A Defense of Ethical Pluralism


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Between monism, pluralism and particularism – then pluralism is much the most plausible of the three.


By Dr. P.J. McGrath
Professor of Philosophy, Deceased
University College, Cork, Ireland


I must first explain what precisely I mean by ‘ethical pluralism’ . Moral theories may be divided into three categories in accordance with the different accounts which they give of moral principles. Some moral theories postulate a supreme moral principle from which all other moral principles are derived. I shall call this position ethical monism and refer to these theories as monistic theories. Examples are Utilitarianism, Natural Law Theory and the Divine Commands Theory. It might seem that Kant’s ethical system should also be regarded as monistic, but this is questionable. It is true that Kant seems to have looked on himself as an ethical monist, since he regarded all three versions of his Categorical Imperative as equivalent. But he is very probably wrong about that, so perhaps he should be regarded as a monist manqué, that is, as someone who aspired to be a monist, but was not actually one.

Dr. Jonathan Dancy

Other moral theories reject the notion of a supreme moral principle and claim that there is a plurality of basic moral principles, which are, in some sense, self-validating or self-justifying. I shall call this position ethical pluralism and refer to these theories as pluralistic theories. Finally, some moral theories reject ethical principles completely. The term I shall use for this position is particularism. A particularist rejects moral principles on the grounds that they are unreliable and unnecessary. They are unreliable because they all admit of exceptions, and consequently if you adhere to them strictly, they will lead you into error. And they are unnecessary because we don’t need moral principles in order to make moral judgements on particular actions and particular situations. The best known contemporary particularist in the world of analytic philosophy is Jonathan Dancy, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Keele and the author of a recent book entitled Moral Reasons, which is a defence of particularism. Of course there have also been particularists who were not analytic philosophers, such as Jean Paul Sartre – at least in the lecture which was published in English under the title Existentialism and Humanism – and the Calvinist theologian, Karl Barth, though his particularism was very different from Sartre’s.

Now it seems to me that if one had to choose between these three categories of moral theories – between monism, pluralism and particularism – then pluralism is much the most plausible of the three. Obviously I do not have time here to argue this point in the sort of detail that it requires, but I shall try to give a general idea of the sort of arguments I would employ if I had time to do so. Consider monism first of all. One serious problem with all monistic theories is the problem of justification. What justification is there for regarding any of the supreme principles of morality proposed by the monistic theories as in fact the supreme principle of morals? Not merely is there not, in my opinion, any such justification to be had, but there is no justification for regarding these principles as valid moral principles of any sort. Since they are, ex hypothesi, first principles of morality, they cannot be justified by being derived from some more basic moral principle. And it seems equally impossible to see how they could be derived from some non-moral matter of fact. Monists would seem to have no option then but to fall back on the plea that the first principle of their ethical system is somehow self-justifying or self-evident. But what makes this position almost impossible to accept is the fact that different monistic systems have totally different views as to the character of the supreme principle of morality. The supreme principle of natural law theory is completely different from the supreme principle of either the divine commands theory or utilitarianism and the supreme principle of utilitarianism is in turn completely different from the supreme principle of the divine commands theory. To make matters worse, a divine commands or a natural law theorist would not merely reject the principle of utility as the supreme principle of morality, but would regard it as not a valid moral principle of any sort. And a utilitarian would return the compliment so far as the supreme principle of both the divine commands theory and the natural law theory is concerned. Given these facts, it seems preposterous to regard any one of these supreme principles as somehow self-validating or self-evident. And this leaves us with no alternative but to regard them as devoid of rational justification.

Even if we ignore the problem of justification, each of the monistic system of ethics is faced with serious difficulties which are peculiar to itself. Consider first the divine commands theory. This is faced with three more major difficulties, any one of which is sufficient to undermine it. The first is that there is no way of discovering what God has commanded or forbidden us to do. Many people would of course reject this claim and argue that God has publicly proclaimed his will for mankind. But the trouble with this is that there are competing claims as to where this public proclamation of God’s will is to be found. Jews find it in the Old Testament, Protestants in the Bible, Catholics in the Bible and in the teaching of the Catholic Church, while Muslims think it is in the Koran. Only one of these claims can be correct. But which one? There does not seem to be any rational means of resolving this issue, for none of these claims is supported by evidence that is anywhere near sufficient to warrant credibility.

