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How We Decide in Moral Situations

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 July 2014


The role normative ethics has in guiding action is unclear. Once moral theorists hoped that they could devise a decision procedure that would enable agents to solve difficult moral problems. Repeated attacks by anti-theorists seemingly dashed this hope. Although the dispute between moral theorists and anti-theorists rages no longer, no decisive victor has emerged. To determine how we ought to make moral decisions, I argue, we must first examine how we do decide in moral situations. Intuitionism correctly captures the essence of the moral element in such situations, finding itself located somewhere between moral theory and anti-theory. In order that intuitionism may constitute an improvement over predecessors in normative ethics we must proceed with awareness of the limits imposed by the still dominant framework of modern moral theory. I argue that the deliberatively open system of intuitionism, interlocked in practice with prudential considerations, allows us to constructively move normative ethics beyond those limits.

Research Article
Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 2014 

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1 Representative works of the current debate are, on the particularist side, Dancy, Jonathan's Moral Reasons (Oxford: Blackwell, 1993)Google Scholar and his Ethics Without Principles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)Google ScholarPubMed and, on the generalist side, McKeever, Sean and Ridge, Michael's Principled Ethics: Generalism as a Regulative Ideal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 See Darwall, Stephen, Gibbard, Allan and Railton, Peter, ‘Toward Fin de siècle Ethics: Some Trends’, Philosophical Review 101 (1992), 123CrossRefGoogle Scholar on the rebirth of normative ethics. See Hämäläinen, Nora, ‘Is Moral Theory Harmful in Practice? – Relocating Anti-theory in Contemporary Ethics’, Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 12 (2009), 539CrossRefGoogle Scholar on the anti-theory response.

3 Many ethicists, despite the efforts of anti-theorists and virtue ethicists continue to describe ethics as being solely about morality, or claim that ‘ethics’ and ‘moral philosophy’ are interchangeable terms. See Shafer-Landau, Russ, The Fundamentals of Ethics, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 1Google Scholar; Chappell, Timothy, Ethics and Experience: Life Beyond Moral Theory (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2009), 3Google Scholar; Wiggins, David, Ethics: Twelve Lectures on the Philosophy of Morality (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2006), 9Google Scholar; Timmons, Mark, Morality Without Foundations: A Defense of Ethical Contextualism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 9Google Scholar; Arrington, Robert, Western Ethics: An Historical Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), viiiGoogle Scholar; and Holmes, Robert, Basic Moral Philosophy (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1998), 2Google Scholar.

4 This might seem too obvious to mention, but in the past, normative theorists simply assumed their theory could guide action. A practicable normative ethics should be able to be used by agents in tough moral situations, and should even pass real-world psychological tests.

5 Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Practical Reason, 3rd ed. trans. Beck, Lewis White (Upper Saddle River, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1993), 8Google Scholar (emphasis added).

6 Utilitarianism will not be at the center of my discussion. This theory has numerous deliberation problems of its own. In fact, at one point these problems were so plentiful that utilitarians basically bowed out of the deliberation business, with Bales, R. Eugene' paper, ‘Act-utilitarianism: Account of Right-making Characteristics or Decision-making Procedure?American Philosophical Quarterly 8 (1971), 257265Google Scholar taking the lead. Previously, everyone, including all utilitarians, thought the principle of utility afforded both an account of right making and provided a decision procedure. He claimed it need only be regarded as having the former. This soon became the consensus consequentialist position. See Pettit, Philip, Introduction to Consequentialism, Pettit, Philip (ed.) (London: Dartmouth Press, 1993), xviGoogle Scholar.

