MORAL THOUGHT AND ARGUMENT IN EDUCATION
TIMOTHY EARL ACKLEY
A DISSERTATION PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE COUNCIL OF
THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE
DEGREE OF DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
I wish to express my sincere thanks to the members
of my Supervisory Committee at the University of Florida,
Professors Samuel Andrews, Ellen Haring, and Robert Sherman,
for their generosity with time and professional knowledge.
Professor Sherman has been my chairman. Throughout my
studies at Florida he has lent credence to the view of
teaching as a helping profession.
During my years as an undergraduate and graduate student
a few teachers--more than others--have informed me and
urged me to think. I shall be forever grateful for the
good fortune to have been taught by Professors Jack Lane
and Elinor Miller of Rollins College, Alan Gewirth and
Harold Dunkel of the University of Chicago, and Robert
Curran and Hal Lewis of the University of Florida.
Two teachers have had the greatest formative impact
on my life. Professor Daniel DeNicola of Rollins College
first introduced me to philosophy and philosophy of education.
During my years at Rollins and until today he has been
something of a mentor and always a friend. Professor
Joseph Schwab--recently retired from the University of
Chicago and now a director at the Center for the Study
of Democratic Institutions--was once assessed in a national
magazine article as possessing as great a mind as Aristotle
and Leonardo da Vinci. The comparison was not unjust. He
is a modern day renaissance man in an age of specialization.
Officially he was a faculty member of the Departments of
Biology, Philosophy, and Education at Chicago. But there
were few departments in the University which did not often
ask him to give a lecture or offer a course. Among the
many valuable insights that he always imparted to his
students was the fact that the departmentalization of
universities and knowledge is not duplicated in the world
outside. Practical problems arise in the world out of
complex transactions among men, ideas, and things, a web
of transactions that knows nothing of the neat academic
boundaries which separate both the disciplines and the
schools of thought within the disciplines. Thus he was
and is interested in the possibilities of cultivating
eclectic wisdom that would enable its possessors to draw
on diverse bodies of knowledge and modes of inquiry to
meet the pressing problems of modern civilization.
Finally I wish to thank Professor Hoyt Edge of Rollins
College for kindly permitting me to use a quiet office
near the library at Rollins in the Summer of 1974, during
which time I was able to do much of the preliminary thinking
and drafting for this study.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS . . . . . .
ABSTRACT . . . . .
I. INTRODUCTION . . .
What Is Ethics? . .
What Is Education? . . .
Overview of the Study . .
II. TRADITIONAL ETHICAL THEORIES
Emotivism . . .
Relativism . . . .
Naturalism . . . .
Nonnaturalism . . . .
Intuitionism . ..
Cognitivism . . .
* . *
* 0 * 9
. . 0 . . 1
* * * 0 5
. . . . 11
. . . . 15
. . . *. ii?
. . . 24
. . . 28
. . . 38
. . . 38
. . . 43
III. SOME PRESUPPOSITIONS OF MORAL THOUGHT
AND DISCOURSE . . . . . .. 62
IV. THE PRACTICAL RELEVANCE OF CRITICAL THINKING
IN ETHICS . . . ... . ... 84
A Respect for Logic ...... . .... 84
Fallacies of Irrelevant Evidence . . 85
Linguistic Fallacies . . . . 94
A Respect for Language . . . .
A Respect for the Facts of the Case . .
A Rational Approach to Educational
Policy Questions . . . . .
V. BUSINGs AN ISSUE FOR ANALYSIS . .
VI. DISCIPLINEs AN ISSUE FOR ANALYSIS . . .
The Concept of Discipline . . .
Disicpline and Education . . . .
Discipline and Punishment . . . .
The Meaning of Punishment . . . .
The Justification of Punishment . .
The Forms of Punishment ....
The Limited Utility of Punishment . .
Discipline and Moral Education . . .
Some Common Discipline Problems . .
Teacher-Caused Problems . . . .
Student-Caused Problems . . .
Summary . . . . . . .
VII. SUMMARY . . . . . . . .
BIBLIOGRAPHY . . . . . . .
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH . . . . . . . .
Abstract of Dissertation Presented to the Graduate Council
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy
MORAL THOUGHT AND ARGUMENT IN EDUCATION
Timothy Earl Ackley
Chairman Robert R. Sherman
Major Departments Foundations of Education
Education is an inherently normative enterprise. To
establish schools is to presuppose that education benefits
students and society. A curriculum is knowledge that is pre-
supposed to be worth having. The activity of teaching pre-
supposes that understanding is a value of high order. There
are many other values and value questions that are directly
connected with education. For example, what moral values,
if any, should be taught in schools? Who should receive what
kind of education, and how much? And so it goes.
If the considerations above seem obvious, they are
also significant. For they focus attention on the fact that
educational policy questions are in large measure moral ques-
tions as well. This fact in turn calls into prominence the
question of whether there can be any rational foundation to
moral deliberations. Educators are confronted daily with moral
issues. If there can be no rational basis to their delibera-
tions, then the whole process of deciding about educational
issues must be arbitrary at best, and, at worst, in vain.
The purpose of this study is to provide a rational frame-
work composed of objective criteria which will make it possible
to resolve complex educational issues fairly and wisely.
Discussions about such issues are frequently anything but
exemplary of the ideal of rational deliberation. Instead
the discussions are usually characterized by conceptual con-
fusion, fallacious argument, disregard for the facts of the
case, and misunderstanding of or disregard for the nature of
ethical judgment. This study is addressed expressly to these
In Chapter I the significance of ethics for education
is illuminated by making explicit some of the implicit norma-
tive aspects of the concept of education.
Chapters II and III are designed to improve the readers'
understanding of the nature of ethical judgment. In Chapter
II a critical review of the major traditional ethical theories
is presented. The discussions in that chapter make it clear
why none of these theories, of itself, provides a rational
basis for ethics which might contribute favorably to the
intelligent resolution of educational issues.
In Chapter III a more satisfactory moral point of view
is advanced. Through analysis of our ordinary moral thought
and language, some of the implicit presuppositions of the
concept of morality itself are made more explicit. Foremost
among these presuppositions is the principle of impartiality
which obliges us to respect the interests of other persons
as if they were our own.
Chapter IV presents some tools of critical thinking
relevant to moral thought and argument. And in Chapters V
and VI these tools of thought along with the moral point of
view advanced in Chapter III are applied to some real educa-
tional issues. In Chapter V the current issue of busing
public school students for purposes of school desegregation
is treated. By using the criteria of logic, clarity of ex-
pression, the facts of the case, and impartial moral respect
for others, the arguments for busing are shown to outweigh
those advanced in opposition to busing. Chapter VI takes up
the perennial issue of educational discipline. By breaking
this issue down into simpler issues and by again employing the
above four criteria, a case is made for transferring discipline
from without to within students themselves through the use
of interest-based instruction, enforced and explained rules
of order, fair and effective punishment for misbehavior, and
moral education that aims to develop an understanding of the
form of moral reasoning. In both of these chapters the pri-
mary aim is to illustrate how moral educational issues can
be dealt with intelligently. Their secondary purpose, of course,
is to say something of interest and importance about these
In short, the aim of this study is to show that and how
it is possible to resolve educational issues on a rational
Ethical philosophy makes a difference to education
--the difference of a method that may be adequate
to support the values it incorporates; but this
theoretical dependence does not mean that the one
profession depends upon the other. Educationists
need not receive their values from philosophers.
They always have the alternative of being philos-
Anyone actively engaged or otherwise interested in
the enterprise of education knows that educational policy
issues are usually controversial and emotion-laden. School
desegregation, student discipline, teacher unionization,
and text book selection are but a few examples. No matter
at what level of formality discussions about such issues
arise (from street corner to school board meeting to con-
gressional hearing) the discussions are frequently more
confused, emotional, and irrelevant than might be hoped
When the debate over complex and controversial educa-
tional issues falls short of the ideal of rational deliber-
ation, it does so in one or more of four areas (1) rules
of logic are violated, (2) conceptual confusions arise
owing to the use of vague, ambiguous, or unfamiliar words,
(3) relevant facts of the case are overlooked or ignored,
and (4) the nature of ethical judgment is misunderstood
or misrepresented. This study is written with the aim of
leaving its readers more knowledgeable about and consciously
aware of the importance of maintaining a respect for logic,
language, the facts of the case, and interests of ether
persons. For when one is able to remember and use these
criteria as guides for formulating one's thoughts and
utterances about educational issues, one's chances of
thinking and speaking in a more reasonable fashion are
The debate over the merits of busing public school
children for purposes of desegregation provides us with
a current example of how the breaking of rules of logic
can impede the rational discussion of complex educational
issues. An argument sometimes voiced in support of busing
is that busing for desegregation is the right thing to do
because for years segregationists have been busing black
children great distances to ensure that they will attend
all black schools. But this fact does not of itself justify
busing for desegregation. What is missing is a positive
reason or reasons for busing. The assumption here is that,
if the other side does it, then it must be all right.
Such reasoning is an example of what logicians call the
fallacy of two wrongs. Two wrongs do not add up to a
As I have said, conceptual confusions are a second
common shortcoming in discussions about educational policy
questions. Key terms in the particular issue at hand become
confused owing to the vagueness, ambiguity, or unfamiliarity
of these terms, and the discussions thus become knotted in
semantic snarls that can be untangled only by careful anal-
ysis and definition of the confusing terms. For example,
discussions about the proper type of discipline in schools
sometimes never get anywhere simply because the word "dis-
cipline" changes meaning as it changes hands in the discus-
sion. One person uses the word to refer to punishment,
another person uses the word to refer to obedience to
essentially self-imposed rules, and another person uses
the same word to refer to unfaltering obedience to school
officials. Meanwhile none of the discussants seems to
notice these subtle shifts in meaning.
Disregard for the facts of the case is a third dialec-
tical deficiency in discussions about educational issues.
It is frequently possible to establish both the factual
circumstances out of which the issue in question has arisen
and the probable consequences of proceeding on each of the
alternative courses of action available in the issue.
These facts of the case, however, are frequently ignored
or overlooked. For instance, in the debate over busing,
opponents of busing generally show little interest in the
evidence on the effects of segregation or the evidence
concerning the effects of desegregation.
And finally, because educational issues are in large
measure questions about what it would be morally right to
do under the circumstances, another shortcoming of the
discussions about such issues is a general misunderstanding
of the nature of ethical judgment. For example, in a
discussion about equal educational opportunity, a white
racist might proudly point out that he is perfectly con-
sistent in not caring about equal educational opportunities
for blacks( since, if he were black, he would not be as en-
titled to quality schooling as whites. The racist's tadit
assumption here, of course, is that consistency alone is
a sufficient criterion for morally evaluating human conduct.
Such an assumption belies a lack of clear insight into the
idea of morality itself. In Chapter II I indicate some
of the shortcomings of the more famous traditional theories
of ethics. And in Chapter III I attempt to clarify the
essential features of the idea of morality itself by ex-
ploring what is implicitly presupposed by anyone who takes
the idea of morality seriously.
The aim of this study, then, is to present to educators
and other interested persons a general approach to dealing
with educational policy issues that more closely 4pprox-
imates the ideal of rational deliberation. To begin this
undertaking it will be necessary to return to one of the
points made in the preceding paragraph, namely, that educa-
tional policy questions are in large measure questions about
what it would be morally right to do under the circumstances.
To see more clearly the connections between ethics and edu-
cation it will be useful to examine the field of philosophy
known as ethics and to clarify the concept of education.
I begin with the former task.
What Is Ethics?
Ordinary uses of the word "ethics" usually refer to
a set of specific rules or general principles of conduct
which sanction some kinds of conduct and forbid others.
"Business ethics," for example, refers to a code of conduct
designed to regulate the acts of businessmen as they affect
their customers, employees, competitors, and community.
"Medical ethics" refers to a code of conduct to be observed
by doctors vis-a-vis their patients and colleagues. In
philosophical contexts, however, "ethics" is a more compre-
hensive term. Here it designates a set of principles that
governs the conduct of not just one small class of indi-
viduals but the conduct of all rational persons. Ethics
is the branch of philosophy whose subject matter is morality.
Just as botany is the study of plants, ethics (or moral
philosophy) is the study of morality. Ethics is a normative
discipline insofar as it inquires into the ultimate worth
of the goals that persons seek, and into the propriety of
their voluntary acts. Ethics becomes analytical when it
seeks to clarify the meaning of key terms in moral discourse,
such as "ought," "right," "good," and so on. A further
analytical task of the moral philosopher is to ask what
ethical statements mean, whether they can be justified,
and, if so, how.
Ethics is a practical discipline insofar as its in-
quiries usually begin in real-life dilemmas that give
rise to the questions "What ought I to do?" Ethics is a
theoretical discipline insofar as the moral philosopher
tries to generalize beyond particular cases, hoping to
develop principles that can be applied consistently, not
just to a particular type of case, but to all moral problems.
As a field of study in philosophy, then, ethics is a disci-
pline in which students study human motives, intentions,
ultimate goals, and voluntary conduct via the medium of
theories about these. Let us next briefly explore the con-
cept of education.
What Is Education?
By "the concept of education" I mean the general idea
of education. To clarify a concept (or idea) is to make
explicit the implicit rules which ordinarily govern our
thought and language about the concept in question. By
looking at the way we ordinarily use the word "education"
it is possible to uncover the tacit rules that govern our
ordinary thought and language about education and to dis-
tinguish education from concepts that are similar in many
ways, but yet are distinct enough to be regarded as being
When one begins to examine our ordinary uses of the
word "education" roughly four general senses of the word
can be discriminated. There is first the broad sense of
"education" in which what is being referred to is any
learning experience. In this sense of the word practically
every experience counts as education. Here we talk about
being educated in the school of hard knocks. And we say
things like, "My first marriage was a real education."