A further objection to the divine commands theory is that it implies that if God does not exist, then there is no such thing as right or wrong. As Ivan Karamazov put it – “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”. This seems to me to be wholly incredible. Morality is intrinsic to human relationships and to human society. It is not something that is imposed from outside. Hitler and Stalin were moral monsters whether God exists or not. The non-existence of God would take nothing from their guilt.

The final difficulty with the divine commands theory is that it implies that since God created the moral code, he could change its content at will, just as he could change the laws of nature. This seems to me to me to be not only incredible, but to be even meaningless. What would it mean to say, for example, that God could, by an act of will, bring it about that torturing people is no longer morally wrong, but is morally acceptable or even morally praiseworthy? This claim seems just as incoherent as the claim that God could bring it about that five is the square root of forty nine. Some recent divine commands theorists, such as the American, Robert Adams, have tried to get round this difficulty by reformulating the divine commands theory so that what it claims is that the commands that one is morally obliged to obey are those of a loving God and a loving God would of course be incapable of commanding us to torture other people. But this proposal solves one problem at the expense of creating another. For this new version of the divine commands theory requires not merely that one knows what God’s will is, but also that one knows that God is a loving God. And this second sort of knowledge seems just as elusive as the first, for the amount of evil in the world suggests that if there is a God, he is indifferent to the welfare of creatures.

Natural Law Theory

Natural Law theory has to contend with an equally formidable set of difficulties. The first of these is that the concept of human nature is extremely vague and consequently it cannot function as a satisfactory test of right and wrong. But is there any way of clarifying it? Well, one could clarify it by stipulating that human nature consists of a specified fact or set of facts about human beings. But this would mean that right and wrong would depend on which set of facts one chooses, so that by manipulating the concept of human nature one could make almost anything to be right or wrong. One might try to get round this difficulty by claiming that possession of human nature is what makes an individual to be human and that human nature consists therefore of those facts which must be true of anyone for that individual to be a human being. But it is doubtful if this move gets one very far, for it seems obvious that nearly all the properties that might be used to distinguish human beings from animals are lacking in some humans. Thus if one were to say that to be human one must be a rational animal or a language using animal or a tool using animal, one is faced with the difficulty that small babies and seriously mentally retarded human beings lack all these properties. Perhaps one might say that human beings that lack these properties are not fully human. But the notion of being fully human is also extremely vague and to use it as a test of right or wrong is once more to expose natural law theory to the charge that its supreme principle can be manipulated to produce whatever results one pleases. Could one be fully human if, for example, one had no appreciation of art or no appreciation of mathematics or no appreciation of music or indeed no appreciation of philosophy? I know of no non-arbitrary answers to these questions. It would seem that the only thing that is absolutely required to be human is that one should be born of human parents. But clearly this could not be used to distinguish right from wrong.

A further difficulty with the natural law theory is that its supreme principle of morality is that actions are morally right if they are in accordance with human nature and morally wrong if they are contrary to it. But what do the expressions ‘in accordance with’ and ‘contrary to’ mean in this context? It is easy to see how an action can be in accordance with or contrary to a rule or a law or a command, for these are all injunctions, that is to say, they are utterances that lay down what one is required to do. But human nature consists not of a set of injunctions, but of a set of facts about human beings and what is it for an action to be contrary to a fact? There doesn’t seem to be any way of making sense of this notion.

The third standard monistic theory is utilitarianism and it too is faced with a series of difficulties which are peculiar to itself. The first is that the principle of utility contains two superlatives – the greatest happiness of the greatest number – and there is therefore no non-arbitrary means of applying it to particular situations. It is as if one were to offer a prize for the person who ran the longest distance in the shortest time. There is no non-arbitrary means of distinguishing between, for example, one who runs a hundred metres in ten seconds, one who runs a mile in four minutes and one who runs a marathon in two hours ten minutes. Equally there seems to be no non-arbitrary means of distinguishing between an action which produces a significant increase in happiness for one person, an action which increases human happiness by the same amount but divides this extra amount equally amongst one hundred people and an action which divides the same increase in happiness equally amongst a thousand people.

A further and more serious difficulty with utilitarianism is that it is concerned only with the aggregate of human happiness. If the totality of human happiness is increased, then, on utilitarian terms, the misery of some individuals doesn’t count. But this seems very counter-intuitive. Utilitarians have of course attempted to show that this is not a genuine consequence of utilitarianism, but I do not think that any of these attempts are successful.

