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theory of moral unity

theory of moral unity

theory of moral unity

Hello. Welcome to solsarin. This post is about “theory of moral unity“.


A moral (from Latin morālis) ismessage that is conveyed or a lesson to be learned from a story or event. The moral may be left to the hearer, reader, or viewer to determine for themselves, or may be explicitly encapsulated in a maxim. A moral is a lesson in a story or in real life.

Moral Psychology and the Unity of Morality


Jonathan Haidt’s research on moral cognition has revealed that political liberals moralize mostly in terms of Harm and Fairness, whereas conservatives moralize in terms of those plus loyalty to Ingroup, respect for Authority, and Purity (or IAP). Some have concluded that the norms of morality encompass a wide variety of subject matters with no deep unity. To the contrary, I argue that the conservative position is partially debunked by its own lights.

IAP norms’ moral relevance depends on their tendency to promote welfare (especially to prevent harm). I argue that all moral agents, including conservatives, are committed to that claim at least implicitly. I then argue that an evolutionary account of moral cognition partially debunks the view that welfare-irrelevant IAP norms have moral force. Haidt’s own normative commitments are harmonized by this view: IAP norms are more important than liberals often realize, yet morality is at bottom all about promoting welfare.

Green’s Theory of the Moral Motive

A SOMEWHAT peculiar difficulty seems to attend the discussion of ethical theory, on account of its characteristic relation to action. This relation gives rise, on one side, to the belief that ethics is primarily an ‘art.’ Ethics is so much the theory of practice that it seems as if its main business were to aid in the direction of conduct. This being premised, the next step is to make out of ethics a collection of rules and precepts. A body of rigid rules is erected with the object of having always some precept which will tell just what to do.

But, on the other side, it is seen to be impossible that any body of rules should be sufficiently extensive to cover the whole range of action ; it is seen that to make such a body results inevitably in a casuistry which is so demoralizing as to defeat the very end desired ; and that, at the best, the effect is to destroy the grace and play of life by making conduct mechanical. So the pendulum swings to the other extreme; it is denied that ethics has to deal primarily or directly with the guidance of action.

theory of moral unity
theory of moral unity

Metaphysic of ethic

Limited in this way, all there is left is a metaphysic of ethic :-an attempt to analyze the general conditions under which morality is possible; to determine, in other words, the nature of that universe or system of things which permits or requires moral action. The difficulty, then, is to find the place intermediate between a theory general to the point of abstractness, a theory which provides no help to action, and a theory which attempts to further action but does so at the expense of its spontaneity and breadth. I do not (594) know of any theory, however, which is quite consistent to either point of view.

The theory which makes the most of being practical generally shrinks, as matter of fact, from the attempt to carry out into detail its rules for living ; and the most metaphysical doctrine commonly tries to show that at least the main rules for morality follow from it. The difficulties imbedded in the very nature of the science.


So much so that it is far easier for the school which prides itself upon its practicality (generally the utilitarian) to accuse the other (generally the ‘transcendental’) of vagueness than to work out any definitely concrete guidance itself; and easier for the metaphysical school to show the impossibility of deducing any detailed scheme of action from a notion like that of seeking the greatest quantity of pleasures than for it to show how its own general ideal is to be translated out of the region of the general into the specific, and, of course, all action is specific.

Hartmann on the Unity of Moral Value

At the start of a previous work on the philosophy of Max Scheler (Kelly1997), I quoted a brief passage from the autobiography of the Americanwriter Henry Adams. It applies to the question that concerns me in thispaper:What happened if one dropped the sounder into the abyss – let it go –frankly gave up Unity altogether? What was Unity? Why was one to beforced to affirm it? Here everybody flatly refused help […] (Adams) gotout his Descartes again; dipped into his Hume and Berkeley; wrestledanew with his Kant; pondered solemnly over his Hegel and Schopenhauerand Hartmann; strayed gaily away with his Greeks – all merely to ask whatUnity meant, and what happened when one denied it.


Apparently onenever denied it. Every philosopher, whether sane or insane, naturally af-firmed it (Adams, 431–32).For ethics the question of the unity of values is especially significant. Formoral disunity is a form of moral confusion among humankind; yet itseems to be a fundamental fact to which everyone’s experience can tes-tify. Think of Hunding’s brooding over his unknown guest in Wagner’sDie Walküre. “I know a wild race / What others deem noble is not holyto them.”.

