Moral Principles Are Not Moral Laws

By Robinson, Luke | Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy, November 2008 | Go to article overview

Moral Principles Are Not Moral Laws


Robinson, Luke, Journal of Ethics & Social Philosophy


1. Introduction

WHAT ARE MORAL PRINCIPLES? The assumption underlying much of the recent debate between "moral generalists" and "moral particularists" is that moral principles are (or would be) moral laws--by which I mean generalizations or some special class thereof, such as explanatory or counterfactual-supporting generalizations. (1) In this paper, I argue that this law conception of moral principles is mistaken: moral principles like promises ought to be kept and killing is wrong are not generalizations; nor are they what true generalizations describe, regularities; nor are they any special class of generalizations or regularities. In a slogan, moral principles are not moral laws.

After laying out the main argument of the paper, which is a burden-shifting argument against the law conception as such, I consider whether particular versions of that conception--particular conceptions of moral principles as moral laws--could answer it in ways that vindicate the law conception. I argue that none of the following could do so: a best-systems theory of moral principles based on the Mill-Ramsey-Lewis, or best-systems, theory of the so-called laws of nature; Sean McKeever and Michael Ridge's theory of moral principles as "action-guiding standards" (2006); Pekka Vayrynen's theory of moral principles as "hedged" generalizations (2006; 2008; 2009); and Mark Lance and Margaret Little's "pragmatist" theory of moral principles as "defeasible" generalizations (2008; 2007; 2006a; 2006b). I also argue that it is unlikely that the law conception could be vindicated, at least so long as the premises of the main argument are accepted. Finally, I conclude with some brief remarks about what moral principles might be if they are not moral laws: rules, relations between universals, or dispositions (powers, capacities, etc.). (2)

Before I proceed, two points of clarification are in order. First, in arguing that moral principles are not moral laws, I am not arguing that there are no moral laws. I do think there are moral laws as defined above, although I also think that most, if not all, of them hold true only ceteris paribus.

Second, I use the term "law" as a term of art (see above), which is in keeping with how it is generally used in the literature on the so-called laws of nature. In that literature, what is usually meant by a "law" is either a "lawlike" generalization or (less often) a "nomic" regularity described by such a generalization. The term is occasionally used in other ways--e.g., to refer to whatever serves as the truthmaker for "lawlike" generalizations, or to whatever grounds "nomic" regularities. For instance, when David Armstrong (1983) says that the laws of nature are neither generalizations nor regularities, but rather relations between universals, he is using "law" to mean something other than "lawlike" generalization or "nomic" regularity. But I follow the more common usage, in which Armstrong's (metaphysical) view of laws can be put this way: the laws of nature qua "lawlike" generalizations hold true in virtue of relations between universals (see, e.g., Ellis 2001, 215-6). Hence, one who conceived of moral principles as relations between universals would not hold a law conception of moral principles as defined above, nor would someone who conceived of such principles as rules (e.g., divine commands, precepts of reason, or social rules) or as dispositions (see section 7 below).

2. Moral Principles Are Not Moral Laws

As a preliminary matter, I grant that even if moral principles are not laws, they at least entail, give rise to, or otherwise guarantee laws, although these may hold true only ceteris paribus--or "for the most part" (Aristotle 1999, 1094b14-27). For instance, I grant that the moral principle

(POK) promises ought to be kept

at least guarantees that promises ought to be kept, ceteris paribus, and that the moral principle

(KW) killing is wrong

at least guarantees that killings (of persons) are wrong, ceteris paribus.

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