7 See Firth, Roderick, ‘Ethical Absolutism and the Ideal Observer’, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 12 (1952), 317345CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

8 Rawls, John, ‘Outline of a Decision Procedure for Ethics’, Philosophical Review 60 (1951), 177CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

9 Clarke, Stanley, ‘Anti-theory in Ethics’, American Philosophical Quarterly 24 (1987), 237Google Scholar.

10 Op. cit. note 9, 237 and Hämäläinen Op. cit. note 2, 539.

11 Noble, Cheryl, ‘Normative Ethical Theories’, The Monist 62 (1979), 496509CrossRefGoogle Scholar takes this line.

12 See Hampshire, Stuart, ‘Fallacies in Moral Philosophy’, Mind, New Series 58 (1949), 474Google ScholarPubMed.

13 Op. cit. note 12, 480.

14 Chappell, Timothy, ‘Ethics Beyond Moral Theory’, Philosophical Investigations 32 (2009), 209CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 Hursthouse, Rosalind, On Virtue Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1Google Scholar claims that virtue ethics is now a ‘fairly recent addition to contemporary moral theory’.

16 See Gill, Christopher, ‘Are Ancient Ethical Norms Universal?’ in Virtue, Norms, and Objectivity: Issues in Ancient and Modern Ethics, ed. by Gill, Christopher (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2005), 32Google Scholar and Hämäläinen, Op. cit. note 2, 540.

17 See O'Neill, Onora, Acting on Principle: An Essay on Kantian Ethics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 73Google Scholar, Rawls, John, Lectures on the History of Moral Philosophy. ed. Herman, Barbara (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000), 166Google Scholar, Millgram, Elijah, ‘Does the Categorical Imperative Give Rise to a Contradiction in the Will?Philosophical Review, 112 (2003), 552CrossRefGoogle Scholar. It should be noted, however, that there are reasons other than anti-theory for New Kantians to take this position, most notably the murderer at the door.

18 See footnote 1.

19 Gert, Bernard, Common Morality: Deciding What to Do (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, viii (emphasis added).

20 Especially see Audi, Robert, The Good in the Right: A Theory of Intuition and Intrinsic Value (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004)Google Scholar, Shafer-Landau, Russ, Moral Realism: A Defence (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Huemer, Michael, Ethical Intuitionism (Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)Google Scholar.

21 Rawls, John, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1971), 34Google Scholar.

22 See Chappell Op. cit. note 14, 211.

23 Ross says only that we have no basis for claiming we're now in possession of a supreme principle of morality, but adds that, ‘If further reflection discovers a perfect logical basis for this or for a better classification, so much the better’ Ross, W.D., The Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1930), 23Google Scholar. Audi has argued that Kant's Formula of Humanity of the Categorical Imperative can and should be incorporated into intuitionism, Audi, Op. cit. note 20, Ch. 3.

24 Schroeter, François, ‘Reflective Equilibrium and AntitheoryNoûs 38 (2004), 125CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Noble, Op. cit. note 11, 508.

26 See Pincoffs, Edmund, ‘Quandary Ethics’, Mind 80 (1971), 552571CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Stocker, Michael, ‘The Schizophrenia of Modern Ethical Theories’, Journal of Philosophy 73 (1976), 453466CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

27 Hampshire, Op. cit. note 12, 467.

28 Two examples of this prospective use of ‘moral verdict’: Dancy speaks of how generalists look for ‘an overall verdict as to how to act’ 2004, Op. cit. note 1, (2004), 5. Shafer-Landau, in reviewing a common objection to Ross's theory states, ‘there is no definite method for guiding us from an understanding of the prima facie duties to a correct moral verdict in any given case’. Shafer-Landau, Op. cit. note 3, 244.

29 Williams, Bernard, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1985) 4Google Scholar.

30 Williams does consider this question and recognizes it as the ‘most immediate and uncomplicated question’ of the practical sort (Op. cit. note 29, 18). But he finds ‘How should one live?’ to be the best starting point for ethics, because it is ‘reflective’ and has us consider ‘a longer-term’ perspective on life (Op. cit. note 29, 19).

31 Note that anti-theorists too are content letting the scene fade to black.

32 For the case for moral relations see chapter five of Kaspar, David, Intuitionism (London: Bloomsbury, 2012)Google Scholar.