A second identifiable usage of "education" refers to
a field of study, namely, the study of methods and theories
of teaching and learning. In this usage a college student
might say, "My major is education."
A third sense refers to a process that takes place
at an institution of learning. "Schooling" is synonomous
with this sense of "education."
A fourth usage refers to the product of schooling.
Here we might use the phrase "achigh school education"
to refer to the kinds of knowledge and dispositions that
one normally acquires as a result of having gone to high
It is the third and fourth senses of "education"
which require further elaboration here. For it is the
ethical aspects of the processes and products of schooling
that are of moment in this study. One discernible aspect
of the third sense is that we do not equate educating
with some other similar processes. Consider training and
indoctrination, for example. We would not say that a well
trained blacksmith was necessarily well educated. Nor would
we ordinarily say that someone who had been brought to
believe a large number of facts in an unshakeable way
(that is, had been indoctrinated) was, therefore, well
educated. The point to be gleaned from these distinctions
is that when we talk about education we are talking about
intentionally bringing about some kind of critical under-
standing on the part of students.
What is understanding? Understanding varies with the
subject matter understood. For this reason, among others,
some thinkers have concluded that "understanding" is a
totally context-dependent word with no central meaning.1
But there seems to be enough similarity among all kinds of
understanding to give some meaning, if only a general one,
to the word "understanding." People understand the moral
rightness of an act, the beauty of a painting, and the
validity of a solution to an arithmetic problem. What are
they doing when they are understanding each of these things?
There are impartial (publicly known and accepted) reasons
for saying that an act is morally right, that a painting
is beautiful, or that a solution to an arithmetic problem
is valid. Knowing what kind of reasons are appropriate
to these different subject matters is a part of understanding
them. Understanding thus involves broad perspective rather
than piecemeal knowledge of seemingly disjoint and unrelated
subjects. That is, to understand what kind of reasons
are appropriate to different kinds of subject matters im-
plies that one has some overview of the disciplines, a view
of their similarities, differences, and connections.
1See, e.g., Paul Ziff, Understanding "Understanding"
(Ithaca, N.Y.s Cornell University Press, 1972).
Understanding is also a self-correcting kind of knowledge.
It is acquired through open-minded inquiry in which false
notions or pronouncements from others are fated to be
disproven. Such is seldom the case with training. And
such is almost never the case with indoctrinating, unless
(and this is the only exception) what one is being indoc-
trinated to believe is that one must never accept anything
An educational process may begin with training, perhaps
even indoctrination, but it does not stop there. An edu-
cated person is one who has acquired a disposition to act
in obedience to some rule (whether it be a rule of arith-
metic, art, morals, or whatever) because he understands that
it is the correct way to act under the circumstances.
By contrast, the well trained person is one who merely
has acquired a disposition to behave in accordance with a
rule. No reasons concerning the fittingness of the rule
need be understood here. All that is required is a behavioral
response. Wittingness is unimportant.
And the indoctrinated person is one who has been brought
to believe something in an unshakeable way. How this
belief was cultivated is not important. Hence bribery,
threats, lies, and so on count as valid means of indoc-
trinating. And whether the belief held is actually true
is not of importance either.
If understanding is one major facet of the concept of
education, there is a second major aspect of the concept
of education which also merits notice. This second feature
is what R.S. Peters has called "worth-whileness."2 The
point here is that to educate someone is to improve him.
"Education," in the schooling sense of the word, refers to
a family of processes which has as one of its principles of
unity the development of desirable qualities in students.
Notice, for example, that it would strike us as sounding
odd to hear someone say, "I educate people at my school,
but I don't do them any good." The notion of education
presupposes the idea of betterment.
This second feature begins to bring into focus the
significance of ethics for education. For it now can be
seen that the notion of schooling is shot through with
ethical presuppositions. Establishing schools, for example,
presupposes that education is a good of high order. The
activity of teaching presupposes that learning is a good
worth helping persons to achieve. A curriculum is know-
ledge presupposed to be of most worth. These are values
presupposed by anyone who takes the process of education
Notice too that more specific educational questions have
a substantial ethical import to them also. For examples
What forms of punishment, if any, are appropriate in an
2Peters uses this term in a number of his publications
on education. See, e.g., R.S. Peters, "What Is an Educational
Process," The Concept of Education, ed. R.S. Peters (Londons
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966), p. 4.
educational institution? What moral values, if any, should
be taught to students? What rights should students have
in relation to school authorities? And as concerns education
as a product, there are always questions about who should
receive what kinds of education, and how much. Given all
of the above considerations, then, it seems almost needless
to say that educators or other interested persons who wish
to work out for themselves where they stand on the perennial
and the more topical issues of educational policy can benefit
from a study of moral thought and argument.
As was noted at the outset of this chapter, attempts
to deal with normative educational issues are frequently
characterized by fallacious argumentation, linguistic
confusion, disregard for the facts of the case, and lack
of understanding of the nature of ethical judgment. The
aim of this study is to present a general approach to dealing
with educational issues in a more reasonable manner.
This approach consists of a theoretical moral point of
view and some elements of critical thinking. The moral
point of view to be advanced herein will facilitate a
better understanding of the nature of ethical judgment.
The elements of critical thinking to be discussed herein
are included in response to the other common deficiencies
in educational policy discussions, namely, disregard for
the logic, language, and facts of the case.
Overview of the Study
The next chapter presents a critical review of com-
peting traditional theories of ethics. Occasionally persons
uncritically adopt one of these theories or some variation
on one of them and then feel secure that this theory, of
itself, can supply them with all the guidance and information
needed to deal with moral educational issues intelligently.
This is unfortunate, since no ethical theory, by itself and
irrespective of factual circumstances, can tell us precisely
what ought to be done. Moreover, even if we recognize
the importance of attending to the facts of the case,
none of the traditional ethical theories offers much of an
objective basis upon which ethical disputes might be resolved
peacefully and wisely. The aim of Chapter II is to illumi-
nate the shortcomings and merits of the major traditional
ethical theories and also to put into historical and philo-
sophical perspective the moral point of view advanced in
In Chapter III the idea of morality itself is explored.
By analyzing our ordinary moral thought and language it is
shown that to conduct oneself morally is to act in obedience
to the principle of impartially respecting the interests
of other and future persons as if they were one's own inter-
ests. At that point in the study the first of the necessary
elements in any effort toward the intelligent resolution
of educational issues will have been presented, namely, an
impartial and objective moral point of view.
In trying to deal with complex issues in education,
however, it is not enough simply to know that one ought
always to respect impartially the legitimate interests of
others. What are needed in addition are some habits of
critical thinking, specifically, the propensities to try
(1) to detect and reject fallacious reasoning, (2) to clarify
the key terms involved in the issue, and (3) to establish
the factual circumstances out of which the issue has arisen
and the probable consequences of proceeding on the alterna-
tive courses of action available. Accordingly, in Chapter
IV a discussion of the nature and importance of maintaining
a respect for logic, language, and the facts of the case
Then in Chapters V and VI the habits of critical think-
ing discussed in Chapter IV and the moral point of view
advanced in Chapter III are combined to illustrate a general
approach to dealing with educational issues intelligently.
In Chapter V the topical issue of busing for purposes of
racial and socioeconomic school desegregation is treated.
Chapter VI takes up the perennial issue of discipline in
education. In both of these chapters the primary aim is
to illustrate how one might go about dealing with educational
issues fairly and wisely. Their secondary purpose, of
course, is to say something of interest and importance
about these particular issues.
In short, then, the aim of this study is to present
to educators and other interested persons some criteria
for moral thought and argument which can contribute to a
more reasonable approach to dealing with educational issues.
These criteria are a respect for logic, language, the facts
of the case, and the legitimate interests of other (including
TRADITIONAL ETHICAL THEORIES
Of course, what general principles any philosopher
happens to espouse is only a biographical fact about
him, so far no more important than the ethical val-
ues of any other person. But philosophers also try,
as part of their professional business, to give rea-
sons for these principles. It is these reasons that
make the philosophical enterprise important.
A critical review of traditional ethical theories is
appropriate in this study for a number of reasons. First,
as was seen in Chapter I, discussions about controversial
educational issues are in large measure discussions about
what it would be morally right to do under the circumstances.
Hence any sincere attempt at resolving educational issues
in an intelligent manner is predicated on the hope that
there can be some rational and objective basis for ethical
judgments. The critical review of ethical theories presented
here will attempt to show to what extent, if any, each of
the traditional ethical theories offers a rational basis
for ethics. This chapter will also help to put into his-
torical and philosophical perspective the moral point of
view to be explicated in Chapter III. This chapter is
also appropriate in light of the aforementioned casuistic
assumptions of those who adopt any one of the theories
to be reviewed here and then take refuge in the belief
that they have a pharmacopeia of prescriptions sufficient,
in itself, to meet any ethical dilemma that might arise.
Special emphasis in this chapter will be placed on the
meaning attributed to ethical language by the moral philos-
ophers in question and how they thought ethical judgments
could be justified. By emphasizing the meaning and justi-
fication traditionally attributed to ethical discourse,
four types of ethical theories can be discriminated. These
will be called Emotivism, Relativism, Naturalism, and Non-
naturalism. By emphasizing things other than the meaning
and justification of ethical discourse, different organi-
zations of ethical theories can be achieved. The organi-
zation of a stamp collection, for example, depends on what
commonplace one chooses to emphasize. Stamps can be organ-
ized by country of origin, face value, size, shape, or
whatever. Similarly, commonplaces of ethics other than
meaning and justification provide bases for other organi-
zations of theories. But an emphasis on meaning and justi-
fication seems the most appropriate for the purposes of
The interest in the meaning and justification of
ethical statements is more a modern than traditional concern.
Most of the theories to be reviewed here were not formulated
after the philosophers in question had first stated ex-
plicitly their views of what ethical statements meant and
how they could be justified. Had they done so, their
theories no doubt would have been constructed more self-
consciously, intelligently, and successfully. As I have
said, attempts to resolve educational issues rationally
are predicated on the anterior belief that there can be
some rational and objective basis for resolving ethical
disputes and justifying ethical judgments. By focusing on
the philosophers' implicit views about the meaning and
justification of ethical statements, we will be able to
see more clearly whether and to what extent their ethical
theories present a rational and objective basis for the
resolution of ethical disputes. Ultimately it will be seen
that only one of these theories offers much hope for there
being such a rational and objective basis for ethics.
And even that theory does not go far enough in that regard.
I begin with what might be called an untheory of ethics, a
skeptical view of the meaning and justification of ethical
Emotivists (also known as positivists or noncognitivists)
hold that ethical statements are basically meaningless and
incapable of any kind of rational or objective justification.
This school of thought grew out of the historically antece-
dent beliefs of persons like Auguste Comte and others before
him who held that all knowledge of nature is derived from
sense experience alone. In Comte's words,
All good intellects have repeated since Bacon's time
that there can be no real knowledge but that which
is based on observed facts.1
The thrust of the emotivist position is the belief that
ethical statements do not assert any facts, they merely
express emotions. On this basis ethical discourse is
held to be meaningless. As two early emotivists put the
This particular use of "good" is, we suggest, a purely
emotive use. When so used the word stands for nothing
whatever, and has no symbolic function.2
Actually the doctrine of emotivism may be divided
into two subspecies. On the one hand, there is the more
radical version advocated by A.J. Ayer and others. And on
the other hand, there is the slightly less extreme form
associated with C.L. Stevenson and others. The heart of
Ayer's thesis is contained in the following passage,
But in every case in which one would commonly be
said to be making an ethical judgment, the function
of the relevant ethical word is purely 'emotive.'
It is used to express feeling about certain objects,
but not to make any assertion about them....
We can now see why it is impossible to find a
criterion for determining the validity of ethical
judgments. It is not because they have an 'absolute'
validity which is mysteriously independent of ordi-
nary sense-experience, but because they have no objec-
tive validity whatsoever. If a sentence makes no
statement at all, there is obviously no sense in asking
whether what it says is true or false. And we have
seen that sentences which simply express moral judg-
iHarriet Martineau (trans.), The Positive Philosophy
of Auguste Comte (New Yorks Calvin Blanchard, 1858), p. 27.
2C.K. Ogden and I.A. Richards, The Meaning of Meaning
(New Yorks Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1923), p. 125.
ments do not say anything. They are pure expressions
of feeling and as such do not come under the category
of truth and falsehood. They are unverifiable for the
same reason as a cry of pain, or a word of command"is
unverifiable--because they do not express genuine propo-
Ayer's position, then, is that because ethical state-
ments are not empirically verifiable, they are meaningless.
While ethical statements appear to be fact reporting sentences,
they are instead disguised exclamations and commands that
report nothing more than the speaker's emotions. For ex-
ample, the ethical statement, "Stealing is wrong," really
expresses the emotion, "Stealing, Boohl" masquerading as a
statement of fact. It conveys no proposition that can be
justified in any rational way.
A second, slightly less extreme form of emotivism is
associated with C.L. Stevenson. Stevenson argues that
while ethical statements convey no verifiable facts, they
do serve a legitimate communicative function. They express
the speaker's "attitude" about something and are used to
evoke the same attitude in others. Like Ayer, Stevenson
sees no basis for any rational justification of ethical
statements. But he does suggest the possibility of ethical
agreement among individuals. Agreement is a possibility
insofar as it is possible to change a person's attitude.
Changing a person's attitude can be done in one or both
of two ways. It may be done by showing that the facts of
3Alfred Jules Ayer, Language, Truth and Logic (Londons
Victor Gollancz Ltd., 194b), p. 108.
the case are not what the person had thought them to be,
or by appealing to other overriding attitudes of the person.4
There are some implications of emotivism that merit
notice. First, like the emotivists, John Dewey was aware
of the fact that ethical judgments call forth feelings.
