Bernard Gert, Common Morality Part II, The Moral Theory

The justification of morality (81)

¨  Is it rational to endorse morality?

¨  Is it rational to act morally?

NB: Morality and acting morally are understood in terms of the moral system of Part II.

NB: Justification is not a matter of showing that the moral system is a correct description of morality, but a matter of showing that it is rational to endorse the system and follow it.

The answers

¨  It is rationally required* to endorse morality.

*(under certain conditions)

¨  It is always rationally allowed to act morally.

Defining rationality (97-99)

¨  The definition must make it absurd to ask, “Why do what is rationally required?”

¨  For this purpose, the basic concept is irrationality.

¨  A rational action is one that is not irrational.

¨  Irrational action = an action that harms* the agent, for no adequate reason.

(*or increases the probability that the agent will suffer harm)

¨  Note the connection to irrational behaviour that is a symptom of a mental disorder.

¨  Evaluative question: Is this the right conception of (ir)rationality for the purpose? Can you propose one that is as good or better?

Justifying endorsement of morality as protecting all moral agents

¨  (1.1.1) Put on “the blindfold of justice”: use only beliefs shared by all moral agents. (83, 90-91) [NB]

¨  (1.1.2) Among these (88-91):

¨  every moral agent can be harmed by any moral agent

¨  nobody wants to suffer harm

¨  everybody is fallible and can be deceived

¨  (1.1.3) Morality protects moral agents from harms.

¨  So (1.1) non-endorsers of morality will be perceived as a danger to others.

¨  Hence (1) their non-endorsement increases their risk of suffering harm from others.

¨  (2) Rationally required beliefs give no adequate reason for non-endorsement.

¨  Hence (MC) it is irrational not to endorse morality publicly.

Evaluation of this justification

1.1.1 (blindfold)   1.1.2 (vulnerability)   1.1.3 (protection)

1.1 (danger)

                                1 (risk)  2 (no adequate reason)

                                                MC (endorse)

Reasons (97)

¨  Reason for an action = the fact that the action reduces some harm or provides a benefit (for anybody)

¨  makes an otherwise irrational action rational if and only if it is adequate

¨  adequate if and only if a significant number of otherwise rational people believe it is adequate

¨  Personally irrational actions are defined by beliefs rather than facts.

“The blindfold of justice” (83, 90-91)

¨  Why use only beliefs that all rational people share?

¨  What types of beliefs are ruled out?

Justifying acting morally (NB)

1.       Acting in accordance with a moral rule either harms the agent* or it does not.

*or increases the risk that the agent suffers harm

2.       If it does not harm the agent, it is not irrational for the agent to act in accordance with the rule.

3.       If it harms the agent, that fact is relevant to whether violating the rule is justified.

4.       If the harm to the agent and the other morally relevant features of the act provide adequate justification for violating the rule, then it is morally justified to violate the rule and avoid the harm.

5.       Otherwise, there is an adequate reason for the agent to bring harm to themselves, and so it is not irrational for the agent to act morally in this situation.

Hence it is always rational (= rationally allowed) to act morally.

                                                act according to moral rule

harms agent                       doesn’t harm agent

                                                                                                not irrational

violation justified             violation not justified

no self-harm      adequate reason for self-harm

in acting morally                                    

                                                                                                not irrational

Morality and self-interest

¨  It may also be rational* to act immorally in a particular situation. (110)

* (= rationally allowed = not irrational = either not harmful to the agent or harmful with an adequate reason)

¨  So self-interest may make it rational to act immorally. (114)

¨  Far more harm is done by immoral actions due to racism, nationalism or religion. (115)

¨  Such immoral actions may be altruistic, i.e. done out of concern for others and at a cost to one’s own self-interest. (115)

¨  Evaluative question: How if at all would you modify Gert’s diagnosis of why people act immorally?

Reflective questions

  1. Is there a more powerful argument as to why it is rational to act morally?
  2. How does Gert’s argument that it is rational to endorse morality and act morally compare to Kant’s argument that it is rational to act morally?
  1. How does it compare to Mill’s argument in terms of the ultimate sanction for the principle of utility?

Reasons and desires (111-112)

¨  A reason for an action is also a reason for wanting to do the action.

¨  A desire is not a basic reason for an action.

¨  It is only a reason if satisfying the desire reduces harm (e.g. displeasure) or brings a benefit (e.g. pleasure)—to anyone.

Comparative question: How does this position compare to Mill’s “proof” of the principle of utility?

Next: Gert 116-149

¨  Impartiality: its definition, its place in morality

¨  NB: Why act morally?

¨  Nature of morality: informal public system

¨  Political settlement of unresolvable moral disagreements

¨  Rights

¨  Not every moral issue has a unique correct answer: consequences

¨  Requirements of a complete moral theory