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Morality and ethics

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-L065-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

Morality is a distinct sphere within the domain of normative thinking about action and feeling (see Normativity); the whole domain, however, is the subject of ethics.

How should the moral sphere be characterized? The three most influential suggestions are that morality should be characterized by its function, by the supremacy of the moral, or by the distinctive moral sentiments. It is plausible that moral codes have a social function, such as that of maintaining beneficial cooperation; but it does not seem an a priori truth. In contrast, it may be true a priori that moral obligations are supreme – accepting an obligation as moral is accepting that it should be carried out whatever else may be said against doing so. But even if this is a priori, it does not provide a criterion for demarcating the moral. A better characterization takes an obligation to be moral if and only if certain sentiments, those invoked in blame, are justified towards an agent who fails to comply with it.

This provides a criterion for demarcating the moral, but only if the sentiments can be identified. The sentiment at the core of blame is sometimes held to be a species of anger – indignation, for example. However it seems that one may feel the sentiment involved in guilt or blame without feeling indignation. A view deriving from Hegel’s conception of wrongdoing may be more accurate. Whereas indignation disposes to aggressive restorative action, the sentiment of blame itself disposes to withdrawal of recognition, expulsion from the community. Punishment can then be seen, with Hegel, as a route whereby recognition is restored.

Criticisms of morality are broadly of two kinds, though they often overlap: that moral valuation rests on incoherent presuppositions, and that morality is a dysfunctional system. The leading source of the first kind of criticism (and one source of the second) is Nietzsche; in contemporary philosophy related ideas are developed by Bernard Williams. One of Williams’ criticisms centres on something which does indeed seem to be presupposed by moral valuation, at any rate in modern moral thought: that moral obligations exist independently of one’s desires and projects yet of themselves give one a reason to act. Other doubts about the coherence of the moral focus on a conception which, again, may be distinctively modern – being associated particularly with some forms of Protestant Christianity and with Kant; the conception takes it that all are equally autonomous and that the only true worth is moral worth. Criticisms of this conception occur (in different ways) in Nietzsche’s treatment of modern morality and in Hegel’s treatment of what he calls Moralität.

The idea that morality is dysfunctional, that blame and guilt deny life or impose pain without securing compensating gains, has considerable influence in contemporary culture (as does the idea that they are compromised by the interests of those who can shape them). Such criticism must come from a conception of ethical value, and assume that there is an alternative to morality. Unless one believes in the possibility of a communal life unmediated by any disciplinary forces at all, the assumption being made must be that there could be a discipline which was better, ethically speaking, than the discipline of guilt and blame.

Citing this article:
Skorupski, John. Morality and ethics, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-L065-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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