33 Dancy, 2004, reads Ross as holding such a theory, Op. cit. note 1, 5.

34 Kant, Immanuel, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals with On a Supposed Right to Lie Because of Philanthropic Concerns, 3rd ed. and trans. Ellington, James W.. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), 66Google Scholar.

35 As Caroline Whitbeck states, ‘Too often when statements of ethical problems are presented to students, their attempts to probe the complexity of the case are cut off’, Ethics as Design: Doing Justice to Moral Problems’, Hastings Center Report 26 (1996), 13Google ScholarPubMed.

36 When we ask what means serve the end of doing right, two broad ways of answering are likely to occur to us. We'll think of a satisficing solution, one that merely gets the job done: it enables one to do right. And we'll also think of an optimizing solution, a way to, yes, do right, but also do so with the best results practically possible.

37 Op. cit. note 23, 30–32.

38 Thomas Nagel claims that on Kant's theory there ‘cannot be moral risk’, Moral Luck’ in Mortal Questions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 24Google ScholarPubMed.

39 Op. cit. note 23, 22.

40 Ross, Op. cit. note 23, 4 is aware of this point.

41 Audi, Op. cit. note 20, 85. Ross says that for imperfect duties, following Aristotle, ‘The decision rests with perception’, Op cit. note 23, 42.

42 For my previous arguments for the agential form of this thesis, one cannot be a moral person without being prudent, see Kaspar, David, ‘Can Morality Do Without Prudence?Philosophia 39 (2011), 311326CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Op cit. note 32, Chapter 8.

43 Thus the prudence dependency thesis in itself neither invites nor overcomes cases of prudential-moral conflict, such as whether it is ever prudent for an agent to give up their life for a moral end. For discussion of that problem see Kavka, Gregory, ‘The Reconciliation Project’, in Social Ideals and Policies: Readings in Social and Political Philosophy, ed. by Luper, Steven (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing, 1999), 95104Google Scholar.

44 Tactics are ways to satisfy a chosen end that might be realized within a situation. In themselves tactics are morally neutral. But either an immoral end or an immoral means for realizing a moral end, can make a tactic immoral. Here I only consider morally permissible tactics.

45 The empirical psychological research of Gross, J.J., ‘Emotion Regulation: Affective, Cognitive, and Social Consequences’, Psychophysiology 39 (2002), 281289CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed confirms the benefits of this approach. Note that Epictetus clearly advocated reappraisal of disturbing events. For example, Never say about anything, “I have lost it”, but instead, “I have given it back”’, The Handbook (The Encheiridion), trans. White, N.P. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), 14Google Scholar.

46 To forestall a common objection here, I am not claiming that she must consciously and deliberately follow these principles at this time, just follow them. If she is a prudent agent by the time of the interview she has internalized them.

47 As Jonsen, Albert and Toulmin, Stephen state, two doctors ‘may offer different diagnoses and treatment proposals for one and the same case. When this happens no conclusive evidence or arguments need be available to choose between their “readings”; but this does not mean that their judgments are subjective or uncheckable’, The Abuse of Casuistry: A History of Moral Reasoning (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 41Google Scholar.

48 Hämäläinen, op. cit. note 2, 541.

49 For a way of doing this see my Op. cit. note 32, Chapter 6.

50 I draw here from Thomas Hurka, who makes the distinction between external and inherent, or internal, moral explanation and notes the recent dominance of the former in ethics, Common Themes from Sidgwick to Ewing’, in Hurka, Thomas (ed.), Underivative Duty: British Moral Philosophers from Sidgwick to Ewing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 2024CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

51 If it is agreed that morality indeed does depend on prudence, then for modern moral theories to be normatively complete there would need to be phronetic Kantianism, phronetic utilitarianism, etc.

52 I would like to thank the audience members at the 2013 Northern New England Philosophical Association Conference, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH for their helpful comments on an early draft of this paper.

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