5. Do your duty.

Evaluative questions

¨  Do rules 1-5 cover all harms? (Gert (40): They cover all the basic harms, since nothing counts as (1) a punishment or (2) a disease or injury, unless it involves (1) inflicting or (2) suffering one of them.)

¨  Are some things prohibited by rules 1-5 not harms?

¨  Do rules 6-10 cover all moral rules other than the rule “do not harm”? (What other rule belongs here?)

¨  Are any of rules 6-10 not part of our common morality?

¨  What is the basic rationale (or rationales) for rules 6-10? (Gert (22) : prevention of harm)

1. Do not kill. (29-30)

¨  = do not cause permanent loss of consciousness

2. Do not cause pain. (31-33)

¨  Painful sensation/feeling = one that a rational person wants to stop feeling.

¨  The rule prohibits causing mental pain and unpleasant feelings (anger, sadness, fear) as well as physical pain.

¨  Interpretation for borderline cases uses step 2 of the 2-step procedure.

3. Do not disable (33-35)

¨  Real meaning: Do not deprive of any physical, mental or volitional ability.

¨  Examples of violations:

¨  blinding

¨  cutting off an arm or a leg

¨  giving drugs that cause a loss of ability to remember or to calculate

¨  giving drugs that cause addictions (a volitional disability)

¨  putting into environments that cause compulsions or phobias

4. Do not deprive of freedom (35-38)

¨  Real meaning: Do not make a person unable to do something by altering the person’s environment or situation.

¨  Examples of violations:

¨  imprisonment

¨  physical barriers to a person’s movement

¨  serious threats

¨  job discrimination on irrelevant grounds

¨  taking resources away (e.g. stealing money)

¨  forbidding somebody to take a part in a school play

¨  intentionally touching a person whom one has good reason to think does not want to be touched

¨  listening to or looking at a person without the person’s knowledge (in some circumstances)

¨  medicating a person to prevent the person from harming themselves (justified violation)

5. Do not deprive of pleasure. (38-39)

¨  One feels pleasure when one wants to continue doing or experiencing what one is now doing or experiencing. (The definition of pleasure is a difficult task.)

¨  Examples of violations:

¨  talking loudly at a concert

¨  female circumcision

¨  destroying a beautiful object (or other source of pleasure)

Evaluative questions on the first 5 rules

  1. Has Gert covered all the harms that one person can inflict on another? What other harms can you think of?
  2. What things if any has he included that are not harms?

6. Do not deceive (40-42)

¨  Not “do not lie”, because lying is only one form of intentionally deceiving, which is generally prima facie wrong.

¨  Nor “tell the truth”, because it is generally not prima facie wrong to refuse to provide information.

¨  prohibits not only intentional deception, but also behaviour that a person knows or should know will increase the probability that someone will have a false belief (other than behaviour that affects your personal appearance).

¨  not included under the first five rules since it sometimes causes no harm

7. Keep your promises. (42-44)

¨  applies only where there is a prior contact (unlike previous six rules)

¨  prohibits breaking both formal promises (e.g. contracts) and informal promises (e.g. telling someone you will do something in a way that leads them to count on your doing it)

¨  applies whether or not one intended to keep the promise when one made it (making a promise while intending not to keep it violates rule 6)

¨  violation needs justification, which sometimes exists

¨  often broken unintentionally

8. Do not cheat. (44-46)

¨  Cheating:

¨  commonly goes along with deception and promise-breaking

¨  but distinct from them (e.g. boss who openly cheats at golf)

¨  paradigm: violating the rules of a game in order to gain an advantage over other participants

¨  this paradigm extended to other rule-governed activities (no general definition)

¨  cheating at solitaire not a moral matter, because the moral rules concern only behaviour towards others

¨  examples:

¨  cheating on exams or papers, in business transactions, on one’s income tax

¨  throwing a fight or a game to gain an advantage outside the game

¨  only violations of this rule are unfair, in the basic sense of “unfair”

¨  violations rarely justifiable

9. Obey the law. (47-49)

¨  rationale: generally less harm is suffered if everybody obeys the law

¨  Law = a rule that is part of a society’s legal system, i.e. one:

¨  whose existence is known to all moral agents in the society

¨  which significantly influences their behaviour,

¨  whose rules sometimes apply to members of the society independently of their wish to be subject to them

¨  whose rules sometimes have explicit penalties for violation

¨  features of law but not morality:

¨  formal: usually has procedures for resolving disagreements and getting unique answers to controversial questions

¨  people can be held responsible for actions that they legitimately did not know violate a law

¨  it can sometimes be irrational to obey the law

¨  laws prohibit:

¨   serious violations of the moral rules (which are independently immoral)

¨  actions that would not otherwise be immoral (e.g. bigamy)

¨  violations are similar to cheating

10. Do your duty. (50-53)

¨  Duty:

¨   what is required by a special role and is not otherwise immoral, or

¨  what circumstances require

¨  roles :

¨  biologically based (e.g. parent)

¨  result of paid employment (e.g. doctor, police officer, teacher)

¨  Fulfilling the demands of a role is morally required if and only if the demand is not otherwise immoral.

¨  Circumstances require one to help when one is:

1.       near a person in need of help to avoid a serious harm,

2.       in a unique or close-to-unique position to provide that help, and

3.       able to provide it at little cost to oneself.

Note : These 3 conditions are jointly sufficient, but not necessary (see note 16).

¨  So-called “duties of imperfect obligation” are not duties, even in the broad sense of being something morally required, but are things that we are morally encouraged to do (moral ideals).

Evaluative questions on the second 5 rules

  1. Which parts if any of rules 6-10 are not part of our common morality?
  1. What basic rationales, if any, could be given for rules 6-10 other than prevention of harm (Gert, 22)?
  2. What moral rules (if any) of our common morality has Gert left off his list?