But he argued that,
To take the cases in which 'emotional' factors accom-
pany the giving of reasons as if this accompaniment
factor were an inherent part of the judgment is, I
submit, both a theoretical error and is, when widely
adopted in practice, a source of moral weakness.5
At the center of Dewey's criticism of emotivism is his
contention that ethics is primarily a practical discipline.
Actual people confronting actual problems are the subject
matter of ethics, and its goal is the elaboration of the
types of problems that are moral and the formulation of
means for their solution. Emotivism involves a misleading
abstraction. It focuses on only one aspect of our moral
thought and language, namely, the emotive aspect. To assume
that feelings are the sole subject matter of ethics is to
forget that people do have to choose and act.
A second problem of emotivism is that any forthright
emotivist must admit to being a normative cynic. And thus
there is reason to question why one ought to believe emotivism,
or why emotivists even bother to state their position.
4Charles Leslie Stevenson, Ethics and Language (New
Havens Yale University Press, 1944), Chaps. 1, ?, 4-7, 9.
5John Dewey, "Ethical Subject-Matter and Language,"
Journal of Philosophy, XLII (December 20, 1945), 703.
As C.I. Lewis once wrote,
The denial to value-apprehensions in general of the
character of truth or falsity and of knowledge, would
imply both moral and practical cynicism. It would
invalidate all action; because action becomes point-
less unless there can be some measure of assurance
of a valuable result which it may realize. And this
negation, if it be carried out consistently, likewise
invalidates all knowledge both because believing is
itself an active attitude which would have no point
if it were not better to be right than wrong in what
one believes, and because knowledge in general is for
the sake of action. If action in general is pointless,
then knowledge a so is futile, and one belief is as
good as another."
A noteworthy implication of Lewis' point is that any
serious emotivist must take the role of a moral cynic in
discussions about normative educational issues and hence
must assume that the discussions are pointless and objectively
irreconcilable. This places the emotivist in a dubious
position. For, on the one hand, he wants to ground all
prescriptions (including educational ones) on empirically
verificable data. But, on the other hand, if he engages
in any normative discussion of why this ought to be done,
he violates one of his own first principles, namely, that
value statements are only persuasive, emotive, imperatival
utterances. For example, the emotivist C.L. Stevenson
has recommended that educational aims be "straightened out
under the guidance of beliefs that are well verified."?
6Clarence Irving Lewis, An Analysis of Knowledge and
Valuation (LaSalle, Illinoiss The Open Court Publishing
Co., 1946), p. 366.
7Charles Leslie Stevenson, "The Scientist's Role and
the Aims of Education," Philosophy and Education, ed.
Israel Scheffler (Bostons Allyn and Bacon, 1958), p. 50.
His recommendation is predicated, of course, on his empiri-
cist assumption that scientists are somehow best qualified
to formulate educational aims. As he puts it, if scien-
tists "won't risk making value judgments, then I'd like to /
ask who is going to make them."8
Two points should be noted here. First, Stevenson's
recommendation wrongly assumes that, because scientists are
well qualified to describe for us the way the world is, they
are therefore best qualified to prescribe what the world
ought to be like. He makes this jump from is to ought
without having offered any explanation of how descriptions
can be satisfactorily translated into prescriptions, or why
a person well versed in the former is best suited to formulate
Second, there is the point that it is odd that Stevenson
or any emotivist should make prescriptions about educational
aims. It is odd since Stevenson, as we have seen earlier
in this section, wants to claim that value statements are
only emotive utterances. His recommendation about educational
aims here is not self-contradictory insofar as one subjective
emotive utterance is presumably as good as the next. But,
if one understands Stevenson's view of normative discourse,
one must also understand that the particular value which
Stevenson is advancing here must (on his emotivist view)
only be one for which we will have either a receptive or
an aversive emotion. So, never mind what you think about
the idea of scientists administering our schools and legi-
slating a new world order, how do you feel about it?
Another problem with emotivism concerns the concept of
an emotion. As has been shown, emotivism equates moral
judgments with emotions of approval and disapproval. But
what does it mean to "approve" or "disapprove" of something?
Does it mean that moral judgments are merely either receptive
or aversive gut responses? While it is the case that approval
and disapproval often carry with them an affective component,
they also seem to acquire this affect from some cognitive
basis. Though most people are unable to articulate clearly
on an extemporaneous basis the rational foundation for their
approvals and disapprovals, this does not preclude the
possibility of there being such a foundation. As A.C.
Ewing has pointed out, emotions are a psychological com-
ponent of moral judgments just as breathing is a physio-
logical component of moral judgments. Neither of these,
however, rules out the possibility of there being a rational
and objective component to moral judgments.9
It is possible, and indeed probable in light of the
best available evidence, that each of us carries with him
a tacit definition of what is right and wrong, and that we
judge acts right or wrong insofar as they are consistent
or inconsistent with our definitions. The extent to which
9A.C. Ewing, "Subjectivism and Naturalism in Ethics,"
Mind, LIII (April, 1944), p. 139.
our individual definitions are rationally defensible depends
upon our own individual level of moral development. It
may come as some small consolation to emotivists to know
that this is the view of social psychologists, such as
Lawrence Kohlberg and Eliot Turiel, who are studying moral
development empirically. More will said concerning their work
in the next and other sections of this study.
One of the oldest ethical theories is relativism, the
view that different groups of people subscribe to different
moral principles and that there is no objective reason
why one group's moral code is superior to the code of any
other group.10 Before pursuing this theory any further,
a preliminary conceptual point should be clarified. Two
types of relativism may be discriminated and should not be
confused. There is first the descriptive claim that moral
principles of separate groups are often different in a
fundamental way. This claim is an essentially empirical
and nonjudgmental one. But ethical relativism makes the
further prescriptive claim which says that descriptive
relativism is not only true, but that conflicting moral
principles held by different groups are equally valid.
One such ethical relativist was William Graham Sumner.
10Frederick J. Copleston, for example, traces this
view back as far as the fifth century B.C. Greek, Protagoras.
See Frederick J. Copleston, A History of Philosophy I (Lon-
don, Burns Oates and Washburn Ltd., 1946), pp. 87-90.
According to Sumner, to say that an action is "right,"
for example, means nothing more than that it conforms:to
the folkways of the speaker's group. And Sumner held that
there is no standard beyond folkways by which ethical
judgments may be evaluated. Philosophers who think they
can appraise folkways, he argued, are only giving expres-
sion to the preconceptions of their own group's mores.11
This theory presents many- noteworthy problems. First,
if there is no way to evaluate one moral code against
another, the ideas of moral progress and decadence are
meaningless in any objective respect. For example,'.if
relativism is correct, the mores of prewar Germany were
not objectively better than those of Nazi Germany. They were
instead "equally valid." This is not a conclusive objection
to relativism, but it is at least an interesting implication,
given our ordinary beliefs in the reality of moral progress
Another interesting, if also inconclusive, objection
to relativism is that, if no moral code is superior to
another, the idea of following any moral code is called into
question. After all, if all moral codes are equally valid,
why obey any of them?
Notice too that on this view a society which permits
some people to exploit and abuse their fellow humans arbi-
trarily without regard for their welfare is no more objec-
11See William Graham Sumner, Folkways (Bostonl Ginn
and Co., 1934).
tionable than a society in which all persons treat their
fellows with love and respect.
There is one problem of relativism, however, that
makes it far less attractive, even to those who are unim-
pressed by the above implications. Insofar as ethical
relativism is predicated on the truth of descriptive rela-
tivism, ethical relativism must stand or fall on the empiri-
cal validity of descriptive relativism. And many modern
social scientists studying social mores have questioned
the validity of descriptive relativism. Among these are
Jean Piaget and, more recently, Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohl-
berg's cross cultural research on moral development suggests
that in every culture all persons move through a six stage
sequence of moral development in which each each stage is
characterized by moral reasoning that is increasingly more
universally applicable, logically consistent, and rationally
defensible.12 He suggests that there are universal standards
for moral reasoning. Thus an apparent moral difference
between a polygynous culture and a monogomous one might
be explained by the fact that large numbers of men in the
polygynous culture were killed off by disease which resulted
in a surplus of women who wanted to marry. That community
then judged polygyny right because it was the only way to
secure a husband for every woman who wanted one and thus was
12See Lawrence Kohlberg and Eliot Turiel, Moralization
Research, the Cognitive Developmental Approach (New Yorks
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1971).
the only way to promote fairness and the general welfare,
standards shared by the monogomous group. Kohlberg's
sixth and highest stage of moral development consists of
general principles of justice that are characterized by
"logical comprehensiveness, consistency, and impartiality."
The extensive research of Kohlberg strongly indicates
that, even on empirical terms, there may be reason to
believe that just the opposite of descriptive relativism
actually is the case. That is, there appear to be funda-
mental moral principles to which everyone would ultimately
agree. The factual presuppositions of ethical relativism,
then, are anything but certain. And thus relativism cannot
rule out the possibility of what it explicitly denies,
namely, universal moral principles.
In discussions of educational issues, persons who
knowingly or only vaguely hold a relativistic view of
ethics are prone to be open-minded to the point of absur-
dity. With them one value judgment is as good as the next.
For example, should schools intentionally try to cultivate
such virtues as cleanliness, truthfulness, punctuality,
promise keeping, and so on? "Well I don't know," a rela-
tivist might reply, "after all this sort of moral education
smacks of middle class cultural imperialism." Relativism
is an example of an otherwise noble virtue carried to an
unfortunate extreme. Just as foolhardiness is an unwise
and extreme form of the virtue of courage, relativism is
tolerance and understanding carried to the extreme.
Another type of ethical theory that also has ancient
historical roots is what may be called naturalism. Numerous
moral philosophers have believed that ethical statements are
essentially the same as statements which convey no normative
judgments. The assumption here is that ethical statements
can be verified in a way comparable to that in which the
statements of the empirical sciences can be confirmed.
There are diverse ethical theories of value and obligation
which fall under the heading of naturalism. Though these
theories differ with one another in many respects, they all
share the common feature of regarding moral questions as
being questions about human nature. Naturalists contend that
things are good because it is human nature to want and choose
them. And things are bad because people naturally dislike
and avoid them.
Naturalistic ethical theories differ in substance accor-
ding to which natural characteristics of persons are
specified as being the referents of ethical terms. Most
naturalistic theories are hedonistic, in that they hold
pleasure to be the highest value. But here too the meaning
of "pleasure" varies from theory to theory according to
what is counted as pleasure. On the one hand there is the
broad view that the true test of pleasure is whether a
person actually chooses some course of action.13 The
belief here is that nothing more specific can be said
about pleasure than that it is the basis of all choices
of value. By contrast, other philosophers have discrimi.
nated among pleasures and said that some pleasures are of
greater moral merit than others. The following are two
of the more famous variations on the naturalistic theme.
Aristotle held that, while people may take pleasure
in different things, the morally best pleasures are those
in which the "practically wise man" delights.14 These, he
believed, were those pleasures which complete the "distinc-
tive nature of man"--this distinctive nature being reason.
The practically wise man was one who had developed the
theoretical ability to choose between extremes (for example,
vanity:and humanity, or cowardice and rashness), and who
had developed the practical ability to attain his wants.
For Aristotle everything in the universe had a specific
function or role which it ought to play, depending upon
the kind of thing it was. The word "virtue" was used by
him in much the same way we use the word "function" today.
Thus for Aristotle the virtue of a knife was to cut things,
the virtue of a hammer to drive home nails, and the virtue
3See, e.g., Abraham Edel, "Naturalism and Ethical
Theory," Naturalism and the Human Spirit, ed. Yervant H.
Krikorian (New Yorks Columbia University Press, 1944),
14Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1175a21-1176a29.
of man was to be rational. At the heart of this argument
is the contention that because man is unique in the world
insofar as he possesses reason, the greatest good or end
for man is the use of his reason--either through specu-
lation of a philosophical sort or in conducting the affairs
of his daily life in a fashion so as to avoid extremes.
John Stuart Mill is another famous figure in the
naturalistic tradition. Mill's philosophy of Utilitarianism,
which he learned from his father James Mill and from Jeremy
Bentham, equated "good" with "pleasurable" and "right"
with that course of action most likely to result in the
"greatest happiness for the greatest number." He admitted
that his principle of utility could not be proved logically,
but he believed that this fact presented no real flaw in
To be incapable of proof by reasoning is common to
all first principles; to the first premises of gur
knowledge, as well as to those of our conduct.1-
But Mill believed that the preponderance of evidence was
on his side.
The only proof.that a:sound is audible is that people
hear it; and so of the other sources of our experience.
In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is
possible to produce that anything is desirable is that
people do actually desire it. If the end which the
utilitarian doctrine proposes to itself were not, in
theory and in practice, acknowledged to be an end,
nothing could ever convince any person that it was so.
No reason can be given why the general happiness is
desirable, except that each person, so far as he believes
it to be attainable, desires his own happiness.6
15John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (New Yorks The
Liberal Arts Press, Inc., 1957), p. 44.
In short, the argument here is that happiness is desirable
for the reason that it is naturally desired.
Mill goes on to conclude that it is always one's
duty to act so as to produce the greatest amount of happi-
ness for the greatest number of people. Now it might be
objected that this inclusion of the notion of duty to
others (that is, the greatest happiness for the greatest
number) brings something into play beyond naturalistic
reasoning per se. Part of this objection has merit, but
it is essentially incorrect. It is true that Mill's posi-
tion is fundamentally different from egoistic hedonism.
The latter is a naturalistic ethic concerned only with
self-satisfaction, whereas Mill adds a principle of justice.
It is, however, a naturalistic theory of justice based on
naturalistic reasoning. Notice that the reason Mill gives
as to why one should try to maximize happiness for the
greatest number instead of for oneself only is that we are
naturally inclined to do so, that is, because of,
...the desire to be in unity with our fellow creatures,
which is already a powerful principle in human nature,
and happily one of those which tend to become stronger,
even without express inclcation, from the influences of
Several problems of naturalism in general and of
Aristotle's and Mill's theories in particular deserve
attention. One problem with the view that empirically
observable natural characteristics of human beings are the
17Ibid., p. 40.
only proper referrents of ethical terms is the implication
that ethical disputes can be resolved by counting. That
is, it can be found out whether an act is right or wrong
simply by counting the number of people who do or do not
like the idea of the act being done and then comparing J
sums. While public opinion is often a source worthy of
consultation in ethical disputes, experience suggests that
minorities sometimes are in the right. Indeed, it is a
fact of our experience that the view of a few moral out-
casts often subsequently becomes the view of the majority.
There must, therefore,be some evaluative criteria for
judging actions other than the counting of heads.
A similar objection to naturalism is one which says
that, as long as moral goodness is defined in terms of
human nature, there is no basis for evaluating human nature
itself. To those who view human nature as a completely
fixed constant and as a moral paradigm, this objection
falls on deaf ears. But to those who view human nature
as being malleable to a large estent, this objection is
of paramount importance, since their task then becomes one
of shaping our environment and experiences so as to produce
Mill's utilitarian prescription to maximize pleasure
for the greatest number presents special difficulties. As
Moritz Schlick once pointed out, Mill's position,
...makes sense only if he can tell us exactly what
it mean to say, 'A is three-and-a-half times as happy
Another problem with Mill's position is its apparent
allowance of acts of cruelty which we would ordinarily
consider to be immoral. For example, if the happiness of
the majority could be shown to be best served by the en-
slavement of a minority, this would seem to be permissible--
indeed obligatory--on utilitarian terms. While it is true
that Mill's political tracts show him to have been completely
opposed to such acts of tyranny,19 there is nothing in
his ethical theory that would rule them out.
Aristotle's statements about man's unique nature also
raise some special problems. Empirical generalizations
concerning man's unique natural properties do not, of
themselves, provide a basis for establishing any ethical
imperatives. While the natural characteristics of man
must be taken into consideration in any discussion of the
good and the right, more is required than observable facts
alone. In the case of Aristotle's naturalistic theory,
once the implicit notion involved here that man should de-
velop and use those capacities in which he differs from
the rest of the animal world is made explicit, some dis-
turbing consequences follow. For example, as R.S. Peters
18David Rynan (trans.), Problems of Ethics, by Moritz
Schlick (New Yorki Prentice Hall, Inc., 1939), P. 89.
19See, e.g., John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (New Yorkl
The Liberal Arts Press, Inc., 1956), pp. 114-149.
has noted, man is also the sole possessor of a prehensile
thumb.20 A part of the good and virtuous life for man,
therefore, must be the use of his thumbs.
In defense of Aristotle, it may be replied that there
are reasons why man ought to develop and utilize his rational
potentialities. Aristotle would have made a more compelling
case had he cited these reasons and not relied on his argu-
ment from "uniqueness." He may have thought it unnecessary
to do so, however, since the question of why one ought to
follow reason can only be answered tautologously. Never-
theless, it is a tautology worth remembering. The point
is tautologbus because "following reason" ordinarily means
"doing what is supported by the best reasons." Hence to
ask "Why should I follow reason?" is equivalent to saying
"Tell me the reason why doing what is supported by the best
reasons is doing what is supported by the best reasons."
It is not unlike saying "Tell me why I should think a
triangle has three sides."21 The point is that anyone
who either wants or gives a justification of rationality
is already committed to its use whether he realizes it or
not. This is so since the notion of justification (that
20R.S. Peters, Ethics and Education (Atlantas Scott
Foresman and Co., 1966), p. 26.
21The above account of what it means to "follow
reason" is a synoptic interpretation of the chapter entitled
"Why Should We Be Moral?" in Kurt Baier, The Moral Point
of View (New Yorks Random House, 1965), pp. 138-162.
is, giving good reasons in support of some proposition
and replying to objections against it) is really a notion
from within the framework of rationality (that is, doing
what is supported by the best reasons). Thus there is
something almost incoherent about asking for or giving
a justification of rationality, insofar as to do so is to
try to stand outside the framework of rationality while
Aristotle's questionable argument from uniqueness
brings into focus the central problem of naturalistic
theories of ethics in general. Naturalists insist that
conclusions about what men ought to do can be inferred
from descriptions of what man is. But it is axiomatic
in the study of logic that no elements may appear in a
conclusion that did not first appear in the premises from
which the conclusion was deduced. The problem with natur-
alism is that it deduces moral conclusions from empirical
statements which contain no moral judgments.22
In the case of Mill's Utilitarianism, for example,
this problem can be seen readily if his argument is set
forth in symbolic terms. If we let P stand for pleasure,
D1 for desired, and D2 for desirable, it can be seen that
Mill is arguing that P is D1 and therefore P is also D2,
22This logical problem of naturalism is commonly
referred to as the "naturalistic fallacy." For a more
complete account of this problem see William K. Frankena,
"The Naturalistic Fallacy," Mind, XLVIII (October, 1939),
without first explaining why D1 is equivalent to D2 or
what necessarily connects the two.
As a philosophy of education and a basis for viewing
educational policy issues, naturalism offers both strengths
and weaknesses. On the one hand, naturalists are quick
and correct to point out that education should address
itself to many of the observable wants and needs of mankind,
such as self-preservation, economic self-sufficiency, parent-
hood, maintenance of satisfactory social and political
relations, and the ability to obtain and enjoy leisure.23
However, many naturalists seem to think that they can
tell us exactly what ought to be done in educational issues
by simply observing what most people seem to desire, irrespec-
tive of how well thought out their various desires may be.
For example, busing for desegregation must be a bad policy,
since most people are against it. This may seem a valid
enough argument at first blush, but again, there is a
categorial difference between descriptive and prescriptive
assertions. People are not simply behaving organisms.
People possess discerning and effective mental powers which
enable them through deliberation to see the inconsistencies
among.some of their desires and acts. There is nothing in
naturalistic reasoning per se which requires that this
mental side of human nature be overlooked. To their credit,
Aristotelians do not overlook it. Most naturalistic thinkers,
23These are the aims of education as seen by one of
the more famous naturalistic philosophers of education,
Herbert Spencer. See Herbert Spencer, Educations Intellec-
tual, Moral and Physical (New Yorks D. Appleton, 1887).
however, are inclined to focus on the strictly observable,
behavioristic side of man. Hence today we have educational
aims being reduced to "behavioral objectives." Leaving
aside all of the well known deficiencies of behavioral ob-
jectives, it suffices to say that this kind of naturalism
is a one-sided, mechanistic, and earth bound view of man
The narrowness of naturalism can be seen even within
its own claims. For example, Herbert Spencer, like most
educational naturalists, believed that scientific knowledge
was the be all and end all of all possible curricula.
But on what nonquestion-begging basis can this educational
value be established? The basis for this claim in Spencer's
work is that science can best equip us for pleasurable
leisure activities. No doubt anatomy, physics, and psychology
do enhance one's awareness and appreciation of such leisure
activities as sculpture, drama, music, sports, poetry, and
so on. But it is also true that there are many persons
who have rich leisure experiences who are rather scientif-
ically naive. This suggests that science, even on the
naturalistic view of what knowledge is good for, is only
one important area of human knowledge. The point to be
gleaned from all this is that, in educational contexts
as well as others, naturalists often tend to overemphasize
the observable, the measurable, the behavioral, the desired, v
while overlooking the mental, the conceptual, the desirable.
Like emotivists, most naturalists wrongly overlook the
free and rational side of man. They both fail to recognize
that there may be more of a rational basis to morality
than simply emotions (as emotivists assume) or readily
observable behavior (as naturalists assume). What that
something more is may begin to come into focus in the re-
mainder of this chapter and even more so in Chapter III.
In contrast to naturalistic theories, there are two
types of ethical theories which are known collectively as
nonnaturalism. Separately they are called intuitionism and
Unlike naturalists, intuitionists do not rely on em-
pirical verification for the justification of ethical
judgments. Instead it is argued that ethical judgments
are self-evidenct and hence not in need of empirical con-
firmation. People are able to distinguish right from wrong
intuitively. That is, people know they have an obligation
not to harm others, for example, even though they are not
exactly sure why their obligation is what it is. They
know they have such an obligation, but they do not have any
precise rational insight into its deriving from applicable
moral principles. Ethical awareness for the intuitionist is
not the equivalent of logical truth. Rather it is more
like spontaneous apprehension without the use of logical
The significant departure made by intuitionism
from the rest of the theories discussed thus far is that it
brings into play the idea of objective morality. What is
known intuitively is not a creation of individual men's
minds. Intuition grasps its objects as they are. Notice
too that, while a true moral judgment may reveal the atti-
tude or emotion of the agent, the truth it asserts is
independent of these affects. Nor do intuitionists believe
that intuitions are culturally relative.
Intuitionist theories vary in content according to
what is said to be intuited by the philosopher in question,
but all intuitionist theories share the bare outlines de-
scribed above. One of the more, if not the most, famous
philosophers to have held such a position was G.E. Moore.
In his Principia Ethica he argued that goodness was a
self-evident notion, subject neither to empirical verifica-
tion nor reductive analysis. Goodness, he contended, was
an indefinable, unanalyzable property, just as yellowness
is a property which things either possess or lack.
Consider yellow, for example. We may try to define
it, by describing its physical equivalent! we may
state what kind of light-vibrations must stimulate
the normal eye, in order that we may perceive it.
But a moment's reflection is sufficient to shew that
those light vibrations are not themselves what we
mean by yellow. Thay are not what we percieve. In-
deed we should never have been able to discover their
existence, unless we had first been struck by the
patent difference of quality between the different
colors. The most we can be entitled to say of those
vibrations is that they are what corresponds in space
to the yellow we actually perceive....
It may be true that all things which are good are
also something else, just as it is true that all things
which are yellow produce a certain kind of vibration
in the light.... But far too many philosophers have
thought that when they named those other properties
they were actually defining good; that these proper-
ties, in fact, were simply not 'other but absolutely
and entirely the same with goodness.24
At the risk of belaboring the obvious, it must be said
that this is an explicit criticism by Moore of those who
equate the things accompanying ethical judgments with the
judgments themselves. The attack was aimed at naturalists,
but it speaks to emotivists as well.
There are several notable difficulties with intuitionism.
First, the word "intuition" is often used to give increased
credibility to apprehensions that otherwise and more pre-
cisely would be called hunches or guesses. If someone
were to say, "My guess is that euthanasia is wrong," some-
one else might reply "Stop guessing and think about it."
Yet if the same statement is uttered substituting only the
word "intuition" for "guess," it might be wrongly assumed
that the speaker is not whistling in the dark but is asserting
a profound moral insight. The point is that often the
word "intuition" lends grandeur to the most baseless con-
jectures which could just as appropriately be called hunches
or guesses instead of intuitions.
The greatest defect in intuitionism is its inability
to facilitate the resolution of moral issues. For instance,
in a discussion about the relative merits of trying to
24G.E. Moore, Principia Ethica (Cambridge, England:
Cambridge University Press, 1966), p. 10.
teach specific moral virtues in schools, a person might
contend that it would be right to try to foster such vir-
tues as truthfulness, respect for others, and so on because
he has an "intuition" that these are desirable character
qualities. When pressed to explain or defend their value
preferences such persons will simply reply that they intuit
that these are defensible values. So far so good. But what
if someone else intuits that persons with white skin need
not respect the interests of nonwhites?
A fair standard to impose on any ethical' theory is
to ask how well it explains the facts of what we would
typically consider to be moral concerns and how free from
contradictions its applications are. By this gauge, in-
tuitionism is a failure. All moral judgments cannot be
correct, for many contradict one another. If intuition
is the ultimate source of moral judgments, how can intu-
itionism resolve moral disputes? If there is a criterion
for distinguishing a valid intuition from an invalid one,
what is it? One intuitionist, Henri Bergson, tried to
remedy this difficulty by insisting that the intuitions
of superior people (such as Gandhi, Tolstoy, Jesus, and
others) can be presumed to be correct.25 But this presump-
tion, he said, rested on his intuition that these were
good men whose intuitions could be trusted. And it thus
25Henri Bergson, The Two Sources of Morality and
Religion (Garden City, N.Y.s Doubleday and Co., Inc.,
involved vicious circularity, since what was wanted was a
criterion for judging the correctness of intuitions. In
brief, an inherent shortcoming of intuitionism is its
lack of a coherent means for resolving ethical disputes.
Because intuitionism can provide no procedure for
resolving moral disputes, it often gives rise to the sub-
jectivism that, in theory, it denies. For without cri-
teria for resolving disputes, individuals may take their
own moral intuitions and those of persons who agree with
them to be infallible. What is really right, then, becomes
that which is intuited by me, or fellow wearers of the
old school tie, or fellow dairy farmers, or fellow nazis,
Intuitionism, on first blush at least, is an appealing
ethical theory. It is predicated on beliefs commonly
accepted, namely, that ethical judgments are not merely
emotive whims, or culturally relative folkways, or merely
observable facts. Intuitionism is appealing also in that
it is based on a feature of our ordinary ethical experience,
namely, that we do have insights (intuitions) into ethical
issues, yet we do not have in mind any clear cut moral
principles when we have these insights. That is, we know,
for example, that stealing is wrong, but we are not.exactly
sure why. At least we are not usually able to explain
extemporaneously the principles upon which our specific
moral judgments are based. I suggest, however, that our
usual inability to produce such an explanation immediately
is not proof that such an explanation is impossible or that
rational moral principles do not exist.
The other of the two major types of nonnaturalist
theories is commonly called cognitivism. On this view
ethical knowledge is likened to logical or mathematical
knowledge. The intuitionist view that the good and right
are objective is shared by cognitivists. The intuitionist
believes that ethical knowledge is apprehended without
the use of critical reason and there are no anterior princi-
ples upon which intuitions are founded. Cognitivists assert
that ethical principles which are both necessarily true and
accessible to human reason do exist. These principles are
not exactly true by definition, rather we have a rational
insight into their necessity, specifically, insight into
the moral necessity of respecting other persons. For example,
when we reflect on the matter, we see that it is necessarily
the case that we have a duty to keep our promises to others.