Nicolai Hartmann pursues the theme in several places in hisEthics. He writes in Book I (1932), 74, “the unity of ethics is the fun-damental demand. Which raises its voice categorically above the pluralityof morals.”. Yet if there is unity in ethics, it must lie deep beneath thisdiversity of human moral belief as its foundation.

theory of moral unity
theory of moral unity


  1. Typically, disunitarians like Foot (1978), Nagel (1979), Williams (1982), Walker (1993), and Badhwar (1996) either do not believe the virtues to be mutually compatible (what Badhwar calls ‘Mutual Incompatibility of the Virtues’, and Walker ‘Conflict Assumption’) or claim that there is no need for a virtue to be accompanied by all others to be genuine (‘Mutual Independence of the Virtues’, in Badhwar’s words).
  2. A third, related question, which we cannot discuss here, concerns the ontogenetic level, i.e., the analysis of virtue acquisition. We discuss this issue in [reference removed for blind review] De Caro et al. (2018).
  3. For brevity, in the following, we accept Davidson’s use of “beliefs” as a label for all intentional states relevant for interpretation (see Davidson 1984a1984b).


4. Meaning molecularism (from which molecularism about belief content conceptually depends) has been convincingly advocated, in different forms, by Dummett 1973, Devitt 1993, Perry 1994, and Marconi 1997. Such a view, besides being alternative to meaning holism, is also an alternative to meaning atomism. The view on which the meaning of basic semantic entities does not depend on the meaning of other semantic entities. Analogously, molecularism about belief content opposes the related versions of holism and atomism.

5. With the term “the good” Davidson, of course, does not refer to an abstract entity or universal. But only a substantive set of interrelated moral beliefs.

6. Not all interpretations are necessarily also moral interpretations (think of the interactions between two people who ferociously hate each other. They still need to interpret each other, but morality is not their concern). However, as long an interpretation involves the attribution of morality to the interpreted speakers. We believe that the specific version of the Principle of Charity. That we call Principle of Phronetic Charity is involved in the process.

7. One can imagine a situation in which an interpreter does not know anything about the moral views of the interpreted speakers. This, however, would simply be a special instance of Davidson’s radical interpretation; but, as it in the latter case, it would not be in principle different from everyday moral interpretations.

Another notes

  1. We have defended this view at more length in De Caro et al. 2018.
  2. Gulliford and Roberts (2018) have proposed an interesting functional analysis of virtues that conceives of them. As dived in three big clusters (unified, respectively, around intelligent caring, willpower, and humility). This is an interesting proposal. But here we are not committed to any specific identification of the clusters of virtues that are necessary for moral interpretations.
  3. This natural tendency is exploited by professional cheaters, who are able to produce in their interlocutors the impression that. They seriously desire to be virtuous in general. And that, consequently, they are trustworthy (films such as House of Games and American Hustle expose such moral-psychological dynamics brilliantly).
theory of moral unity
theory of moral unity


  1. We also believe that McDowell has gone too far in characterizing each virtue in Platonic terms. In his words, a virtue is a kind of “reliable sensitivity to a certain sort of requirement that situations impose on behavior.”. It consists in “a sort of perceptual capacity;” and “the specialized sensitivities that are to be equated with particular virtues […] are actually not available one by one for a series of separate identifications” (1998, 51–52). In sum, according to McDowell, any attempt to identify a specific virtue would be useless. Since no such thing would ever be available to an agent and/or to an interpreter. This view, in our opinion, is too extreme.

  2. Arguably, the most influential empirically-based attack on the virtues is the so-called “situationist criticism”, which rejects traditional accounts of ethical virtues and their essentialism, in that they would presuppose cross-situational identity of all the acts falling under the scope of the same virtue (see Doris 19982002, and Harman 19992000).
  3. We thank Dan Lapsley, Darcia Narvaez, Ariele Niccoli and Juliette Vazard for their observations on the talk that this article is based on. And Robert Audi, Leonard de Leon and Leonardo Moauro for the useful comments on previous versions of it.

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