Utilitarianism – greatest good for the greatest number

A final difficulty with utilitarianism is that it makes unrealistic demands on the individual. According to utilitarianism every action that we perform is either required by the principle of utilitarianism or else is immoral. As a consequence living under a utilitarian moral code is like living in Germany – Everything that isn’t obligatory is forbidden. This would mean that in any situation where you fell short of doing the best possible action, you are behaving immorally. This seems to me to be an impossibly high ideal to live up to. One who did live up to it would undoubtedly be a saint, but anyone who repeatedly contravened the principle of utility, as I fear most of us would do, would have to be classified as a scoundrel. But this cannot be correct, for the majority of people, I believe, are neither saints nor scoundrels. Utilitarianism also leaves no room for morally indifferent actions or for acts of supererogation, that is, for actions which are morally praiseworthy, but which we are not morally obliged to do. These implications of the theory seem to me to be clearly false and as a consequence utilitarianism must itself be false.

If ethical monism is unsatisfactory, what about ethical particularism? This theory dispenses with moral principles completely and claims that we arrive at moral judgements on particular actions, situations and persons in somewhat the same way that we arrive at aesthetic judgements on particular buildings, paintings and works of literature? However, ethical particularism, in my view, is not a viable moral theory. There are a whole series of objections that one can level against it. In the first place, if ethical particularism were true, then it would be impossible to understand why it has such an insignificant place in the history of moral philosophy. It was unknown before the twentieth century and even yet has very few supporters. Admittedly what is true may be difficult to discover or to prove. But the truth of particularism would, almost literally, have been staring us in the face. The particularist is thus committed to the view that not merely does almost all moral philosophy rest on a mistake, but the mistake is one that should be obvious to every reflective person.

The second objection to particularism is that it is possible to point to moral principles which appear to be unquestionably valid. For example:

1. It is morally wrong to inflict pain on other people for the sake of the pleasure that one gets out of it.

2. It is morally wrong to punish people for crimes which they did not commit.

3. Rape is morally wrong.

4. Sexually abusing children is morally wrong.

5. Slavery is a morally reprehensible institution.

6. Rescuing people in grave danger is morally commendable.

Particularists would presumably reply to this by arguing that since all of these admit of exceptions, they are not valid moral principles. But this is open to question on two grounds. The first is that it is by no means evident that all such principles admit of exceptions. Is it really possible to envisage a situation where, for example, one would be morally justified in sexually abusing children or torturing someone for the sake of the pleasure one got out of it? Secondly, even if it were, this would not invalidate these principles or reduce them to crude rules of thumb, since such situations would be so improbable and bizarre that they could be safely ignored in our everyday moral thinking.

The third objection to particularism is that it seems incapable of explaining how we distinguish between the properties of an action which are morally relevant and those which are not. Most of the properties of an action are irrelevant so far as its moral character is concerned. Consider for example Oswald’s action in killing President Kennedy. The fact that this action took place in Dallas, that the date was November 22nd 1963, that the weapon used was a rifle, that Kennedy was a Catholic and that the fatal shot was fired from a warehouse are all morally irrelevant. The killing of Kennedy would have been equally morally wrong even if all these facts were different. But this judgement depends on the moral principles to which one subscribes. If you belonged to a bizarre religious sect which taught that the killing of Catholic heads of state is morally justifiable, then for you the fact that Kennedy was a Catholic would be a morally relevant property of Oswald’s action. But the problem for moral particularists is that they have no moral principles to appeal to and consequently no means of distinguishing between properties that are morally relevant and ones that are not. It would seem impossible therefore for the moral judgements of a consistent particularist to be rationally justifiable.

If neither monism nor particularism are acceptable ways of understanding right and wrong, what about pluralism? The first thing to be said about pluralism is that, like monism, it is not so much a single theory as a family of theories. But unlike monism, the similarities between the members of the pluralist family are far greater than the differences. In fact I think it is fair to say that the only significant difference between the various pluralist theories is that they give different answers to the question: How do we come to recognize the basic principles of morals as valid? One set of pluralists, amongst them Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, said that we recognize these principles as valid by means of a special moral sense. A second set of pluralists, including Cudworth, Clarke and Price rejected the notion of a special moral sense and held that the faculty that forms moral judgements is simply reason or understanding. Thus the first set compared our grasp of basic moral principles to sensation, the second set compared it to Cartesian intuition. Thomas Reid, the founder of the Scottish Common Sense School, believed that the fundamental principles of morals are self-evident in much the same way as the axioms of Euclid. And a twentieth century pluralist, Sir David Ross, believed that we grasp these principles by a process that he called intuitive induction. By this he meant that in judging that a particular action is morally right or wrong, we grasp that all actions of the same type are right or wrong. But all agree that there is a plurality of basic moral principles which are self-evident and therefore not in need of external justification.

