Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

9 - Of Merels and Morals


Before I go on in the next chapter to discuss the relationship between moral judgments of institutions, organizations, and the individuals functioning within them, it is important to clarify the role of institutions in matters of morality and obligation. Much that has been written on the significance of institutions in understanding moral obligations I believe evidences a basic misunderstanding. The remedy for certain aspects of that misunderstanding is first to clarify the concept of “institutional obligation” and then show that “moral-ought” judgments, although in one sense parasitic, are yet importantly independent of institutional obligation-creating rules.


I use the term “institution” more or less in the same way John Rawls did when he wrote that “by institution I shall understand a public system of rules which defines offices and positions with their rights and duties, powers and immunities, and the like.” Their formal character and their imposition of order and structure on participant behavior by rule and regulation are typical characteristics of institutions. Institutional rules, regulations, and customs define certain kinds of behavior; that is, they make certain kinds of descriptions of experience possible. Indeed, they make possible certain experiences.