• Mark S
    204
    For over 20 years, the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has listed Bernard Gert’s criterion for what is morally normative (what we ought and ought not to do) which is often what people mean when asking "But what makes it moral?"

    “… the term “morality” can be used … normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational people.”

    Gert’s definition of what is morally normative has four characteristics I find admirable:
    1) It assumes no moral premise (entails no specific moral theory)
    2) There is no spooky reference to mysterious imperative oughts.
    3) It is independent of the moral theory being tested for normativity.
    4) It offers a simple criterion for answering “But what makes it moral?”.

    But could there be any moral code or principle that all rational people would put forward?

    What about people who are rational, but ignorant of relevant information that others know? What about people who suffer from delusions but are otherwise rational? It seems unlikely people in these two groups could ever agree on a code of conduct to advocate.

    Gert provides a way out of these problems (and others) by including the phrase “given specified conditions”.

    Could we add enough “specified conditions” to make the normativity criterion meaningless? Of course, but why do that? To make the normativity claim as strong as possible, we would want the special conditions to be the minimum necessary.

    For example, we could impose the special conditions that all rational persons whose opinion was being considered were well-informed and mentally normal.

    Assume all well-informed, mentally normal, rational people advocated for the same moral code or moral principle despite their individually diverse personal goals and goals for their societies. This remarkable result would seem to be an excellent justification for normativity claims.

    Does anyone have an alternate criterion for what is morally normative that they prefer?
  • Philosophim
    2k
    I would only make one small tweak to it. I would change "rational people" into "rational beings". Other than that I think its a fantastic description.
  • Vera Mont
    2.9k
    As long as the moral code is restricted to a very narrow range of behaviours, I can see all rational people agreeing. Don't murder, steal, have sex with children or lie under oath. Once you get into particulars, however, even rational people can be influenced by their cultural norms and customs. Don't eat dead people, or have sex with your sister.
    But then, I wonder.... How rational are religious people? It's all very well to say "no spooky oughts", but that is not how the religious regard the edicts and contradicts of their deities. Where's the consensus on 'spooky'?
    So, if you try ....
    when we try ....
    to rally a community around a rational moral decision about abortion, assisted suicide, gender reassignment or even equal marriage, we always have to deal with people who present as rational - except in their moral belief.
  • 180 Proof
    13.8k
    Does anyone have an alternate criterion for what is morally normative that they prefer?Mark S
    Sure, I'll bite ...
    [M]y normative ethics is Negative Hedonic Utilitarianism (i.e. "right" judgments and conduct which prevent or reduce harm);180 Proof
    ... excerpt from an old post (click on my handle if you're interested in (some of) my reasoning for the above).
  • Andrew4Handel
    2.5k
    Does anyone have an alternate criterion for what is morally normative that they prefer?Mark S

    I think morality as we now think about it has religious connotations and is about moral ought's and things we should do to be a good person or get into heaven or have good karma

    Without teleology(objective purposes/meaning|) or inbuilt moral rules then peoples goals are subjective and personal preferences. I don't think you can objectify personal preferences and claim your goals or values are superior to some one else's.

    I think the idea rationality is also a value judgement and teleological. It implies that we ought to think in a certain way and draw certain conclusions. Such if I don't like the cold I should wear a jumper.

    I don't think facts about the world or reality have the power to compel us to act.
  • Andrew4Handel
    2.5k
    rational moral decision about abortion, assisted suicide, gender reassignment or even equal marriage, we always have to deal with people who present as rational - except in their moral beliefVera Mont

    As Judged by whom?

    Is it irrational to oppose all of the above?
  • Vera Mont
    2.9k
    As Judged by whom?Andrew4Handel

    Exactly my point!
  • Mark S
    204

    to rally a community around a rational moral decision about abortion, assisted suicide, gender reassignment or even equal marriage, we always have to deal with people who present as rational - except in their moral belief.Vera Mont

    To what extent can religious people be rational about their religion-based moral beliefs?

    Consider:

    A person who delusionally interprets their religious experiences, even including conversations with gods, as real could ‘rationally’ hold that their religion’s moral beliefs are true, must be advocated, and enforced regardless of information to the contrary.