Amongst the pluralists that I have just mentioned the only twentieth century name is that of Ross and this is not simply a matter of chance, for pluralism is now a deeply unfashionably theory. But fashion is a poor guide to the truth in philosophy. What is fashionable in one generation is often regarded as an aberration in the next. Still, it must be admitted that there are genuine reasons why pluralism is now largely neglected. There are in fact four serious problems with pluralism. The first concerns its treatment of basic moral principles as self-evident. There is something incurably subjective about the notion of self-evidence, since what appears as self-evident to one person may not appear at all self-evident to someone else. Frege once remarked; “We are all too ready to invoke inner intuition when we cannot produce any other ground of knowledge”. And I think we could say the same about self-evidence.

Of course, there are such things as self-evident moral principles. For example ‘Murder is morally wrong’ is self-evident if we understand ‘murder’ to mean ‘the morally unjustifiable killing of a human being’. But it is self-evident at the expense of being trivial. It is incapable of giving us genuine moral guidance, for one would first have to have arrived at a judgement on the morality of the action in question before one would be in a position to describe it as murder. And it seems the same would be true of any moral principle that could be regarded as self-evident. Take any moral principle of the form ‘All actions that are x are morally wrong’. Now this principle cannot be self-evident, it appears, unless describing an action as x incorporates the moral judgement that it is wrong, for otherwise there would be no absurdity in asserting that an action that is x is morally acceptable. But if the description ‘x’ does incorporate this moral judgement, then the principle is trivial, since it asserts no more than that any action that is morally wrong is morally wrong. A pluralist might try to avoid this problem by treating the basic principles of morality as synthetic a priori truths, but there are so many problems attaching to the category of the synthetic a priori that such a move would carry little or no conviction.

The second and third reasons for looking on pluralism with suspicion derive from the fact, or at least apparent fact, that moral principles admit of exceptions. It is morally wrong to steal or to lie or to kill someone, but in certain circumstances stealing, lying and killing people are morally justifiable. The first problem that this raises for the pluralist is the problem of consistency. How can one consistently accept a principle as valid and at the same time hold that it admits of exceptions? The answer clearly is that one cannot. If a principle, whether theoretical or practical, admits of exceptions or counter-examples, the only rational option is to modify it or to abandon it. A pluralist might try to escape this difficulty by arguing that everyday moral principles admit of exceptions because they are only partially formulated. When the principle is fully formulated it incorporates the exceptions and as a consequence the problem of consistency disappears. Thus the moral principle concerning killing should read ‘Killing people is morally wrong except it is a matter of self-defence or the killing of an enemy in a just war or the civil execution of someone who has committed a serious crime’. But this move does not work, since the reformulated version of the principle will inevitably admit of further exceptions. There are almost certainly circumstances other than the three just mentioned where one would be morally justified in killing someone. The July plot to assassinate Hitler is one example. And no matter how many exceptions one wrote into the principle, there could be no guarantee that there were not other circumstances that had been overlooked. Besides the exceptions that are written into the principle will themselves almost certainly admit of a sub-class of further exceptions. Thus no matter how meticulously one describes the circumstances in which killing in self-defence is morally justifiable, there is no guarantee that one has covered all the eventualities. But in any event this whole exercise is self-stultifying in the context of pluralism, since the more complicated one makes the principle in an effort to avoid any further exceptions, the more far fetched becomes the claim that the principle is self-evident.

The fact that moral principles admit of exceptions also creates a second problem for pluralism. For how is one to reconcile this fact with the claim that the basic principles of morals are self-evident? Anything that is self-evidently true is true a priori. But anything that admits of exceptions is falsified a posteriori. The notion of a self-evident truth that admits, or is capable of admitting, of exceptions is therefore incoherent.

The fourth and final objection to pluralism is that if there are a plurality of basic moral principles, then there is always the possibility that in certain situations two or more of these principles may come into conflict. The principle that one ought to pay one’s debts, for example, may in some circumstances be in conflict with the principle that parents should provide for the sustenance of their children. How is this conflict to be resolved? A monist can resolve it by appealing to the supreme principle of morals, but this move is not possible for a pluralist. The only apparent alternative is to arrange the basic moral principles in order of precedence. The first principle would then override any principle with which it comes in conflict; the second principle would override every principle but the first and so on. But this would give very counter-intuitive results, for it is generally accepted that when moral principles come into conflict, principle A will override principle B in one situation, but will be overridden by principle B in another. Thus in one situation the principle that one ought to pay one’s debts may override the principle that one should look after the welfare of one’s children whereas in a different situation this may be reversed.

