Characteristics of Moral Principles

These are what I try to act and beliefs are based on, I hope. I publish these in effort to determine what rights we have.

Characteristics of Moral Principles
From Ethics: Discovering Right and Wrong
Louis P. Pojman 1990

A Central feature of morality is the moral principle. We have already noted that moral principles are practical guides to action that differ from legal statutes, rules of etiquette, and even religious rules. We must say a word about the features of moral principles. Although there is no universal agreement on which traits a moral principle must process, the following traits have received widespread attention: (1) prescriptivity, (2) universalizability, (3) overridingness, (4) publicity, (5) practicability.


Prescriptivity refers to the practical or action-guiding nature of morality. Moral principles are generally put forth as injunction or imperatives (for example, ‘Do not kill,’ ‘Do no unnecessary harm,’ and ‘Love your neighbor’). They are intended for use, to advise and to influence to action. Prescriptivity shares this trait with all normative discourse. Retroactively, this feature is used to appraise behavior, to assign praise and blame, and to produce feelings of satisfaction of guilt. We will discuss this topic further in Chapter 8.


Moral principles must apply to all who are in the relevantly similar situation. If one judges that act X is right for a certain person P, then it is right for anyone relevantly similar to P. This trait is exemplified in the Gold Rule, “Do unto others what you would them do unto you (if you were in their shoes)” and in the formal Principle of Justice, “It cannot be right for A to treat B in a manner in which it would be wrong for B to treat A, merely on the ground that they are two different individuals, and without there being any difference  between the natures or circumstances of the two which can be stated as a reasonable ground for difference of treatment.” Univeralizabilty applies to all evaluative judgments. If I say that X is a good Y, then I am logically committed to judge that anything relevantly similar to X is a good Y. This feature is an extension of the principle of consistency: One ought to be consistent about one’s value judgements, including one’s moral judgements. We will look further at this trait in Chapters 6 and 8.

Moral principles have hegemonic authority. They are not the only principles, but they take precedence over other considerations, including aesthetic, prudential, and legal ones. Paul Gauguin may have been aesthetically justified in abandoning his family in order to devote his life to painting beautiful Pacific island pictures, but morally, or all things considered, he probably was not justified. It may be prudent to lie to save my reputation, but it probably is morally wrong to do so, in which case I should tell the truth. When the law becomes egregiously immoral, it may be my moral duty to exercise civil disobedience. There is a general moral duty to obey the law, because the law serves an overall moral purpose, and this overall purpose may give us moral reason to obey laws that may not be moral or ideal; however, there may come a time when the injustice of a bad law is intolerable and hence calls for illegal but moral defiance (such as the antebellum laws in the South requiring citizens to return slaves to their owners). Religion is a special case, and the religious person may be morally justified in following a perceived command from God to break a normal moral life. The Quakers’ pacifist religious beliefs may cause them to renege on an obligation to fight for their country. Religious morality is morality, and ethics recognizes its legitimacy. We will say more about this in Chapter 10.

Moral principles must be made public in order to ply an action-guiding role in our lives. Because we use principles to prescribe behavior, to give advice, and to assign praise and blame, it would be self-defeating to keep them a secret. Occasionally, a utilitarian will argue that it would be better if some people did not know or try to follow the correct principles, but even they would have a higher-order principle – or some reason for this exception – subsuming this special case.


A moral system must be workable; its rules must not lay a heavy burden on agents. The philosopher John Rawls speaks of the “strains of commitment” that overly idealistic principles may cause in average moral agents. It might be desirable to have a morality enjoining more altruism, but the result of such principles could be moral despair, too much guilt, and ineffective action. Practicability may be the cause of the differences between ethical standards over time and place. For instance, there is discrepancy in the Bible between Old Testament ethics and New Testament ethics on such topics as divorce and the treatment of one’s enemy. Jesus explained the difference in the first case by saying that it was because of society’s hardness of heart that god permitted divorce in pre-Christian times. In the second case he pointed toward a time when it would be a valid principle that people would love their enemies and pray for those who despitefully use them, and he enjoined his disciples to begin living this ideal morality. Most ethical stems take human limitations into consideration.
    As said at the outset, these traits are generally held by moral philosophers as necessary to valid moral principles, but here is disagreement over them, and a full discussion would lead to a great deal of qualification. These traits should give you an idea of the general features of moral principles, however.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: