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Shirley Hughes

Proving A Moral Principle

Once one has examined an ethical theory and knows what its fundamental concepts are — what kinds of factors are to be used in making moral judgments, whether its principles apply directly to acts or rules, and what concepts of the good life is proposed — one is certainly in a better position to judge which of all the competitive principles comes closest to fulfilling the task of giving a complete account of moral phenomena. Unfortunately this may not be enough to enable us to choose among them. Most of the classical principles do a reasonably good job of supplying a rationale for most if not all of our moral judgments. Yet the principles are often incompatible with one another. Must we then decide among them not simply on the basis of their adequacy to explain and justify moral judgments but on the basis of simple preference, i.e. because we "like" one better than another? We are more likely to believe a moral theory that says that most of our moral beliefs are correct, then one that says that most of our moral beliefs are inconsistent. Of course no theory will make them all come out true.

We have to balance the question of our philosophical grounds for believing that the moral theory is in fact true — that it corresponds to the demands that actually exist for us in reality — rather than merely being an accurate codification of what we happen to believe. It could still turn out that the 'true' moral theory, the theory that comes closest to capturing the things one actually ought or ought not to do, coheres less well with our ordinary moral beliefs than another theory which is less revisionary in its consequences.

The issue I'm addressing is the proof of a set of moral principles, the proof of the validity of a moral outlook or theory. Various attempts have been made to avoid this seemingly irrational consequence by supplying what often have been referred to as "proofs" of' moral principles. The term "proof" as so used had a widely variable meaning but in general what is intended is a set of considerations, other than the internal consistency and adequacy of the theory, which are particularly persuasive in making a choice of one theory or principle over another.

There have been several different kinds of such proofs. Some are based on appeals to experience, others on the concept of morality itself, some on metaphysical considerations, and still others on special intuitions or revelations. We shall call them, respectively, empirical, transcendental, metaphysical and religious proofs.

Empirical proof According to Bentham, the greatest happiness principle is not susceptible of what he calls "direct proof". Nonetheless he does offer two kinds of "indirect" considerations. which he thinks fully justify our formal acceptance of it.

First, he claims that on most of the occasions of our lives we consciously or unconsciously defer to it anyway. Aside from his general observation that this is so, his specific reason is that any attempt to criticise it he thinks, presupposes it. One who argues that "it is dangerous to consult the principle" is in effect arguing that "it is not consonant to utility to consult utility". Second, Bentham argues that other principles are worse. Either they lead to "despotical" and "hostile" treatment of human beings or they are "anarchical" i.e. they lead to the abandonment of all principles and moral argument.

Both considerations involve appeals to experience. With regard to the first, Bentham says, not simply that we ought to, but that as a matter of observable fact we presuppose the principle in all that we do and say. The second consideration amounts to a request that we examine the actual consequences of abandoning the principle. Neither appeal of course, conclusively establishes the principle as the one among all others, that we ought to accept.

The fact that we do frequently employ the principle of utility does not necessarily mean that we should. To argue that all other principles lead to bad consequences simply begs the question.

John Stuart Mill offers somewhat different empirical proof:

"The only evidence capable of being given that an object is visible is that people actually see it; the only evidence that a sound is audible is that people hear it. By analogy, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable is that people do actually desire it. Since as a matter of fact everyone desires his own happiness, his own happiness is desirable i.e. good. The general happiness is nothing but the aggregate of the happiness of everyone. Therefore the general happiness is the greatest thing desirable i.e. the greatest good. Finally, since as a matter of psychological fact, people never desire anything but happiness except insofar as it is a means to or a part of happiness, it follows that the general happiness is the sole criterion of morality."

Various types of criticism have been made of Mill's proof. It has been claimed that Mill confuses two senses of the term "desirable", namely "capable of being desired" with "ought to be desired". It is the former sense which parallels the uses of "visible" and "audible", whereas the validity of the argument seems to depend on the latter sense "ought to be desired". Most critics have thought that this fallacy destroys Mill's argument but since Mill's time defences of this aspect of the argument have been almost periodically advanced and quite similar proofs proposed. Compare for example the following one by William James: "Take any demand however slight which any creature however weak may make. Ought it not for its own sake to be satisfied? If not prove why not. The only possible kind of proof you could adduce would be the exhibition of another creature who should make a demand that ran the other way. The only possible reason there can be why any phenomenon ought to exist is that such a phenomenon actually is desired."

Other critics have attacked Mill's claim that the only thing we ever desire or that ever ultimately motivates us is happiness (or pleasure). This theory of human motivation is known as psychological hedonism. Bentham's view that "nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure" expresses the same idea. Aside from determining whether it is a true psychological account of human motivation, there is another problem which particularly effects utilitarians. How can I be expected to promote the general happiness if I am motivated in the first place at least, always to promote only my own?.

A third criticism concerns Mill's claim that the general good or general happiness is nothing but an aggregate of individual goods; in short, that the whole in nothing, but the sum or composition of the parts.

In opposition to this view it could be argued that it would be good for me not to pay any taxes. I would have money to spend on more pleasant things. Similarly it would be good for others, individually considered, not to pay taxes. But would it be good for society in general or good "on the whole", if none of us paid taxes?