    Also, a mentally normal person who is poorly informed could believe that gods are the only sources of morality and, therefore, rationally hold that their religion’s moral beliefs are true, must be advocated, and enforced.

    So, we might ask:

    To what extent can well-informed, mentally normal, religious people be rational about their religion-based moral beliefs?

    Such a religious person could understand that morality exists independently of religion. Then if they have their doubts about the morality of a religious moral norm, or if they come into conflict with people about if those moral norms should be advocated, they may be able to enter rational discussions about those moral norms.

    They may be able to rationally discuss those norms to the extent they understand that morality exists independently of religion.
  • Tom Storm
    8.1k
    So it sounds like this system is only going to have some acceptance amongst secular, not religious people. Are you aware of Christians or Muslims who would find this approach useful?
  • Vera Mont
    2.9k
    Such a religious person could understand that morality exists independently of religion.Mark S

    I very much doubt that. If it didn't set out moral precepts, what good would a religion be?
    I believe that many religious people can discuss a wide range of subjects rationally, learn the facts and weigh the other person's arguments - except in regard to the tenets of their faith, which is simply not open to question. When/if the central authority of that church issues a ruling on some hitherto forbidden topic, some will change their position - and some will reject the renegade pontiff.
  • Mark S
    204
    Such a religious person could understand that morality exists independently of religion.
    — Mark S

    I very much doubt that. If it didn't set out moral precepts, what good would a religion be?
    Vera Mont

    In my experience, it is not unusual for religious people to be able to think rationally about morality. Examples include changing minds within the Episcopalian church about the morality of gay marriage, abortion, women in the priesthood, and homosexuality.

    Religions have continuously refined their moralities regarding whatever moral norms become offensive. Read the Old Testament for some strikingly evil things commanded by God. Most of that load of nonsense has been abandoned. It was done so by religious people thinking rationally.

    Are all religious people so flexible? No, of course not.

    Defining morality is only one function of religion. Religions also provide supportive communities, purpose in life, and the comfort of thinking a supernatural being is looking after you. Those are the more powerful reasons religion exists. Not having a monopoly on morality does not prohibit those functions from maintaining religion.
  • 180 Proof
    13.8k
    I don't think facts about the world or reality have the power to compel us to act.Andrew4Handel
    I agree. Only habits – embodied facts / dispositions – can do that; thus, practice virtues rather than follow rules (norms).
  • Vera Mont
    2.9k
    Religions have continuously refined their moralities regarding whatever moral norms become offensive.Mark S

    Yes, from the top down, as I said. If the pope or synod or whoever the authority is, hands down a ruling that pork is all right to eat after all, witches don't have to be burned anymore and it's okay to see women's hair, some of the faithful will welcome it ('bout time, Prelate!) and some will accept it readily (Yeah, okay, makes sense.) some will accept it after much soul-searching (But on the other hand... well, if his holiness says I shouldn't beat them up anymore... I guess...) and some will reject the decision. Maybe even form a splinter group that claims to be the true faith, clinging to the old ways. If the accepting faction is in the majority - which it usually is, once the church is out of step with secular society - the new rules gradually become the mainstream rules --- until they need updating again, when a whole new hornet's nest is stirred up.
    What I have never heard a true believer say was : "Well, God was wrong about a lot of things, but I like going to church, so I'll just ignore the bits that don't make sense." They do it - they just don't say it.

    [
    Defining morality is only one function of religion.Mark S
    Just the main one, without which the community would tear itself to bits, arguing over what's right and wrong, and nobody could be comforted.
  • Mark S
    204
    Defining morality is only one function of religion.
    — Mark S
    Just the main one, without which the community would tear itself to bits, arguing over what's right and wrong, and nobody could be comforted.
    Vera Mont

    That is not what I have observed, but I understand that it could be your experience.
  • unenlightened
    8.7k
    But could there be any moral code or principle that all rational people would put forward?Mark S

    It's an invitation to ad hom argue. Anyone who disagrees with me, given certain conditions, is irrational.
    But furthermore, if the conditions were so weak as to allow the inclusion of all or most of the generally accepted canon of moral philosophers, then it would be clearly falsified as a matter of fact.