Perhaps the most famous philosopher to have proposed such
a theory is Immanuel Kant.
The preceding discussions of the ethical theories
of Ayer, Stevenson, Sumner, Aristotle, Mill, and Moore
have been brief. Such brevity was necessary lest the
present study become a multivolume work. The ethical
theory of Immanuel Kant will be treated in more detail.
This is fitting inasmuch as Kant has had tremendous in-
fluence upon nineteenth and twentieth century ethical
theory. As H.J. Paton has put it, 44
It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of grasp-
ing the supreme principle of morality; and because
Kant's Grundlegung zur Metaphysic der Sitten treats
of this topic, and this topic alone, it is an indispensi-
ble book for al~6who profess to think seriously about
Yet even the space allocated to Kant here can by no means
do him justice. His theory is tied to intricate epistemo-
logical and metaphysical speculations that cannot be expli-
cated fully here. The best that can be done is to try to
sort out the essential features of Kant's theory by explor-
ing (1) what meaning he attached to ethical statements, and
(2) what he considered to be the fundamental principles of
As concerns the meaning of ethical statements, Kant
believed that they refer to the goodness of a person's will,
that is, a person's motives and intentions. "Nothing can
possibly be conceived in the world, or even out of it,
which can be called good without qualification, except a
good will."27 What makes a person morally good or bad is
not what he does, but why he does it. A man who repays
his debts solely out of fear of imprisonment is not a
26H.J. Paton, The Categorical Imperative (Londoni
Hutchinson and C., 1967), p. 15. Grundlegung zur Meta-
physic der Sitten is the German title of Kant's most famous
work on ethics, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic
27Thomas K. Abbott (trans.), Fundamental Principles
of the Metaphysic of Morals, by Immanuel Kant (New Yorkg
The Liberal Arts Press, Inc., 1949), p. 11.
virtuous man, he is merely prudential. And the man who
pays his debts out of unreflective inclination (say as a
result of operant conditioning alone) acts only in accord-
ance with duty, not from duty. Persons act morally only
when they recognize that all people ought to act similarly
because it is their duty to so .
Proper conduct is not primarily a matter of attaining
happiness. Happiness may accompany the good life; but
since all people are inclined to seek happiness, it follows
from Kant's distinction between inclination and duty that
it can never be one's duty simply to promote his own happi-
ness. The essence of morality consists in obeying the
fundamental principle of morality and thereby fulfilling
the obligations which are binding upon us as rational beings.
What are these obligations? Or, more to the point, what is
this fundamental principle of morality?
If this principle determines what is right and wrong
independently of what people happen to want or not want,
there can be no "ifs" about its commands. That is, state-
ments of the sort "If you want true happiness, engage in
so and so" are ruled out. To emphasize the nonhypothetical
and necessary nature of morality, Kant called the funda-
mental principle of ethics the "Categorical Imperative."
Kant formulated the Categorical Imperative in a number of
ways, each one emphasizing some particular aspect of the
imperative. The following are the five major formulations,
1. Act only on that maxim whereby thou canst at the
same time will that it should become a universal
2. Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become
by thy will a universal law of nature.29
3. So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own
person or in that of any other, in every case as
an end withal, never as means only.J3
4, ...act that the will could at the same time regard
itself as giving in its maxims universal laws.31
5. ...every rational being must so act as if he were
by his maxims in every case a legislative member
in the universal kingdom of ends.32
All of the above formulations assert the same moral
law. The differences between them are only differences of
emphasis. The first formulation makes the point that uni-
versalizability is the essence of morality. The practical
effect of this formulation is to proscribe arbitrary excep-
tions in favor of one's own predilictions. Hence one is
enjoined to act only maxims (rules of conduct) that go for
everyone. That is, a particular rule of conduct is per-
missible (universalizable) if, and only if, one could
agree that everyone confronted with similar circumstances
could and should do the same thing.
The second formulation brings into play a helpful
guide for aid in moral decisions. One need only ask "What
would happen if my action were to become a universal law
of human nature such that everyone would necessarily act
28Ibid., p. 38. 29Ibid. 30Ibid., p. 46.
31Ibid., p. 51. 32Ibid., p. 55.
on it? Would this law destroy itself if it were so imposed?"
Kant, of course, is being metaphorical. If moral laws were
"laws of nature," questions of obligation would be moot.
He is merely raising the idea of natural law here as a
practical guide for making decisions. This formulation asks
us to stop and think about what would happen if everyone
did what we are about to do.
For example, what would happen if everyone were free
to break his promises when this seemed the expedient thing
to do? The logical and practical effect would be that
there could no longer be such an institution as promise
making. Arbitrary promise breaking is not a universaliza-
ble maxim because it entails willing (1) that it be possible
to make promises and have them credited (Why else make
them?), and (2) that everyone be free to break promises
when it suits his purposes, thus discrediting the idea of
promises. Notice that what is morally wrong with universal
promise breaking is not just the unpleasant results that
would follow, but, more importantly, the logical inconsis-
tency of the idea itself. On this reasoning Kant argued
that promises ought never to be broken. Here perhaps he
went too far. I shall have more to say about absolute rules
The third formulation is a further elaboration of what
"universalizability" means and how it should serve as a
guide to conduct. If one acts only on:maxims-thatlgoffor
everybody, then one's choices are limited significantly.
One is limited to those acts which one would not object to
having done by everyone and which could, without logical
contradiction, be done by everyone. To act otherwise is
to particularize arbitrarily one's actions rather than
universalizing them. In short, one's choices are limited
by a logical respect for the equality of others. When we
employ someone (say, a barber, plumber, or an attorney), we
treat him as a means. But this is not what Kant wishesito
proscribe in this third formulation. Rather it is the
treating of another person only as a means which is immoral.
To treat a person as a means only is to disregard that
person's equality of capability to freely legislate the moral
law (that is, the ability to recognize and respect the inter-
ests of others). To treat a person as a means only is to
treat him simply as a commodity or an object. Examples of
such treatment would be slavery and other forms of role
stereotyping based on irrelevant criteria. For instance,
it would be immoral on this view to regard women as mere
commodities whose sole reason for being is to cater to the
wants of men. This is so since women are capable of freely
legislating the moral law.
The fourth formulation takes up the apparent contra-
diction between freedom and reason. We have seen that
the moral law limits one's choices to those acts which are
universalizable. Thus far Kant has been speaking of the
moral law as if this "law" were one imposed on us from
some external source. He now wishes to rectify that impres-
sion. It is our will that makes the moral law. This is
Kant's solution to the apparent conflict between freedom
and reason. If people are free, it seems they may do whatever
they wish. But, if they must follow the dictates of reason,
they must act in certain specifiable ways.
In only a slight overstatement, R.M. Hare has called
this issue "the source of nearly all the central contro-
versies of moral philosophy."33 Kant argues that freedom
and reason are not mutually exclusive. We are free to disobey
the moral law, insofar as we can do so. But we ought to
obey it. And, more importantly, it is of aur own making
and hence can hardly be thought of as an abridgment of
our freedom. We obey the moral law because we know that /
we contradict ourselves if we do otherwise. This makes
it clear that the whole idea of morality presupposes that
truly moral thought and action are autonomous. Kant is
not appealing to any external authority such as Gandhi,
Tolstoy, or Jesus. This view of morality presupposes that
men are self-legislating rational beings.
The fifth formulation is a recapitulation of all the
previous ones, especially the third. The fifth formulation
serves as a practical guide for doing what the third one
prescribes. It asks us to think of our fellow persons
as forming a community of rational beings, each of whom
33R.M. Hare, Freedom and Reason (New Yorks Oxford
University Press, 1963), p. 3.
considers every other person as an end in himself and not
as a means to be manipulated. Now the "kingdom of ends"
is not actual. It is an ideal. People unfortunately often
do use their fellows simply as means. Just as "natural law"
was used as a metaphor, the idea of a kingdom of ends is
now being used metaphorically. This kingdom of ends includes
both "rational beings as ends in themselves, and also the
particular ends which each may propose to himself,"34
provided that no special end shall obstruct the attainment
by others of their chosen ends.
A few summarizing remarks seem in order. At the heart
of Kantian ethics is the notion that moral deliberation
requires not simply a consideration of what one wants or
what people generally want, but a consideration of what is
right. And what is "right" is what is rational. What is
rational is a course of action not dictated by arbitrary
fiat, but one which the agent could consistently advocate
for any person in similar circumstances.
The political implications of Kant's ethics point to
a republican form of government. Indeed, in his book,
Perpetual Peace, Kant argues for a state in which citizens
are treated as equals in the eyes of the law.35 This does
not mean that all people should be treated as if they
34Kant, Fundamental Principles, p. 50.
35Lewis W. Beck (trans.), Perpetual Peace, by Immanuel
Kant (New Yorks The Liberal Arts Press, Inc., 1957),
were alike in every respect, or that the state should
try to make them more alike. To treat persons equally before
the law, again, means that what goes for one goes for all."
It means respecting individual differences and encouraging
the development of all capacities that do not lead to the
frustration.of other persons' interests. And such a state
will not permit some citizens to be treated solely as means
to the welfare of others.
Several objections to Kant's ethics deserve attention.
First, it has been argued widely that Kant .wronglyignores
the results of action when he claims that the will is the
only proper object of praise and blame. Critics of Kant
who take this tack usually say things likes "It is obviously
bad if someone is killed, irrespective of whether the death
resulted from an accident or premeditated murder." To this
it may be replied that it is, of course, an unhappy event
when anyone is killed by the actions of another. But the
fact that we would not ordinarily morally blame someone for
taking someone else's life involuntarily suggests that the /
will (motives and intentions) and not results is the primary
object of evaluation in our ordinary moral thought and language.
Similarly, we ordinarily would not praise someone whose clear
intent was to do evil but whose actions resulted in the saving
of lives. And when we stub our toe on a chair and then
foolishly proceed to curse the chair, our cursing is mis-
directed precisely because the chair lacks the ability to
will. These cases make it clear that voluntary (freely
willed) action is the subject matter of ethics and the,
proper object of moral evaluation.
It should also be pointed out that Kant actually does
take results into account in his theory when he insists
that maxims be tested for their universalizability. This
recognition of the importance of results can be seen in
several places in Kant's ethical writings, for example, in
the previously discussed issue of whether it is right to
break promises. There Kant argues that expedient promise
breaking is not a universalizable maxim because,
...it would necessarily contradict itself. For
supposing it to be a universal law that everyone when
he thinks himself in difficulty should be able to prom-
ise whatever he pleases, with the purpose of not keeping
his promise, the promise itself would become impossible,
as well as the end that one might have in view in it,
since no one would consider that anything was promised
to him, but would ridicule all such statements as
That Kant is anticipating the results of universal promise
breaking here is made plain by his repeated use of the
auxilliary verb "would." Thus, while he downplays the
importance of results, he does not wholly ignore them.
The role of results in his theory is an anticipatory and
ideational one, as opposed to the more important role they
play in other theories, such as in one form of utilitarianism
which holds that men are moral or immoral precisely insofar
as their acts do or do not result in the greatest happiness
for the greatest number. Notice that, for Kant, it is not
the unpleasant results per se of universal promise breaking
36Kant, Fundamental Principles, p. 40.
that make it wrong. It is the fact that universal promise
breaking is a self-contradicting maxim that makes it wrong.
Though the case against Kant for wrongly downplaying
the significance of results is a weak one when formulated as
it was above, there is a sense in which Kant does seem
to overemphasize the purely ideational side of morality.
I believe that Kant's concept of the will wrongly ignores
the importance of action in ethics. Kant insists that the
only proper object of moral judgment is the will, which
for him means motives and intentions. For reasons just
elaborated this position is essentially correct. Yet I
believe Kant would have done better to include action and
sincere attempts at action as equally important ingredients
in his notion of the will. This is so, since even on
Kant's view a good will is good only insofar as it aims
at universalizable action. As Hastings Rashdall and others
have pointed out, the subject matter of ethics is vol-
untary action.37 The whole notion of "ought" implies "can."
To say seriously that someone ought to do X is to presup-
pose that X can be done. And the words "ought to do "
and 'can be done" signify that moral thought and discourse
are about action. We ordinarily infer that someone has
a good will only when that person actually does and will do
the right thing or at least resolutely attempts and will
attempt to do so. We ordinarily take it to be a mark of
3'Hastings Rashdall, Theory of Good and Evil II
(Oxford, England, Oxford University Press, 1924), p. 423.
immaturity, neurosis, or immorality (in the case of sane
adults) when someone consistently acts so as to contravene
the interests of others and then claims that he did not
mean to do so. It is through deliberation and action
that men ultimately express their regard for moral norms.
In this connection, John Dewey's description of the will
seems a more accurate one than Kant's. "Will or character,"
according to Dewey, "means intelligent forethought of ends
and resolute endeavor to achieve them."38
Another objection to Kantian ethics is that Kant
seems to think he has proven more than he actually has.
Kant sets forth a few particular and absolute rules, such
as that promises ought never to be broken. But might
there not be cases in which it would be right to break a
promise and thereby, for example, help a person in trouble?
Kant seems to have overlooked the importance of the facts
of the case in moral deliberation. By "facts of the case"
I mean the circumstances out of which the moral dilemma has
arisen and the best available evidence as to what the
probable consequences would be of choosing each of the
alternative courses of action available. Given certain
circumstances it. may be one's duty to break a promise.
Kant would have done better to say that we have a prima
facie duty not to break a promise, but that there might be
38John Dewey and James H. Tufts, Ethics (New Yorks
Henry Holt and Co., 1923), p. 246, italics in the original.
circumstances which could justify the breaking of a promise.