Well, that summarizes the case for the persecution and it looks like a pretty impressive case. But of course we shouldn’t come to a final verdict until we have also heard the case for the defence. I shall present this case by examining each of the four objections to pluralism in the reverse order from which I presented them. What can the pluralist say in reply to the charge that pluralism is unable to provide a test for resolving conflicts of moral principles? I think the only thing for the pluralist to do here is to plead guilty and say that when there is a conflict of moral principles one must consider the facts as carefully as possible and then use one’s judgement. But this is not a very damaging admission, since no matter what moral system one adheres to there will be certain situations where one will have no alternative but to use one’s judgement. Thus if one is a utilitarian it will be sometimes be simply a matter of judgement as to which of two alternative actions is conducive to the greatest happiness of the greatest number. If one is a divine commands theorist one will have no other way of resolving a moral conflict except by using one’s judgement to decide which of two alternative actions is required by God’s will and so on. The necessity to fall back on one’s judgement is not a real cause for complaint. It is simply part of what is involved in being a moral agent.

The second and third objections to pluralism both derive from the apparent fact that moral principles admit of exceptions. The only way to defend pluralism against these objections is to deny that this is a genuine fact, for if moral principles do admit of exceptions, one cannot regard them as self-validating, nor can one consistently regard them as valid moral principles. But it would seem impossible to deny that moral principles admit of exceptions, since to do so is to embrace a completely implausible form of moral rigourism. However, there is one other way of getting rid of exceptions to moral principles and that is by distinguishing between two different senses of moral obligation. One can have a moral obligation to do something without it being the case that one has a moral obligation to do it all things considered. For example, I had a moral obligation to come here this evening and read this paper, since I had promised to do so. But suppose that on my way here I had knocked down a pedestrian and seriously injured him and I was the only person available to bring him to hospital. In that case my obligation to come here and read this paper would have been overridden by my obligation to assist the seriously injured pedestrian. So all things considered my obligation would be to drive the pedestrian to hospital even though this meant missing my appointment here.

The obligation to come here and read a paper is not of course cancelled or nullified by being overridden by the second obligation, since otherwise I would not have found myself subject to a conflict of obligations. It still exists and it would be changed back into an obligation all things considered if, for example, I encountered an ambulance which relieved me of the duty of bringing the injured person to hospital. A moral obligation that is not, or at least not necessarily, an obligation all things considered I shall call a simple obligation. This sort of obligation is derived from one morally relevant feature of the action or situation. The other sort of obligation – an obligation all things considered – is derived from all the morally relevant features of the action or situation.

Now moral principles of the form ‘Such-and-such an action is morally wrong ‘or ‘One ought to do such-and-such’ are usually understood as referring to obligations all things considered. And when understood in this way, they almost inevitably admit of exceptions. If the principle ‘One ought to keep one’s promises is understood to mean ‘One is morally obliged all things considered to keep ones promises’, then it admits of exceptions, since in some situations the obligation to keep a promise will be overridden by another obligation. Likewise if the principle that one ought not tell lies is understood to mean that there is a moral obligation all things considered not to tell lies, it too will admit of exceptions, since in some situations the obligation not to tell a lie will be overridden by another obligation. And since, as we have seen already, one cannot consistently affirm a principle and at the same time concede that it admits of exceptions, this interpretation of moral principles is unacceptable whether one is a pluralist or not. But if one understands moral principles as referring to simple obligations, then they do not admit of exceptions – provided of course that they are valid principles in the first place. There is always a simple obligation to pay one’s debts, to keep one’s promises, not to lie, not to steal, to avoid killing or injuring other people, though these obligations are in some situations overridden by other obligations. But even when they are overridden, these obligations still exist, so that these situations do not constitute genuine exceptions to the relevant moral principle.

Why are moral principles usually understood to refer to obligations all things considered? I think the answer is that moral principles only rarely admit of exceptions. Most people, I suspect, never find themselves in situations where they would be justified in stealing or killing or injuring other people and only rarely find themselves in situations where they are justified in lying or breaking promises. Now if a simple obligations turns out in most situations to be an obligation all things considered, then it is easy to understood how a principle about simple obligations would be construed as a principle about obligations all things considered.

