What is a Moral System?

Easy question, one might think. An moral system is a system of coherent, systematic, and reasonable principles, rules, ideals, and values which work to form one’s overall perspective. Not just any rules, of course, but moral values? Each one of you has a moral system to some extent although most probably do not have an ethical system. In your justification or argumentative essay you are asked to choose an ethical system (for example, utilitarian ethics, Kantian ethics, etc.) and to use that system in your essay to defend your moral rule or system. In order to satisfactory do this, you need to understand what a moral system is. Your moral system is your morality. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that not all moral system are equally good any more than all opinions are equally good. The following is a dialogue, carried on by two half-baked ethicists, concerning the nature of a moral system. If you have questions on their comments, please contact you instructor or raise your concern in class.

What is a moral rule? And what makes particular moral rules into a system of rules rather than a mere list?

Well, a moral rule, is, you know, something that instructs one what to do, morally speaking. The 10 Commandments are examples of religious rules which may or may not also be moral rules. And a system of moral rules is systematic instead of an eclectic hodgepodge.

But how does one figure out whether a rule is speaking morally or in some other tone of voice? And how does one figure out that the rules are systematic, and not a hodgepodge?

Let’s begin with the second question. For rules to be systematic, they all have to be about the same thing. If you mix up the rules of the road, the rules of mathematics, etc. then you have a hodgepodge. Ergo, to be systematic, the rules of morality can’t be all mixed up. They all have to be about the same thing, namely, morality and they must come from a moral point of view.

So a rule like “never discuss morality after two a.m. or after two six packs of beer, whichever comes first” is a moral rule since it is about morality?

Not exactly. True, it’s about morality, and true, it tells one what to do, but it’s not a moral rule since it doesn’t tell one what one ought to do, morally speaking. It’s a sort of prudential or nonmoral rule, or more likely, someone’s feeble idea of a joke. Not all oughts are moral oughts.

Are you saying that my religion or the laws of my country are not worthy of guiding my behavior?

Yes, to some extent I am. Our beliefs systems are very valuable to who we are as persons, but not all religious or legal viewpoints coincide with what is the morally right thing to do. This is the domain of ethics and as such we should be systematic and objective in our application.

To be systematic, then, one must be careful not to mix up moral rules with other kinds of rules, such as prudence, religion, or etiquette.

Now you’re catching on. Moral rules are rules such as “it is not permissible to break a promise.” A rule of etiquette is something like “it is not permissible to drink from the fingerbowl.” Obviously, there’s a difference. There need to be certain other restrictions as well. For instance, the rules must be related in appropriate ways. One can’t just have any old list of moral rules and call them systematic. Also, a system of moral rules can’t contain rules that contradict one another (e.g., X and not X). Moreover, to anticipate the rules must be related in such a way that following one of them doesn’t automatically commit one to breaking another. So for any two rules to be part of the same system, they must not only be logically consistent, they must be compatible in the sense that observing one is compatible with not violating the other.

But suppose that to prevent a certain person from suffering serious harm, or even death, one must break a promise made to another person. Since it is impossible in these circumstances simultaneously to observe the rules “keep your promises” and “prevent serious harm whenever possible,” does that mean that these commonsense moral rules are incompatible, and so can’t both be part of the same system?

No, because in the situation described the rule to prevent harm overrides or takes precedence over the rule to keep promises.

Does the rule to prevent harm always take precedence over the rule to keep promises?

No, sometimes one must keep one’s promises even if by doing so one permits harm to occur. It all depends on the importance of the promise and the severity of the harm.

How does one judge the importance of a promise? How does one determine the severity of harm? And how does one balance the importance of one against the severity of the other?

Those are difficult questions, but in general one needs criteria for judging importance, determining severity, and weighing importance against severity. Without such criteria, one would have no principled way of deciding what to do when rules appear to conflict. Criteria often come in the form of a theory. So if you choose either a consequentialist (for example, utilitarian ethics) or nonconsequentialist (for example, Kantian ethics) theory, for example, one has selected criteria to work from. A moral system should contain not only a set of action-guiding rules, “keep your promises” but a set of theory rules (Kant’s Categorical Imperative for example) which support these action-guiding rules. Without both set of rules one’s moral system is often either arbitrary or dogmatic.

So to use a system of moral rules, one needs ethical principles to tell one what to do when the moral rules conflict?

Yes. Moral rules and ethical principles are two different criteria.

Are these other principles moral rules?

Not exactly, since they don’t tell one what to do, that is, they are not action-guiding, morally speaking. Rather they tell one how to use moral rules; that is, they tell one how to use the rules that tell one what to do, morally speaking. These rules tend to be procedural rather than substantive. Each worthy ethical theory is made up of these principles.

Are these ethical principles also systematic? Is it possible that one might need still other rules to tell one how to use them?

Clearly they must be not only systematic, but impartial, consistent, and universal as well. One would certainly hope that yet another set of rules wouldn’t be needed, but no guarantees can be made.


Are you kidding?