General Moral Principles
General moral principle make some general statement about what is morally right or wrong or good or bad or what we should or ought or should not or ought not to. Examples:
- You should not take what does not belong to you without permission of the owner.
- If you make a promise, you ought to keep it.
Particular Moral Judgments
Not all moral judgments are general principles. Some are about specifics. Examples:
- John was wrong to tell you that.
- Hitler was an evil person.
Other (non-moral) Normative Judgment and Principles
Some judgments are normative, and say what ought or ought not to be done, but are not moral. Examples of these include prudential, legal and aesthetic judgments. They may be general or specific. Examples:
- You should quit smoking.
- That’s the wrong hat for that outfit.
The Role of General Moral Principles in Moral Argument
General moral principles can serve as the major premise of a moral argument. For example,
1. Killing is wrong.
2. Capital punishment is killing.
3. Therefore, capital punishment is wrong.
The first claim here, ‘Killing is wrong’, is general moral principle. It takes a general normative position on a moral matter. It says of a general class of things that it is morally wrong or right.
To excel at moral reasoning it is important to be able to distinguish general moral principles from other claims.
THE STRUCTURE OF MORAL REASONING
Premise 1: General Moral Principle (GMP)
Premise 2: Factual Claim (FC)
Conclusion: Derivative Moral Judgment (DMJ)
Premise 1: Killing people is wrong. (GMP)
Premise 2: Capital punishment is killing of criminals. (FC)
Premise 3: Criminals are people. (FC)
Conclusion: Capital punishment is wrong. (DMJ)
Premise 1: Harming people is wrong. (GMP)
Premise 2: Killing people is harming them. (FC)
Conclusion: Killing people is wrong. (DMJ)
Some Examples of Ethical Arguments:
An Argument about Cultural Relativism
1. “Right” means “approved in a certain society”.
2. The extermination of Jews was socially approved in the Nazi Germany.
3. Thus, the extermination of Jews was right. [From (1) and (2)]
An Argument about utilitarianism
1. If utilitarianism is true, then it is always morally permissible to sacrifice innocent people whenever it benefits the society.
2. Sometimes it is wrong to sacrifice innocent people even if it benefits society.
3. Therefore, utilitarianism is false. [From (1) and (2)]
An Argument about Euthanasia and Suicide
1. All rational acts that do not harm anyone are morally permissible.
2. Euthanasia and suicide are rational and they do not harm anyone.
3. Thus, they are morally permissible. [From (1) and (2)]