Transcendental proof Immanuel Kant offers an entirely different kind of proof of his moral principle, and one that does not rely on any appeal to experience. He proposes a "transcendental deduction". By this he does not mean a purely logical demonstration. Like other moral philosophers he is aware that no purely logical demonstration as such can prove a moral principle. "Proof" for Kant means a kind of "justification,' of the principle of morality in terms of purely conceptual considerations, or in other words in terms of "what it rationally means to be moral". A summary of his proof is as follows:

One ought to act on the basis of those rules which one can will to be obligatory to all men. But the concept of morality set forth in this principle presupposes freedom of choice: "ought" presupposes "can". If we are determined by other things to do what we do we are not free and morality is a fiction. But it is also absurd to suppose that our wills are totally uncaused. The cause of our will insofar as it is free can therefore only be a property of the will "to be a law to itself". A free will then, and a will subject to moral laws, are one and the same. If we are free, then we are bound by the laws of morality.

There is one alleged fallacy in Kant's argument which even he was aware of and which especially needs to be noted; an apparent "vicious circle". On the one hand Kant argues that if there is freedom there is morality. On the other hand he goes about establishing freedom by assuming that there is morality. i.e. that moral judgments and actions make sense Has Kant begged the whole question? He thinks not because he feels that he has given enough practical if not logically demonstrative reasons to suppose that we cannot simply deny the " moral fact" of freedom. We are required to presuppose it, if our speech and action is to make any sense. But even if he finds these practical considerations persuasive, it is at least open to question whether they are as non-empirical as Kant would have us believe.

Metaphysical proofs Both Hobbes and Aristotle base their respective theories on certain conceptions of man and the world. Hobbes believes that man is essentially selfish, aggressive and antisocial.

Aristotle believes that man by nature is the reverse — a highly social animal with strong inclinations to live within an organised community of other men with common goals. Hobbes world is a materialistic one moved by mechanical causes of which the desires of men are simply a subclass. Aristotle's world is purposive, moved by not only antecedent causes so much as by final ends or goals toward which all things, including man, aspire. The moral goal of Hobbes "to seek peace and follow it" is he thinks, necessitated by the basic nature of man and his world.

Unless man agrees to such a goal, his natural tendencies will simply destroy him. Therefore he must and ought to seek peace through a social contract. Aristotle's moral principle that men should seek rational self realisation is likewise a necessity imposed on them by their rational nature. The basic impulse within each of us is to be reasonable and rational.

These kinds of metaphysical "proofs" depend of course on the acceptance of the views of man and the world which they presuppose. If for some reason one finds the metaphysics of either unacceptable the moral principle derived from it presumably is thrown into doubt also. If one does not wish to quarrel with these metaphysical views he might still question whether the link between the metaphysical and ethical views is as necessary as it is described to be. Could not one accept the principles and reject the metaphysics? Is there really a necessary connection between them? For example, might one accept Hobbes principle but reject his metaphysics and substitute instead Aristotle's view of man and the world? It is not at all clear that this would be inconsistent. The crucial question then for Hobbes and Aristotle is not whether lone can accept the principles and reject the metaphysics but rather the reverse. Whether acceptance of a particular metaphysical view of the nature of the person and society logically entails a particular set of moral principles in preference to some other set.

Religious proofs The principle that moral action consists in doing the will of God has been argued for in a number of different ways. We say "argued for" but of course the notion of proof here as in the case of the other theories has a broader meaning than that of logical demonstration. The chief "justification" a more accurate term for accepting such a principle has been simply a matter of religious conviction, often ultimately based on a special intuition or divine revelation.

Sometimes it is based on scriptural revelation, an apparently more public way of ascertaining God's will. Regardless of the kind of intuition or revelation appealed to as regards a justification for adopting, this principle many difficulties can arise.

If one denies the existence of God, it would be pointless to adopt the principle. If one believes in God's existence he may still inquire why he should do whatever God wants. The answer, no doubt, would be "because God wants you to". If it is inquired how one knows this is the case, the appeal will ultimately be made to some revelation. The problem then is one of authenticity, one of authenticating the revelation. The problem then is even if the revelation is accepted, there is a further problem which Socrates poses to Euthyphro and which has dogged this principle throughout the history of its acceptance.

Does God want you to follow his will simply because he says so, or does he want you to follow his will because it is the best thing to do? If the former, then the answer to the question "why should I obey God's will?" is simply "because he says so", and makes morality an essentially arbitrary and irrational matter. If the latter and 1 should obey God's will because it is the best thing to do, then it makes sense to inquire further and ask for the principle which God himself uses as a basis for making, His judgments. In that case the ultimate moral principle would be, not merely that one ought to do God's will, but rather that me ought to act in accordance with that principle by which God's will is also determined.

Perhaps there are ways of avoiding these consequences and retaining the divine will principle. One might argue that the adoption of the first alternative does not make morality arbitrary because it is God's not man's will that is to be obeyed. Since God cannot be wrong or irrational, as man's often is, it is the height of rationality to obey such commands simply because they are God's. On the other hand and in opposition to the claim that the divine will, if rational, is subordinate to an even higher principle, one might argue that there is no further principle beyond God's will except God's own judgment of what is good. In that case to say that God wills a certain act because it is a good means only that in His judgment alone, but for reasons which we may not be able to comprehend the act is determined as the one that ought to be done. Whether either of these replies fully satisfies the objections is still open to debate.


Jeremy Bentham An introduction to the principles of morals and legislation Ch I—IV (1789)

Urmson, J. O. (1953) "The interpretation of the moral philosophy of J. S. Mill" Philosophical Quarterly 3 pp. 33—39

Immanuel Kant Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals 1st ed. (1873)

Hobbes Leviathan Part 1 (1841)

Socrates Euthyphro 3rd ed. (I892)