If I am right in arguing that moral principles are concerned with simple obligations and consequently do not admit of exceptions, then the second and third objections to ethical pluralism collapse. There remains the first objection, which is that ethical pluralists have failed to provide an acceptable account of how we recognize the basic principles of morality as valid. I believe that, as things stand, this objection is correct. It is very difficult to make any sense of the notion of a special moral sense and in any event to invoke such a sense is to multiply entities without necessity. And appeals to self-evidence or to intuition are vulnerable to Frege’s criticism. But while this objection to pluralism seems to me to be correct, it is not, I believe, decisive. There is an alternative way of explaining our knowledge of basic moral principles which escapes the difficulties just mentioned. Instead of saying that these principles are grasped by the moral sense or known by intuition or are self-evident, we can say simply that they express analytic truths. An analytic truth is one that is true solely in virtue of its meaning. Once you have grasped the meaning of an analytic truth, then you have sufficient grounds for regarding it as true. There is nothing subjective about analyticity, as there is about self-evidence. If you claim that some proposition is analytic, then you must back up your claim by showing that to deny this proposition is to involve oneself in self-contradiction.

Is it possible to show that basic moral principles are analytic truths? Well I believe that it is possible to show that some moral principles are. Consider, for example, the principle ‘Stealing is morally wrong’ and remember that what this principle says, on my understanding of it, is not that every instance of stealing is morally wrong, but rather that there is a simple moral obligation not to steal. Now one can steal something only if that thing is owned by someone else. One cannot steal one’s own property, nor can one steal something that is not owned by anyone. What does it mean to say that something is owned, that, for example, this book is owned by John Smith? Simply that John Smith has a right to keep it in his possession. Rights imply reciprocal obligations. It would be meaningless to say that John Smith has a right to possession of this book if this did not imply that others have an obligation not to take the book from Smith without his consent. Thus to say that Jones stole Smith’s book is to say that Jones took, without Smith’s consent, a book that he was under an obligation not to take without Smith’s consent. From this it can be seen that ‘Stealing is morally wrong’ is analytic, since to steal is to do something that one has an obligation not to do and, consequently, the statement ‘It is not the case that one has an obligation not to steal’ is self-contradictory.

Again, consider the moral principle ‘One ought to pay one’s debts’. This too is analytic when it is understood to mean ‘One has a simple moral obligation to pay one’s debts’. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb ‘to owe’ as meaning ‘to have an obligation to pay or render’. To deny that one has a moral obligation to pay one’s debts is therefore equivalent to saying that it is not the case that one has an obligation to pay what one is obliged to pay and this is straightforwardly self-contradictory.

Finally, consider the moral principle ‘One ought to keep one’s promises’. When this is understood to mean that one has an obligation of keep one’s promises, then it too is an analytic truth. To promise is to transfer to another person or persons a right that one had previously possessed oneself. The right that the promisor transfers to the promisee is the right to the performance by the promisor of a certain action – as would be the case if I had promised to give you a hundred pounds – or the non-performance by the promisor of a certain action – as would be the case if I had promised to keep something secret. The right that is transferred to the promisee would be meaningless if it did not involve an obligation on the part of the promisor. As a consequence the principle ‘One ought to keep one’s promises’ expresses an analytic truth, since what it asserts is that there is a moral obligation to do what one is morally obliged to do.

But if these principles are analytic, then why are they not trivial in the same way that ‘Murder is morally wrong’ is trivial? How can they give genuine moral guidance if they are true solely in virtue of their meaning? I think the answer to this question is that ‘Murder is morally wrong’ is trivial because to describe an action as murder is already to enunciate a conclusion about its moral character. Hence all that is conveyed by ‘Murder is morally wrong’ is that what is morally wrong is morally wrong. But when you describe an action as stealing or breaking a promise or failing to pay one’s debts, you are not making a moral judgement on it, since all these actions can in certain circumstances be morally justifiable.

It might be said at this stage that so far I have provided only a very limited defence of ethical pluralism, since I have confined the discussion to three basic moral principles. However, given time I think I could extend that defence by arguing that other moral principles should be regarded as analytic also. However, time has run out on me, so I shall let the defence rest.


Originally published by Minerva: An Online Open Access Journal of Philosophy (Volume 2, November 1998), an open access resource, republished for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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