And as long as the reason a person cites as excusing him
from keeping his promise is one that could be cited by
any comparable person in similar circumstances without
throwing the idea of promise making into disrepute, then
this would not seem to violate the categorical imperative.
Thus, while the objection to Kant's few absolute rules is
valid, the objection does no harm to the heart of his
theory, namely, the categorical imperative and universaliza-
C.D. Broad has taken issue with Kant over the question
of whether subjective inclinations can be relevant to
moral judgments. Broad contends that, while Kant is basically
correct in emphasizing duty as opposed to one's personal
likes and dislikes, there are cases in which inclinations
should be taken into consideration in the making of moral
judgments.39 For example, choosing an occupation is in some
respects a moral choice, since one's performance on many
sorts of jobs is likely to affect the welfare of others.
Teachers, for instance, clearly affect the lives and welfare
of their students. They either are or are not enthusiastic
about their subjects and jobs. They either do or do not
try to find out the interests of their individual students
and teach by building upon those interests, and so on.
Is it not reasonable to conclude that those considering
39C.D. Broad, Five Tyes of Ethical Theory (New Yorkl
Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1937)- p. 124.
becoming teachers should take into account their own likings
or dislikings of teaching? Such inclinations are sure to
affect one's future teaching performance and the welfare
of one's students. There do seem to be cases, then, in
which inclinations may be relevant ingredients in making
moral judgments. Here again, inclinations are a part of
what might be called the facts of the case.
John Mothershead has raised a complex logical objec-
tion to Kantian ethics. If valid, this objection would deal
a serious blow to Kant's theory. But this objection, I
believe, commits something akin to what logicians call
the fallacy of equivocation, that is, the objection is
persuasive because of a subtle manipulation of the meaning
of key words involved. For this reason, it is appropriate
that Mothershead's objection be presented here verbatim&
Kant argues that our obligation is not only to do
certain things and to abstain from others but also
to do or abstain for duty's sake--that is, from a
good motive. He also argues that we must be able to
do whatever it is our obligation to do. It follows
that we must have control not only of our actions
but also of our motives. But this is not true. We
may be able to pay our debts whether we want to or not,
but we cannot produce at will a sense of duty to pay
our debts if we do not in fact have this motive.
We conclude that either we do not have the duty to
act from duty or we are not always able to do what
it is our duty to do. 0
This objection goes to the very heart of Kantian ethics.
For what it purports to show is that we have no duty to
40John L. Mothershead, Jr., Ethicss Modern Concep-
tions of the Principles of Right (New York Holt, Rinehart,
and Winston, 1955 p. 28 .
act from duty, because we are not able to generate immedi-
ately the desire to do so.
Ludwig Wittgenstein's definition of philosophy as
"a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence
by means of language" serves well here as a warning against
the subtle changes in meaning that make this objection
seem so plausible.41 Notice that Mothershead has mistakenly
made "motives" mean "wants." When we realize that motives
for Kant were not wants (inclinations) but universal atti-
tudes, the objection falls. Kant does indeed say that what
makes an action right or wrong is the agent's motive.
But "motive" here refers to whether the agent knowingly
made universalizability a criterion in choosing his course /
of action. Mothershead has confused the ability of the
will to evaluate rationally courses of action in terms
of their universalizability with the inability of the will
to alter instantly the inclinations. The will cannot change
(not immediately anyway) what we desire, but it can tell
us what is desirable. It is from this latter capacity
of the will that our moral obligations derive.
H.J. Paton's accolade which was used to introduce
Kant's theory serves equally well as a summary. To para-
phrase Paton, Kant treats of the supreme principle of
morality, and this principle is indispensable for anyone
41G.E.M. Anscombe (trans.), Philosophical Investiga-
tions, by Ludwig Wittgenstein (Oxford, Englandl Basil
Blackwell and Mott, Ltd., 1958), p. 47e.
who wants to think seriously about moral problems. This
is to say that Kant's aim was not to present a few particu-
lar moral rules, but rather to provide a more comprehensive
fundamental principle of conduct which applied everywhere
and always, one which could recommend itself no matter
what the situation and which was not too vague to be applied
to concrete cases. To a certain extent, he seems to have
succeeded. Aside from his questionable inclusion of a
few particular absolutes (such as always keeping promises)
and his underemphasis of action and the facts of the case,
his principle of universalizability is an important step
in attempting to establish a rational objective basis for
In this chapter we have seen that only one of the
traditional ethical theories offers much of an objective
basis for the resolution of moral issues. And this is
a fact well worth emphasizing. For one of the central
functions of the idea of morality as we ordinarily think
and speak of it is to enable us to resolve moral issues
peacefully and wisely. Emotivists consider ethical language
to be only subjective emotive utterances without any objec-
tive basis. If we adopt relativism, how shall we resolve
moral issues, if different moral points of view are equally
valid? If we embrace naturalism, how shall we determine
which of man's natural capacities ought to be prized most
highly? And how shall we convert descriptive accounts of
human nature into defensible prescriptive statements. And,
if intuition is to be our guide, how shall we choose be-
tween conflicting intuitions?
Kant's cognitivist theory offers at least a partial
basis upon which moral issues can be resolved objectively.
But at the stage of development at which Kant leaves his
principle of universalizability it seems to require only
consistency on the part of moral agents. That is, at the
level of analysis at which Kant leaves his principle, he
seems to suggest that consistency is the criterion against
which particular judgments should be morally evaluated.
Clearly the criterion of consistency is one which we do
presuppose in our ordinary moral thought and discourse.
This is exemplified by the fact that persons usually feel
compelled to defend apparent inconsistencies in their
moral judgments. A school principal who punished the
child of a poor black family severely for some act and
ignored the very same act when performed by a white child
would surely be accused by most persons as having acted
inconsistently and hence immorally. Such a principal, if
he were a staunch racist, might then attempt to justify
his conduct by claiming that, if he were black, he too
would be entitled to less freedom and subject to greater
penalties for misconduct. This defense presupposes, in a
fashion which would make Kant turn in his grave, that
consistency is all that is required by the concept of
morality. That is, the principal is presupposing that
consistency is not just a necessary feature of moral conduct
but that it is a sufficient account of what moral conduct
is. While Kant's political writings indicate that he
would have recoiled from the idea of consistently ignoring
the interests of any class of persons,42 his principle of
universalizability as he explicates it seems powerless to
show the racist the error of his ways.
If consistency is a sufficient moral criterion for
evaluating conduct, then I may contravene the interests of
any group of persons so long as I do so consistently.
Since, however, such conduct is such as we would ordinarily
consider to be immoral, a more complete account of the
idea of morality must be established if this study is to
succeed in establishing an objective basis for the fair and
wise resolution of moral educational issues.
Taking a cue from the philosophers known loosely
as "ordinary language analysts," I shall argue in the
next chapter that any account of what moral reasoning
ought to be like can be predicated only on what we ordinarily
presuppose the idea of morality to be like. In short, I
shall attempt to make more explicit what usually remain
at the level of only implicit presuppositions in our ordinary
moral thought and.language. This so called "ordinary language"
approach to philosophy is explained in Chapter IV in the
section entitled "A Respect for Language." If this approach
is successful in the instant concern of making clearer the
42Kant, Perpetual Peace.
concept of morality, it will provide the most defensible
account of what moral reasoning ought to be like that I
can envisions for it will not defend the idiosyncratic
predilictions of any particular individual, but will instead
embody that which is tacitly presupposed by anyone who
wishes to live in a moral society.
SOME PRESUPPOSITIONS OP MORAL THOUGHT AND DISCOURSE
Apart from metaphysical presupposition there can be
--Alfred North Whitehead
In this chapter I am going to advance a distinctive
moral point of view which can be of benefit in trying to
resolve moral educational issues on a rational basis.
The philosophical methods that I shall employ will focus
on the nature of our ordinary moral thought and language.
Since one of the previously discussed ethical theories
also emphasized the nature of ethical language but came
to the conclusion that no rational basis for moral judgments
existed, I shall begin by briefly explaining the differences
between emotivism and the moral point of view to be advanced
It is argued by emotivists that moral questions are
beyond the reach of rational discussion. They maintain
that ethical discourse is meaningless because it is emotional
and metaphysical, that is,unlike the language of the sci-
ences, it is not based on empirically verifiable facts.
But even science, like all human enterprises, has
its metaphysical presuppositions. What scientist, for
example, does not subscribe to the normative presupposition
that knowledge is better than ignorance? There is also
Alfred North Whitehead's point that, "All scientific pro-
gress depends on first framing a formula giving a general
description of observed fact."1 That is, for scientific
inquiry to go forward, there first must be some speculative
hypothesis advanced by the scientist, one that defines the
questions to be asked and serves as a framework for inter-
preting data. Scientific observations only make sense
within some conceptual framework which is in large measure
speculative. Of course, as new knowledge is acquired,
naive frameworks give way to ones which are more adequate.
These, in turn, suggest new questions to be asked and new
patterns of experiment.
No human endeavor can have meaning without such presup-
positions. No person ever sees, thinks, or talks about
the world other than through some conceptual framework,
whether he is keenly aware of that framework or not. In
this chapter I will not be proposing yet another ethical
theory, rather I will be reporting on the conceptual-frame-
workcthat men have found to be necessary for a peaceful and
fair social order. That is, I will try to make explicit
the public presuppositions that are constitutive of the ideal
of moral human conduct. Hence the principles to be expli-
cated in this chapter are not simply the author's
1Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New
York Mentor Books, 1960), p. 132.
moral philosophy, instead they are norms which have evolved
with man. Our ordinary moral thought and discourse are an
evolutionary heritage of distinctions, connections, and
imperatives that men have found to be worth making over
generations. These presuppositions about voluntary human
conduct (not unlike scientific presuppositions) are products
of the long test of survival of the fittest concept and hence
are more likely to be theoretically and practically sound
than anything that I or any philosopher might cook up at
Now an ethical dilemma is one that issues in the ques-
tion, "What ought I to do?" It is what is ordinarily presup-
posed by anyone who seriously asks this question that must
be explored. One such presupposition is that there are
alternative courses of action available to the agent. A
second is that, among these alternative courses of action,
some would be right to do and others wrong. Why else ask or
wonder "What ought I to do?"
To presuppose that some acts would be right under the
circumstances and others wrong is to hold that it is possible L/
to give good reasons for choosing one course of action over
another. That is, one who asks seriously, "What ought I
to do?" presupposes that a reason for doing something cannot
be constituted simply by the arbitrary fiat of himself or
anyone else. For one who is deliberating seriously about
the relative merits of alternative course of action X as
opposed to course of action Y in order to choose between the
two is presupposing that there are features possessed by
X or Y that would make one of them a proper (morally per-
missible) choice. Hence there must be some general princi-
ple which renders the reasons cited for choosing either
X or Y good reasons or bad reasons.
To say that there must be this general principle is
only to say that what ought to be done in some particular
situation by some particular person ought also to be done
by any similar person in similar circumstances unless there
is a relevant difference in either the situation or person
in question. Once the need for a general principle is
recognized, the above principle must be accepted for it is
only an explication of what is meant by "general."
The above principle is also an exemplification of what
has earlier been called universalizability herein. In the
section on Kant's ethical theory, "universalizability" was
seen to mean that what is right for one person-to do in
a given situation,must be right for any similar person in a
similar situation. It can now be seen that the standard
of universalizability is imbedded in the logic of our ordi-
nary moral thought and discourse. Universalizability casts
the bare outlines of the form that defensible moral reasoning
must take. That form is consistency. But this formal
criterion alone does not tell us enough.
As a formal principle, universalizability is only
one necessary (not a sufficient) criterion for evaluating
voluntary action. It does not rule out many types of
immoral conduct, rather it only rules out some kinds of
immoral conduct. All that it requires is consistency.
If, for example, someone decides that all red haired people
should be burned at the stake at age twenty-five, he does
not violate the idea of universalizability as presently
understood unless he burns some redheads before their twenty-
fifth birthday or arbitrarily grants some other redheads
a stay of execution. What is wanted is an additional
criterion that will rule out certain kinds of treatment
which, though they are ostensibly consistent, we would
ordinarily consider to be immoral.
It has long been a standard objection to Kant's ethical
theory that, because it is a purely formal one, adequate
moral prescriptions cannot be said to follow from it necessar-.
ily. Given the level of development at which Kant leaves
his principle of universalizability, this is essentially
correct. But I now wish to argue that universalizability,
if further explicated, actually does provide something more
than the criterion of consistency. That something more is
impartiality. "Impartiality" hereafter will refer to the
idea that everyone has a prima facie right (that is, ought
to be able) to fulfill his wants that do not involve injuring
The concept of impartiality requires further elaboration
if it is to be shown that it is capable of ruling out
immoral acts untouched by the criterion of consistency and
that it is truly a part of the concept of universalizability.
Equality of rights requires that similar cases be treated
similarly and different cases differently. But this is
still only a formal requirement which admits of completely
variable content, depending upon what differences between
persons and circumstances are to count as being relevant.
Or previous study of traditional ethical theories
brings to mind a few possible candidates for the title of
"relevant differences." Utilitarians, for example, have
held that features of persons, circumstances, or acts are
relevant to morality insofar as-they causally affect the
production of happiness. But this position is subject to
all the logical difficulties cited in the previous discus-
sion of Mill's ethical theory.
According to relativists, which qualities of persons,
circumstances, or acts are relevant to morality is to be
determined by the moral code of some particular person or
culture. And no code is thought to be any more valid than
the next. Since, however, some of these codes might be
such as we would ordinarily regard as immoral, to make
no distinctions among moral codes is effectively to make
no moral distinctions among actions. And hence, apart
from the well known difficulties that beset relativism, it
is clear that this general position, if correct, would
make impossible one aim of the current work. For it is
an aim of this study to investigate the possibility of there
being an objective fundamental principle of ethics that is
Now it may be recalled that the logic of our moral
thought and discourse excludes that which is arbitrary.
