The nature of moral principles
Principles in any field involve the field's basic rules, purposes,
or goals. This is true of many organized activities, from basketball to physics. In a formal
theory, such as physics, principles are often stated as laws or axioms from which many
other statements, rules, laws, or
may be derived. A principled approach to ethics usually involves the expression of one or two basic rules that implicitly define the
domain and range
of the theory. By using moral principles, judgments can be made in specific concrete cases. In this way principles are designed to provide the foundation for the rest of an ethical theory. For example, people often hold the golden rule, do onto others as you would have them do onto you, as a moral principle.
One may decide that a certain action is not morally permitted because having the same thing done to oneself would not be acceptable.
Because principles, using only a few words, do so much in ethics --
setting the basic intent of a theory and potentially offering instruction on all moral
problems -- they must be abstract and very general. A principle is abstract when it
leaves out concrete detail. A principle is general when it covers a broad domain,
including many different types of actions as well as other things such as political
A principle gives basic insight because it helps to establish other, more concrete and less general, aspects of the field. For example,
uses the demand to seek the greatest happiness (the utilitarian
principle) to evaluate moral rules.
Moral principles may be used to evaluate everything from social
A principle such as "Do whatever you want unless it harms another person," if offered as the basic moral principle, establishes a
perspective on moral theory, guides individual judgments, and covers many different activities by using broad terms, including
Applying moral principles
Some philosophers think that moral principles provide
precise guidance. If we apply a principle properly, we will determine the right course of action. Others believe that principles cannot, in most instances, be directly applied without further interpretation. Consider the principle about harming others. Suppose I decide to go to the movies, but this disappoints my colleague who hoped I would have some time to help with a difficult logic proof. Did this disappointment "harm" my colleague? We might decide that harm must be serious to count, but this decision is not part of the principle. When we add this interpretation, the libertarian moral principle is amended; now it is more precise. The problem is that many similar amendments may be required before the principle provides adequate advice in real circumstances.
Under the rule-utilitarianism perspective, the utilitarian principle, to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, cannot be directly applied to individual cases due to limited knowledge and to offensive
In rule-utilitarianism, the utilitarian principle, in its generality, is only used to make macro judgments. It is not intended as a way to "micro-manage"
moral life; the principle needs to be mediated by a set of rules. These rules end up
offering what we may think of as an extended interpretation of the utilitarian principle; they tell us how we can contribute most effectively to the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. Although rules help to specify the meaning of principles, they cannot offer a complete interpretation. After all, the principle must be used, without the help of rules, to determine which rules must be followed. Rule-utilitarians believe that the vagueness in the main principle is
less of a liability at the macro level, where issues are more easily studied in general terms.
While the rule view maintains that principles are applied to
individual cases through the use of derived rules, the other view, the act view, maintains that principles are to be applied directly to all moral concerns. Under either view, because principles are abstract and general, they require fuller explanation. What do key terms within the principle mean? How are principles to be applied? How can principles be justified? Top
The major principled theories: utilitarianism and Kantian
The two most influential ethical theories, utilitarianism and
Kantian deontology ,
claim that one or a few basic principles provide the only proper perspective from which moral decisions may be made. Each is a fundamentally influential view in the history of ethical theory, claiming to support all the valid ingredients of
When examining such theories, we should keep in mind the inherent limitation of principled approaches: that principles are quite abstract and general and that their application to real moral problems often involves a
introduction of moral evaluations that are not part of the principle. These points are explored in the sections on Kantian ethics and act-utilitarianism listed below under "See also.")   Top