Judging Moral Theories

An underlying principle in this module and the others to follow is that it is possible to assess the validity of moral theories and moral judgments. Most philosophers accept this fundamental idea, and most nonphilosophers assume it without thinking much about it. What this notion entails and why so many philosophers deem it justified will be discussed in the Comprehensive Module. For now, we will state without argument that rational evaluation of competing theories of morality is not only possible but essential. And here’s how it’s done.

Theories of morality are like theories in science. Scientific theories try to explain the causes of events, such as a chemical reaction, the orbit of a planet, or the growth of a tumor. A plausible scientific theory is one that’s consistent with all the relevant data.

Moral theories try to explain what makes an action right or what makes a person good. A plausible moral theory must also be consistent with all the relevant data. The data that moral theories must explain is what philosophers call our “considered moral judgments” — moral judgments that we accept after thinking critically about them. Any worthy moral theory will be consistent with those judgments. If it is not — if, for example, it approves of obviously immoral acts — the theory is flawed and must be discarded. If our moral theory sanctions, say, the inflicting of undeserved and unnecessary suffering on innocent children, we must conclude that something is very wrong with our theory.

Plausible scientific theories must also be consistent with all relevant background information. A theory about the explosion of a star, for example, must not only be consistent with data regarding the explosion itself, but with facts, we already know about gravity, space, heat, light, and scientific measuring instruments. Likewise, plausible moral theories must be consistent with the relevant background information — that is, with our experience of the moral life. Whatever else our moral experience entails, it certainly involves

  1. making moral judgments

  2. occasionally getting into moral disagreements

  3. sometimes acting immorally.

Any theory that suggests that we do not have these fundamental experiences must be deemed suspect.

It is logically possible that our experience of the moral life is a delusion, only seeming to involve moral judgments, disputes, and mistakes. But unless we have good reason to dismiss our experience as delusion, we are justified in accepting it at face value.

The point of having a moral theory is that it gives guidance in choosing the right actions. And the most important guidance is the kind that helps us resolve moral dilemmas — situations when moral principles or judgments are in conflict. Any moral theory that gives us no help with these problems is said to be unworkable, and any unworkable theory is a bad theory.

So all good moral theories must be…

  • consistent with our considered moral judgments

  • consistent with our experience of the moral life

  • workable.

These criteria enable us to undertake a fair and telling assessment of all types of moral theories — religious, secular, and humanist.

Are there any plausible moral theories out there? Are there any theories that are consistent with our considered moral judgments and our moral life and that are actually workable? Yes. There are several good candidates worth carefully considering, most of which have strong humanist elements. But you’ll have to wait until the Comprehensive Module to sink your teeth into those.

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