But any person's right-claim is arbitrary so long as he
alone is permitted to decide what are to count as relevant
differences between himself and others. (The term "right-
claim" hereafter will refer to the claim made by someone
when he claims that other persons ought not to interfere
with the action for which his claim is made.) The only
way to guard against such arbitrariness, and hence to estab-
lish a right-claim on a rational basis, then, is to restrict
its content to what is necessarily and hence universally
connected with its subject matter, as against what is left
to the individual's unilateral whim. And the subject matter
of ethics is voluntary human action.
No matter in how many ways. a person in making his
right-claims to act might choose to describe himself, the
description which he cannot reject is that he is a person
with purposes that he wants to fulfill.2 And it is this
description that is necessarily and invariably connected
with the category of voluntary human action. Hence I
infer that every rational person must accept the generali-
zation that all persons who want to fulfill their purposes
have the prima facie right to participate voluntarily and
2The following discussion of the ethical implications
of the normative structure of voluntary human action is
derived in large measure from my understanding and inter-
pretation of lectures delivered by Professor Alan Gewirth
in a seminar entitled "Reason and Ethics" at the University
of Chicago during the Winter Quarter of the 1971-72 academic
purposively in transactions in which they are involved. This
is so because reason prevents us from denying two similari-
ties among all mature persons, namely, their purposiveness
and rationality. "Purposiveness" here means the desire
to attain one's ends. And by "rationality" I mean the
practical ability to attain most of one's ends if not inter-
fered with by other persons and the theoretical capacity
to comprehend the equality of others with regard to their
like purposiveness and rationality. (Of course, these
descriptions are not completely true of the very young and
the mentally infirm. But when the liberty of such persons
is restrained it must be in proportion to the extent to
which and for the reason that they are incapable of protecting
or furthering their own best interests or are unmindful of the
legitimate interests of others.) Now our recognition of
these similarities among all persons evokes in us the
further realization that there must be some relevant differ-
ence between ourself and others before we can rationally
claim to be entitled to preferential treatment. Finally,
we come to see that the only way to avoid arbitrary claims
and conduct is to require that the relevant difference
cited as a justification for differential treatment among
individuals must be acknowledged and accepted by all of the
individuals whose interests are affected by the treatment
in question. This is only what is meant by an "objective"
criterion of moral judgment. Without it, rational morality
is impossible, and ethics remains at the level of the
subjective for then we may claim and do whatever we please,
citing any characteristic of ourselves as a justification
for our conduct. And the notion of subjective morality
is a self-contradicting one. For one of the fundamental
presuppositions of the idea of morality itself is that
there are impartial criteria which proscribe certain kinds
of action. To see why this is so it will be necessary
to reveal how the idea of impartiality is presupposed by
the idea of universalizability.3
As long as the question of what will constitute a
relevant difference between persons is left open, universa-
lizability remains a purely formal principle. Nevertheless,
some difference must be cited if a person wishes to justify
differential treatment in terms of the idea of universaliza-
bility. Now the fact that an act will frustrate the interests
of another person to any degree is a prima facie reason,
on the part of that person, why the act should not be done.
This is simply a conceptual point, since to say that any
person P's interests will be frustrated by action Q is to
say that P has a reason why Q should not be done.
Now I ask, what kihd of reason could outweigh this prima
3The following discussion of the connection between
universalizability and impartiality is in part a synthesis
of ideas advanced in (a) Alan Gewirth, "The Nontrivializa-
bility of Universalizability," Australasian Journal of Phi-
losophy, 47 (August, 1969), 123-131; and (b) Paul W. Taylor,
"Universalizability and Justice" (a paper read at the Inter-
national Philosophy Year Conference at Brockport, New York),
published in the proceedings Ethics and Social Justice, ed.
Howard E. Kiefer and Milton K. Munitz TAlbany, New Yorkt
State University of New York Press, 1970), pp. 142-163.
facie reason for not frustrating someone's interests? The
principle of universalizability, I believe, can be shown
to embody three criteria that such a reason would have to
meet (1) at least one person's interests will be protected
or fulfilled to some extent by the act being done; (2) a
relevant difference exists between the persons) whose
interests are frustrated and the one(s) who benefitss;
and (3) this difference is freely acknowledged and accepted
by all parties as a relevant one. As regards this last
criterion, any differences between persons or circumstances
that are cited as being relevant should be made explicit
and discussed freely, since people do not always see clearly
what is actually at issue in moral disputes.
The first criterion is necessary because an act that
did not benefit anyone would be supported by no reason
on the part of anyone. And since the act in question is
one which we have said will frustrate someone's interests,
there is already a prima facie reason for not doing it
and no overriding reason for doing it.
The second criteriorn is only a restatement of the
formal sense of universalizability. It requires that dif-
ferences in treatment be founded on differences between
persons and or their circumstances.
The third criterion illuminates the idea of imparti-
ality entailed in the idea of universalizability. This
criterion requires that the property or set of properties
cited in the second criterion be freely acknowledged and
accepted by all parties affected. The necessity of this
criterion can be explained best perhaps by means of an il-
lustration. Suppose a difference is cited as a reason for
treating persons X and Y differently. Further suppose
that X accepts this difference as such a reason, but Y
does not. And, to satisfy the first of the three criteria,
further suppose that X will benefit by the treatment in
question. At this point the first two of the criteria
are satisfied, but the third is not. Because the third
criterion is not met, the treatment in question is unjust.
For, by the principle of universalizability, X cannot seriously
say that it is right for the difference in treatment to
occur when these conditions obtain, unless he can also
seriously say it would be right for it to occur under the
same conditions whenever any two persons are differentiated
in the same way, for example, if he were in Y's position
and someone else were in his. And this he cannot say,
since Y does not acknowledge the difference to be a good
reason for differential treatment. That is, were their
roles reversed, X could not judge the act to be right, since
he would then have to take Y's position of not recognizing
the difference in question as a relevant one.
We have now come to what I take to be a rationally
defensible fundamental principle of ethics and justice. To
wit, differences in treatment among individuals are just if
and only if three conditions can be satisfied (1) at least
one person's interests will be protected or fulfilled to
some extent by the difference in treatment; (2) a relevant
difference exists between the persons) whose interests
are frustrated and the one(s) who benefitss; and (3)
this difference is freely acknowledged and accepted by all
parties whose interests are affected, taking into account,
of course, the expectable interests of future persons also.
This principle should serve as a general guide in
resolving moral disputes among individuals. And it also
has direct implications for the justice of social insti-
tutions. For insofar as institutions are composed of indi-
viduals and generated and upheld by individuals, the require-
ments for just transactions among individuals can be applied,
with appropriate practical refinements, to operations of
social institutions. More will be said shortly concerning
At this juncture it seems appropriate to entertain
objections that might be raised against this analysis of
the idea of morality. First, it might be objected that
this description of persons as being purposive and rational
creates an excessive generality in my moral point of view.
This description of persons is only a universal not a
complete description of any particualr person. Any particu-
lar person obviously has many additional features which truly
characterize him, but these are all omitted in my descrip-
tion. Rights-claims are not made by universal features
of people, rather, particular persons make various differ-
ential claims which they ground on specific kinds of descrip-
tions of themselves.
It is, of course, true that many specific descriptions
are true of a particular person. The problem for ethical
theory is that there are nearly an infinite number of such
true descriptions, and the ethical question is how to
decide which of these descriptions shall count as relevant
ones. If, on the one hand, a person's own justificatory
reason for his action is taken as decisively answering
the question of relevance, then anything goes. However,
the whole point of our ordinary moral thought and language
is to subject people's choices to rational evaluation.
And hence those choices cannot themselves be made the
independent variables for making such an evaluation. Inso-
far, then, as the basis of evaluation is to be confined
in a nonquestion-begging way to what is objective, I beleive
that the only alternative is to select as the criteria of
evaluation those features of any person and his action
which, because they are necessarily and universally connected
with the category of voluntary action, are impervious to
whatever particular purposes he may want to advance.
A second objection might arise from the belief that
this moral point of view places too much trust in those
whose interests are affected by acts and who, according
to the tripartite principle of impartiality, must freely
acknowledge and accept reasons for differential treatment.
More specifically, in the case of transactions among indi-
viduals, the person affected by some act might be just as
arbitrary in refusing to accept some reason for differential
treatment as the agent himself might have been had he
been free to stipulate arbitrarily any reason as a relevant
To this it may be replied that experience teaches us
to be more trusting of rational discussion between the
parties to a moral issue than license. When persons are
not held accountable in some way to others for their actions,
they often act in ways which we would ordinarily consider
to be immoral. This moral point of view places a premium
on the role that rational discussion among individuals can
play in establishing relevant reasons for differential
treatment and in resolving moral disputes in general.
More will be said concerning the nature and role of rational
discussion in my general approach to dealing with normative
educational issues in the next chapter. At this point it
can only be said that I am far more willing to make ethical
choices subject to the conclusions reached through open and
inquisitive discussion that is guided by a respect for
logic, clarity of expression, the facts of the case, and
the interests of others than to the unilateral whims of
A similar objection would be that this moral point of
view would be impossible to implement in trying to establish
just social institutions. That is, it might be inferred
that the requirement of mutual acknowledgement and acceptance
of reasons for differential treatment could require, on an
institutional level, unanimity among those who would be
the recipients of institutional action before such action
could be justified, for example, unanimity among the governed
before governments could act, unanimity among union members
before a contract could be approved, and so on. And since
unanimity is a scarce commodity, much of the institutional
action which we ordinarily consider to be worthwhile would be
But precisely because unanimity is seldom attainable
and institutional action frequently is desirable, rational
men might freely and unanimously decide to formulate a
social contract (constitution) that would provide there-
after for the operation of effective and just institutions.
Majority vote of the parties affected by institutional
action would suffice to justify such action, provided that
the wishes of the majority were enlightened ones adopted
after open discussion of the issue in question, and provided
also that a system of checks and balances is available to
all to prevent a tyranny by the majority over the legitimate
rights of a minority. To set forth in extensive detail
what I believe such a document should look like would
require a separate and lengthy volume on justice. It
suffices for the purposes of this study to say that just
institutions are ones which are generated and upheld to
protect and further the interests of all persons. At a
minimum, it can be said that six general precepts would
likely be contained in such a document. These precepts
would serve as general guides for the drafting of more
specific laws and for the establishment and operation of
political and other social institutions. I believe that
each of these precepts is consistent with and indeed re-
quired by the moral point of view advanced in this chapter.4
First, institutional authority should be thought of
as being conditional (as opposed to the absolute authority
of a monarch or any other ruler presumed to rule from
divine right) and justified only by the need for insti-
tutions which will protect and further the legitimate inter-
ests of all persons.
Second, institutional decision making should be either
based upon or at least accountable to the wishes of a
majority of the persons whose interests are affected by the
Third, majority rule should be thought of as being
more than mere rule by the unanalyzed wishes of a majority,
since majority wishes of this sort can be as malicious and
arbitrary in their effects as the will of any absolute
ruler. Majority rule, if it is to stand a better chance
of being just and wise, should be the result of public
deliberation, that is, open and rational discussion guided
4The following precepts are what I take to be some
fundamental principles of justice. Taken together they
form a somewhat uncommon and perhaps unique synthesis of
ideas. Separately, however, they closely parallel some
of the ideas of Brain Barry, Political Argument (Londons
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1965), Chap. VIt R.S. Peters,
Ethics and Education, Chap. X; and John Rawls, A Theory of
Justice (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press,
1971), Chaps. II and V in particular.
by a respect for logic, clarity of expression, the facts
of the case, and the interests of other persons.
Fourth, in a bill of rights, every person should be
guaranteed the most extensive set of liberties consistent
with similar liberties for all. Included among these liber-
ties would be freedom of expression and assembly, since
without these it would be vain to speak of institutional
action being guided by or accountable to rational discussion.
Fifth, governments and institutions should be subject
to change in an orderly manner, so as to make the fruits
of rational discussion effective and revolution unnecessary.
And sixth, inequalities of wealth, power, status, and
treatment should be attached to positions that are open to
all who aspire to them and who meet objective standards
that are designed to protect and further the interests of
persons, including the least advantaged.
If operationalized, these precepts would result in
nations and institutions in which fundamental policy would
be either directly determined by or at least accountable
to the enlightened choices of a majority, and in which
anyone would have the right to criticize and dissent from
policies established by the majority. (This does not
mean freedom to "dissent" in the sense of disregarding such
policies, but in the sense of having the right to criticize.
them and to attempt to persuade rationally the majority
that they are wrong.) Institutional operations are doubtless
simpler, tidier, and perhaps even more efficient when they
are not determined by or accountable to majority rule. But
all of the imaginable alternatives to majority rule present
even greater potential dangers than complexity, untidiness,
and decreased efficiency. My insistence upon enlightened
majority rule and the right of minority dissent is based
upon the impartial moral point of view advanced in this
chapter and my belief that individuals encouraged to partici-
pate in rational discussions are, in the long run, the
best judges of what is good for them. The precepts enumer-
ated above would effectively serve to operationalize the
idea of respecting the interests of others as if they were
one's own. The excesses of nations and institutions in which
these precepts have not guided institutional operations
are manifest. In modern times alone, they range in declining
degrees of disgrace from the atrocities of Nazi Germany
and Stalinist Russia to the poorly paved streets on the
South Side of Chicago.
Returning to objections to this moral point of view,
a third objection might be that it would render the specific
institution of criminal justice inoperable, thus making
laws unenforcable. A judge who is about to pass sentence
on a convicted criminal realizes that the criminal's interests
will be thwarted, and hence he (the judge) must cite a dif-
ference between himself and the criminal that would justify
thwarting the criminal's interests. The difference that the
judge must cite, of couse, is that the criminal has broken
the law, while he has not done so himself. But the judge
seemingly cannot rely on this difference as one that would
justify his passing sentence on the criminal. For if their
roles were reversed and he were the criminal, he, like the
criminal, would still not want his freedom diminished.
