Principles and Exceptions in Moral Judgment

In addressing moral questions, people rely on moral principles. This is no accident. Moral judgments are not supposed to be gut feelings. If I feel that a certain kind of action A is okay in one situation S1 but wrong in situation S2, then I need to explain what is different about the situations that is morally relevant. If I cannot point to any morally relevant difference between S1 and S2, then I have got to revise my judgment that A is okay in S1 but wrong in S2. So if I think it is wrong to break a promise in one situation but okay to break it in another, I need to explain what the difference is.

For example: It seems morally permissible for me to break a promise to meet a student at my office in order to take somebody to the hospital, while it is not morally permissible not to show up, because I fee like taking a nap instead. This difference between the two situations is obviously relevant. But not all differences are relevant. If a racist says that it is okay to break a promise if you made it to an African American, but not if you have made it to someone of European ancestry, then the racist has pointed to a difference in the two situations, but he or she has not pointed to a difference that we accept as morally relevant. And we would, of course, criticize the racist for believing that this difference was morally relevant.

This means that if I think that a kind of action A is morally permissible in situation S1, then I think actions of this kind are morally permissible in every situation that is similar to S1 in every morally relevant regard. Suppose that the morally relevant aspects of S1 are C1, C2, ..., Cn. Then if I believe that A is permissible in S1, I am committed to the principle: if C1 & C2 & . . . & Cn, then action A is morally permissible. So moral principles are implicit in judgments concerning what is morally permissible, impermissible, or obligatory.

It is, however, extremely difficult to formulate exceptionless moral principles. It is, for example, not true that it is always morally obligatory to keep a promise. I gave above one example where we think it is perfectly okay to break a promise. The principle to which we are committed when we judge it to be wrong to break a promise is not "Never break promises," because that principle is false. The principle we are implicitly committed to must be a good deal more complicated.

Unless we know something about when it is and isn't wrong to break promises, the general principle, "Keep your promises" is almost worthless. To be told that the principle is "Keep your promises" but that there are many exceptions is of little help when deciding whether it is okay to break a promise. You could say, "Well, the general rule is to keep your promise, so I'll always keep my promise." Presumably, one will on average go wrong less often always keeping promises than never keeping promises. But you'd often go wrong, and you wouldn't be showing much moral intelligence or sensitivity. What we need to do is to diagnose the exceptions and complicate our principles.

Suppose we are trying to figure out whether abortion should be legal, and somebody offers the following argument:

1. Fetuses are human beings.

2. It should always be illegal to kill human beings.

Therefore 3. It should always be illegal to kill fetuses.

One problem with this argument is that the principle stated here as premise 2 appears to be false. Killing in self-defense should be legal. Some killing in war should be legal. Though more controversial, many people believe that euthanasia should in some circumstances be legal.

It will not do to say, "2 is nevertheless true for the most part," because that doesn't tell us whether the special circumstances involved in abortions classify this as one of the cases that belong to "the most part." To say that it is true for the most part is another way of saying that it is false. Instead what somebody who wants to make this argument needs to do is to determine what the circumstances are in which we believe that killing humans should be legal and why. Having done that, one can replace 2 with true principles that correctly say when it is and is not permissible to kill humans. Only then one can meaningfully address the question of whether or not the circumstances in some or all abortions justify killing fetuses. (Obviously there are lots of questions about premise 1, but the example is intended only to illustrate the need to rely on true principles. I am not here addressing the abortion question.)

The moral is that moral arguments cannot rely on premises that "have exceptions." There are no sound arguments without true premises. Arguments with false premises should not persuade us of their conclusions.