A GENERAL INTRODUCTION TO MORAL THEORY
John J. McCall
This article will concentrate on a
general theory of ethics or morality. (I will use those
By "moral theory" I mean a systematic attempt to understand the nature and function of
morality and to identify the basic moral principles that are the grounds of our more specific
moral attitudes and judgments.
A theory of morality could approach such an attempt in
one of two ways,
with two separate motivations.
One approach to constructing a theory of
morality is purely descriptive.
You might imagine this as the approach of a social scientist,
perhaps an anthropologist, who studies a foreign culture and attempts to provide a
systematic account of the mores of that culture and to understand the underlying
commitments of the population.
We can call what the anthropologist develops a
Descriptive Moral Theory.
Alternatively, a theorist might approach a systematic account of
morality for different, rather broader, reasons.
Here, the theorist, while still concerned with
the factual analysis of what people believe, is also concerned with evaluating the
adequacy of those beliefs.
Such a theorist would be attempting a much more ambitious
project than our anthropologist.
This theorist of morality would be ultimately interested in
account of morality which could be used as a valid guide for all human
The objective for this second type of theory is to allow persons to assess the
adequacy of their own moral attitudes and beliefs, to provide some mechanism for rational
criticism of their belief structures.
The goal of this type of theory, then,
is not purely
It is also prescriptive;
it attempts to offer normative advice and direction.
When I indicated that this essay would be an introduction to moral theory, what I had in
mind was a discussion of this second type of theory,
Prescriptive Moral Theory.
[A momentary aside: Some of you, I am sure, are already mentally uttering skeptical
comments about the wisdom or the possibility of such theoretical pursuits.
There may be
good reasons for a healthy
skepticism about prescriptive moral theory.
There are certainly
bad reasons as well.
A good reason for skepticism is the suspicion that there is
method for adjudicating, in an unbiased way, conflicts between the moral beliefs of
different individuals or cultures.
Individuals whose suspicions about this are so strong that
they outright deny the possibility of an unbiased method of assessment are known as
In this essay, I will not argue against that relativist position directly.
However, some of what I have to say later should be taken as urging caution before too
quickly assenting to ethical relativism as the final, absolute truth.
Briefly, what I discuss
later should make us hesitate before abandoning the ideas that, at levels of basic moral
principle, there might be wider agreement than we initially suspect and that we might be
able to rationally conclude that some fundamental moral principles are more adequate