This objection, like the previous one, is addressed to my
requirement that differential treatment be based on relevant
differences accepted by all parties concerned. And since
the criminal does not accept the difference cited, the judge
seemingly cannot pass sentence. For were he in the crimi-
nal's place, he also would reject the difference cited by
To this objection it may be replied that the sentencing
of a criminal should come only after it has been fairly
established that a crime was committed, that is, after an
impartial law designed to protect or further the interests
of all was broken. Now the fact that the criminal does
not accept his guilt as being a difference between himself
and the judge which would justify the judge's passing sentence
is of no matter. The criminal's argument here is duplicitous
because he wants to appeal to the principle of impartiality
only when it suits his interests. And this, by definition
of the principle in question, he may not do. For in breaking
a just law, he has broken the rules of the moral language
game.5 That is, it is duplicitous for the criminal to
assert that the impartial rules of the game apply only.
when it suits him.
Finally, it might be objected that this moral point of
view is defective insofar as it sets up an unattainable
ideal of perfect rationality and constant impartiality.
No one has ever been fully rational or impartial in making
each and every one of his moral choices, and it is therefore
foolish to found a moral point of view on the premise that
men ought to do that which no man ever has.
To this it may be replied that, if men do not always
act from a sense of impartial duty, they nevertheless always
should. And perhaps men always see the rightness of doing
so, if in many cases only dimly like the vision of a half
forgotten dream. That no man has attained the ideal of
always conducting himself in obedience to the principle of
impartiality is not a conclusive refutation of that principle.
For the true function of a moral ideal is a paradigmatic
and practical one, namely, that of encouraging us on--if
not to perfection--at least to improvement. The whole
5The phrase "moral language game" is a bit of jargon
invented by moral philosophers. It is not meant to suggest
that morality is anything less than a serious matter.
Rather, one who plays the moral language game uses moral
rules seriously and hence acknowledges that, like the rules
of a game, such rules apply to his own conduct as well
as to that of the other players. For a more detailed
analysis of the moral language game and its implicit rules
see, e.g., Alan Gewirth, "Must One Play the Moral Language
Game?," American Philosophical Quarterly, 7 (April, 1970),
point of morality is to prescribe what men ought to do,
as opposed to describing what men do, the latter being
the province of the social sciences. In defending his
own ethical theory against charges of other-worldliness,
Kant left little room for improvement in stating the case
for idealism. I shall be content to rely on his words
in defense of the moral point of view advanced in this
chapter as well.
...the idea of a pure world of reasoning as a totality
of intelligence to which we ourselves belong (al-
though we are at the same time members of the world
of senses also), still remains a useful and proper
idea for the purposes of a rational faith. Even though
knowledge ends at the border of this idea, this faith
still is useful to awaken in us a lively interest in
the moral law by means of the splendid ideal of a
universal realm of ends in themselves (of rational
beings), of which we can be members only if we conduct
ourselves painstakingly according to thg maxims of
freedom as if they were laws of nature.
Two central points have been advanced in this chapter.
It has been argued that the concept of morality itself,
as persons ordinarily think and speak of it, entails two
important features. They are important, that is, if we
are to take morality seriously and the moral issues that
confront educators daily. The first of these points is
that a truly moral decision is one that is universalziable.
That is, it is a decision which, without logical self-
60tto Manthey-Zorn (trans.), Fundamental Principles
of the Metaphysic of Ethics, by Immanuel Kant (New York:
D. Appleton-Century Co., Inc., 1938), p. 83. I have
abandoned the Abbott translation in this instance because
I find Manthey-Zorn's translation of this particular pas-
sage to be clearer and more eloquent.
contradiction, cne cuIld will to become a universal policy
to be followed by ail ccmparabie persons in similar cir-
The second point is that genuinely moral decisions
are also ones which are impartial. To act impartially is
to act in a way: that is freely agreed to by all parties to
an issue, not 3;mply a ray Sthft you alone choose. This
means, in practice, that one ought to respect the interests
of others as if 1hey were one's own in considering and
discussing what ought to be done.
This impartial moral point of view, however, is far
from a sufficient basis, by itself, for the intelligent
resolution of complex issues in education. What is wanted
ultimately is not just an impartially achieved agreement
to such issues, but an agreement that is achieved through
rational discussion, as opposed to one that is ostensibly
achieved impartially but which is also achieved as a result
of confusion over what is at issue, specious argumentation,
or ignorance about the facts of the case. Accordingly,
the next chapter exaplores some aspects of critical thinking
which, when combined with this moral point of view, comprise
a more complete approach to complex issues.
THE PRACTICAL RELEVANCE OF CRITICAL THINKING IN ETHICS
The difference between the right word and the almost
right word is the difference between lightening and
Discussions about controversial issues in education
are frequently characterized by fallacious argumentation,
conceptual confusions over what is really at issue, and
ignorance about the facts of the case. If one wishes to
deal with moral educational issues rationally, what is needed
in addition to an impartial respect for persons is some
practical knowledge of how to deal with these troublesome
aspects of controversial issues. Therefore, I want to ad-
vance not just a praticular moral point of view in this
study but a more comprehensive approach to moral deliber-
ation. This approach is characterized by a respect for
the interests of others plus a respect for logic, language,
and the facts of the case.
A Respect for LoMic
To exhibit a respect for logic in moral disputes is
to try to think and argue validly and to try to detect
invalid arguments made by others. A respect for logic means
thinking for oneself, as opposed to relying on easy sub-
stitutes for thinking, such as blindly accepting the pro-
nouncements of some authority, imitating others, following
an unscrutiniied moral code, blindly following one's emotions,
and so on. I want now to discuss some of the most common
diversions which can prevent people from thinking for
themselves about the central points of an educational issue.
These diversions are what logicians call fallacies.
A fallacy is any unsound mode of arguing that appears to
require assent and to be decisive of an issue, when, actually
it is not. There are two general kinds of fallacies that
occur frequently in discussions about educational issues,
fallacies of irrelevant evidence and linguistic fallacies.
Fallacies of irrelevant evidence appeal to evidence that
seems to be decisive of the issue in question, but which
really is not. Linguistic fallacies also seem to prove
some point, but they too actually do not. Their persuasive-
ness stems from a subtle ofuscption of the meaning of key
terms involved in the argument. Let us examine first a
number of the most common fallacies of irrelevant evidence.
Fallacies of Irrelevant Evidence
One such fallacy is the argumentum ad hominem. Ad
hominem arguments are essentially an appeal involving the
personal circumstances of the proponent of some idea in an
abusive way. Instead of attacking a person's idea, theory,
bill, or whatever, the person himself is attacked. Example
"There can be no truth to the educational philosophy of
Jean Jacques Rousseau, for Rousseau was a scoundrel and a
loafer who lived off of wealthy women like a prarsite."
This argument is fallacious because the whole argument
consists of an irrelevant attack upon Rousseau instead of
the merits of his educational philosophy. The personal
history of a man, his character, and his socioeconomic
position are not inevitable determinants of the validity
of his reasoning.
A second type of argument that appeals to irrelevant
evidence is the argumentum ad veredundiam, an appeal to
authority. This fallacy is almost the previous one in
reverse. It occurs when a person attempts to validate
an idea simply by citing the fact that some "authority"
agrees with the idea. An appeal to an authoritative source
is not in itself fallacious. The testimony of a recognized
authority (in his area of competence, of course) is relevant
and useful if his reasons for believing what he does are
given also. An appeal to authority becomes fallacious
when it is used to stifle discussions about some issue.
Examples To settle an educational issue in Europe during the
middle ages it was often sufficient to show that Church
doctrine was in agreement with one side of the issue and
not the other.1 This kind of appeal to authority served
only to stifle discussion, not illuminate the pros and cons
ISee, e.g., Edward J. Power, Main Currents in the
History of Education (New Y'rkt McGraw-Hill, Inc., 1970),
of the issue in question.
Another kind of argument involving an appeal to irrele-
vant evidence is the argument that two wrongs make a right.
This argument occurs when someone defends himself against
charges of wrongdoing simply on the grounds that, if the
other side does it, then it is all right. Example: "Oppo-
nents of busing cannot possibly object to long bus rides
for purposes of desegregation, since only a few years ago
blacks were being bused up to 60 and 70 miles in some areas
just to get them to segregated schools." This argument
rightly points out the hypocrasy of those who object to
long distance busing only when it is used for desegregation.
But the fact that segregationists caused students to ride
buses over long distances is not, of itself, conclusive
evidence of why long bus rides should be used to desegre-
gate schools. There may be reasons why long bus rides
for purposes of desegregation could be justified, or there
may not. But, in any case, the fact that a practice is
used by parties on opposite sides of an issue is not a
justification of the practice.
Another fallacy of irrelevant evidence is called the
fallacy of the straw man. This fallacy consists in attribu-
ting to one's opponent a position different from the one
he really holds and then attacking that position, as if it
were the opponent's true position. Examples In arguing
against federal aid to education, U.S. Senator Barry Gold-
water once wrote,
I agree with lobbyists for federal school aid that
education is one of the great problems of our day.
I am afraid, however, that their view and mine regard-
the nature of the problem are many miles apart. They
tend to see the problem in quantitative terms--not
enough schools, not enough teachers, not enough equip-
ment. I think it has to do with quality How good are
the schools we have? Their solution is to spend more
money. Mine is to raise standards.2
Now who has actually ever argued that all that was needed
to improve American education was more of everything?
Senator Goldwater has chosen to try to make it appear that
proponents of federal school aid are totally preoccupied
with spending money for more of everything while being
completely uninterested in the quality of schooling thus
obtained. Unhappily this is a frequently used ploy in
moral and political argument. The trick is to oversimplify
an issue by attributing a false and untenable position to
one's opponent. But it is a trick, and should be recognized
as such by discerning minds.
Another irrelevant evidence fallacy is the argumentum
ad populem, an appeal to the passions and prejudices of
the populace. Instead of presenting evidence and sound
arguments to support a case, one appeals to the passions
of the masses. Senator Goldwater offered an example of
ad populem argument when, immediately following his previously
cited arguments against federal aid to education, he went
on to write,
2Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative
(New Yorki Hillman Books, 191), p. 78.-
And I suspect that if we knew which of these two views
on education will eventually prevail, we would know
also whether Western civilization is due to survive,
or will pass away.3
The Senator never tells us how or why western civilization
will crumble as the result of federal school aid. And,
of course, his saying it does not make it so. But what
it does do is to make federal aid to schools seem to be
a very subversive and disastrous notion, without giving
any actual evidence to that effect. The appeal is not to
reason and evidence but to the passions of the populace.
The argumentum ad misericordiam, or appeal to pity,
is another fallacy of irrelevant evidence. This is an
argument that tries to support or attack some proposition
by appealing to the emotion of pity, rather than dealing
with the merits or demerits of the proposition itself.
Examples "Busing is a moral outrage. Imagine the gall of
those ivory tower social experimenters who think nothing
of depriving tiny children of their God-given right of
freedom." Children, tiny or otherwise, are entitled to a
finite amount of freedom like everyone else. Whether busing
violates the rights of anyone is an appropriate topic for
discussion in the busing issue. But to introduce the fact
some children are "tiny" and their rights are "God-given"
can only serve to stir up passions, instead of exploring
the question of whether busing actually violates anyone's
3Goldwater, loc. cit.
The false analogy is another fallacy that involves
an appeal to irrelevant evidence. Both logical and illogi-
cal thinkers make use of a device known as analogy. In
schematic form analogical reasoning runs as follows
A has a certain cause, effect, or characteristic C.
B is similar (analogous) to A.
Therefore: B also has the cause, effect, or character-
The proper use of analogies is as explanatory tools
which can sometimes quickly clarify an unfamiliar subject.
This use involves comparing the abstruse subject, say
electric current, with a more familiar subject, say a flow
of water. Obviously the usefulness of analogies in this
regard depends entirely on how well their comparison between
the abstruse and the familiar is founded and on how far
that comparison may safely be pushed. The point at which
analogies become fallacious is the point at which the com-
parison made is offered not as an explanation or speculative
hypothesis but as conclusive proof of something. If an
archeologist should uncover, on a hill overlooking the site
of an ancient city, the remains of a foundation of a building
much larger than any of the other buildings nearby, he
would be justified in inferring tentatively (taking the
results of similar but more well preserved findings else-
where as analogues) that he had found a temple. But no
archeologist could ever claim, on this basis alone, to
have conclusively proven the existence of a temple at the
site. The fallacy of false analogy arises, then, when
it is assumed that some point is conclusively proven simply
by appealing to a comparison. Examples "The idea of tenure
for teachers is a farce. It is completely antithetical to
the free enterprise system that has made America great. You
don't see General Motors granting their employees tenure,
do you?" Notice that this argument relies entirely on a
comparison for proof of its conclusion that teacher tenure
is a bad idea. It compares institutions that are similar
in some respects but which are also fundamentally different
in other respects. For example, teachers and auto workers
both work for a living. On the other hand, schools aim
primarily at fostering learning and a disposition to act
in obedience to what is learned; whereas the auto industry
aims primarily at making a profit. Tenure protects a teacher's
freedom to learn and teach about new and perhaps controver-
sial bodies of knowledge. And this is clearly of paramount
importance to his on the job teaching performance. The on
the job effectiveness of an auto worker, however, is less
dependent on such liberties. Again, analogies are useful
explanatory tools, but, by themselves, they prove nothing.
The fallacy of post hoc ergo proper hoc--after this,
therefore because of this--is another fallacy involving
an appeal to irrelevant evidence. The mistake involved
in post hoc reasoning is in assuming that,'if some event
follows closely on the heals of another, then the first
event must have caused the second. The fact that two events