    Hume's dictum is not really addressed:
    It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. — Hume
    Hence antinatalism. This is also why politics does not consist of a competition for power between the Good Party and the Bad Party, but between parties that rationally disagree about what ought to be done.

    Is there anything more to this than an appeal to like-minded, (rather than rational,) people to go with the current moral zeitgeist and stop arguing?
  • neomac
    1.2k
    I think that the notion of "morality" is at the crossroad of different considerations pointing in different directions. So it's very possible that any definition may leave something out. For example, the problem of Gert's definition is that it leaves us wondering what the notion of "rational people" and the "specified conditions" may mean or be determined without begging the question or being too large (traffic rules maybe a rule of conduct that satisfies the definition without being moral) or too strict (in certain societies homosexuality is considered immoral).

    In this situation we better maximise our understanding of moral behaviour by analogy/contrast between moral conduct/norms and non-moral conduct/norms. Here I can draft the main points:
    • - Moral norms apply timelessly, spacelessly, and universally: they apply to individuals at any time, and do not change. That is different from ludic or professional norms that can apply to us at a given time (e.g. when we play when we sign a work contract). They also differ from law: legal norms can be changed over time (like in a democracy and they do it also for moral reasons) and space (different countries have different laws), but moral norms do not change. If homosexuality or killing innocent people is immoral, there was no prior time (or different place) in which homosexuality or killing innocent people was moral and a later time (or different place) where both turned out to be moral. We shouldn’t confuse moral norms with their popularity. Popularity can certainly change over time, space and individuals.
    • - Moral norms can always overrule non-moral norms in both conduct and ethic assessment: concerning the conduct, let’s say that there is a law legitimising prostitution or weed selling, whoever considers that law immoral may protest against it or not act the way those laws allow. So the way one feels or decides to act wrt the law is overruled by moral norms. That doesn’t mean that moral norms can’t be occasionally and narrowly suspended: e.g. in box people are allowed to physically hurt each other, or in a movie people are allowed to lie, in art naked adult sculptures are not considered obscene, etc. At the end of the day, people’s life is ultimately assessed wrt moral conduct. Namely one life is more valuable if it is compliant to moral norms more than it is to legal or fashion norms or artistic norms.
    • - Moral norms are self-promoting at social level and psychological level: it’s not just that individuals should follow moral norms (like do not kill, do not steal, do not lie) but they should also care if other individuals follow them (e.g through praise and blame). Moral norms have an intrinsic social dimension (like laws). We can think of a code of conduct for specific individuals e.g. a king’s code of conduct, or private in its genesis (e.g. the son promises his father to continue his business after he retires). But they are qualifiable as moral only to the extant they should become object of social pressure (praise and sanction). Moral norms should also be internalised in both conduct and emotion as pre-reflexive habits accompanied by specific feelings e.g. outrage, dignity and guilt. While economic and legal conducts are more dependent on cost/benefit calculi, can be more emotionally neutral and evolve over time.
  • Banno
    22.9k


    Seems to me, in the context of the article, that Gert is not offering a definition of morality, but giving reasons why such a thing is bothersome. He is offering the observation that the term may be used either descriptively or normatively, in support of contending that this is part of the reason that no single definition will be applicable in all situations.

    I don't see that he is offering a normative definition of "morality" at all. He's just pointing out that it can be use din this way.
  • Mark S
    204

    In your experience, who else, aside from Gert, uses morally normative to refer to "a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational people.”
    I know of no one who uses it this way except people that refer to Gert as their source. Gert is providing a useful definition of morally normative.
  • Banno
    22.9k
    It looks to me as if what the authors are doing, in an essay on the definition of "morality", is saying that "morality" can be used descriptively, or it can be used prescriptively. They are not setting out a prescription.

    Bernard Gert's original version was more direct:
    The term “morality” can be used either
    1. descriptively to refer to some codes of conduct put forward by a society or,
    some other group, such as a religion, or accepted by an individual for her own behavior or
    2. normatively to refer to a code of conduct that, given specified conditions, would be put forward by all rational persons.
    web.archive.org

    So I would not have taken the authors as providing an account of what one ought to do, as you seem to, but of what morality is. Hence the qualification added by Joshua Gert
    The topic of this entry is not—at least directly—moral theory; rather, it is the definition of morality. Moral theories are large and complex things; definitions are not. The question of the definition of morality is the question of identifying the target of moral theorizing.Gert & Gert

    They are not setting out what we ought to do, but how we use the word.

    Where, in his wider literature, Bernard Gert does set out such a prescription, it is based on avoiding doing harm.

    Here's a video you can watch to see what Bernard Gert actually thought about morality.

    He does give a definition of morality (at 15:28) as "An informal public system applying to all
    moral agents that has the goal of lessening of harm suffered by those who are protected by this system".

    Indeed, given your other threads, you might find this definition of more use, even though he makes no direct reference to cooperation.

    Thanks for bringing Bernard Gert to my attention. I quite like the idea that far more harm is done by people acting altruistically than out of self interest... and his rejection of act utilitarianism and correction of Kant's view of lies.

    And his catch phase: "I'm a philosopher, so I don't know anything you don't know". Sweet.

    Ultimately he settles for the ten commandments. Is that where you want to go?
  • Banno
    22.9k
    You might enjoy the video cited above.
  • Banno
    22.9k
    Actually, @Tom Storm, you might like it too. It moves away from the theoretical quagmire of meta-ethics, back to plain practical morality. Seems to me to have a few problems, especially his supposition that ascribing "rationality" is not normative, but see what you think.

    Notice how he reflects on virtues towards the end. His lecture includes criticism of both utilitarianism and deontology, but not explicitly of virtue ethics.
  • Tom Storm
    8.1k
    Cool, I'll give it a look. Morality 'in the world'; was one of my initial reasons for joining this place.
  • 180 Proof
    13.8k
    Thanks. I'll check it out.
  • SophistiCat
    2.2k
    As pointed out, you probably misunderstood that passage, which comes from the very beginning of the introduction. What you quoted is not a definition as such. Gert is outlining two broad senses of morality: descriptive and normative, and the formulations are intentionally broad and vague, so as to encompass most, if not all definitions in each category. The specifics that you are asking are what an actual definition would be expected to clarify, and the article touches upon them.

    To what extent can well-informed, mentally normal, religious people be rational about their religion-based moral beliefs?Mark S

    "Rational" here is intended in a very broad sense:

    In the normative sense, “morality” refers to a code of conduct that would be accepted by anyone who meets certain intellectual and volitional conditions, almost always including the condition of being rational. That a person meets these conditions is typically expressed by saying that the person counts as a moral agent. — Gert

    (Emphasis in the original.) So, basically, "rational" in the original formulation means anyone who "counts as a moral agent."

    Seems to me, in the context of the article, that Gert is not offering a definition of morality, but giving reasons why such a thing is bothersome.Banno

    Well, that's what you generally find in overviews of philosophical topics, such as those in the SEP. You get into the weeds practically as soon as you set out (the very next subchapter in Gert's article on the definition of morality questions the very possibility of defining morality...) You leave with more questions than answers, which probably frustrates some people, but that's the way I like it.
  • Banno
    22.9k
    misunderstood...SophistiCat

    Cheers. It's somewhat unsettling that the first half-dozen psts simply accepted 's misunderstanding.

    It shouldn't happen here.
  • 180 Proof
    13.8k
    ... It shouldn't happen here.Banno
    Guilty as charged. I usually barely skim posts with quotes attributed to or artcles about men or women I've never heard of such as Prof. Gert. The video of his lecture did pique my interest (and I reserved his book Common Morality – surprise, surprise – at a local public library) so thanks again, Banno, for pulling my coat.
  • Banno
    22.9k
    I reserved his book Common Morality180 Proof

    Indeed, I might purchase it - potentially a counter to the more abstract stuff found in ethics.
  • 180 Proof
    13.8k
    Bernard Gert's moral theory seems quite consiliant, or convergent, with my own musings though our respective approaches (emphases) couldn't be more different. I'm looking forward to meeting those devils in his theoretical details.
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