What distinguishes the moral from the non-moral? I’ve made three suggestions: (1) that moral claims are normative and not factual — often they’re disguised imperatives; (2) that moral claims aren’t practical, but are “unbounded”; and (3) that moral claims are “universalizable”, are person- and context-blind.


Well, here’s why other positions are arguable.

Firstly, one needn’t accept the fact/norm distinction to begin with. After all, when you say “murder is wrong”, you speak as if there were a fact of the matter.

The suggestion was that the apparent fact-talk of moral claims can be paraphrased into the normative. “Murder is wrong” really means “You shouldn’t commit murder.” But perhaps the paraphrase goes the opposite direction, and everything that’s “normative” is, on analysis, indistinguishable from the factual. Perhaps all imperatives are disguised conditionals. On this reading, “You should go home” really means something like “It would be better if you went home”; and “it would be better” is a factual, descriptive claim; and it’s descriptive of human nature, happiness, flourishing, or the speaker’s emotions.

Or maybe you simply shouldn’t paraphrase. Maybe nothing “really means” anything else, but everything means exactly what it does mean.

Brad Byers — human blockhead

Secondly, assuming that “normative” was meaningful, and that the moral was normative, I wanted to distinguish moral norms from everyday norms — not murdering from not hammering. But perhaps these differ in degree only, or in dangerousness of consequences, but not in type. Perhaps “Don’t murder” does serve a practical purpose — like promoting human happiness, or keeping you out of hell.

And thirdly, I suggested that “murder is wrong” applies universally and is person- and context-blind. Murder is always wrong, no matter who and where you are, though sometimes there are good excuses.

But there are plenty of systems that we’re prepared to call “moral” that aren’t person-blind — that take your caste, gender, normality into account. And there are systems that don’t purport to lay down universally operating rules, or that speak in terms of “virtues” instead of rules.

And it’s also possible to argue that “murder is wrong” is not context-blind, but is closer to lazy generalization. It superficially looks universal, but that’s just because you haven’t spelled out the claim properly, you haven’t specified all the details.

So, as I said, other positions to my initial one are arguable. And at the moment, I’m thinking: — At best, the three qualities I listed are aspects of the moral, but are either non-exclusive or allow for considerable vagueness. At worst, they’re nonsense.


The truth is, there are deeper problems with the whole project of definition.

For instance, why should there be common denominators in the first place, and not a loose set of “family resemblances”? Does the definition game commit you to a “picture theory” of language? Why should the difference between chair and non-chair be in any way clear-cut? Why should meanings be stable, and not shifting? And what does the task of defining really amount to, given the infinite regress? — that you can only define a word in terms of other words, and can only define those words in terms of other words, and so on.

If you accept these problems, that doesn’t commit you to denying the usefulness of definition, or of dictionaries — they can still shed light.

It’s just that, in that situation, you couldn’t presume the light was pure.


David Hume — according to Edward Gibbon, the ‘fattest of Epicurus’s hogs’

Some Hume to finish with — on the width of the moral (and also, I want to say, on the difficulty of cleanly distinguishing the moral from the non-moral).

His project in An enquiry concerning the principles of morals was to make a list of all the things that people approve and disapprove. In the fourth appendix, he argues that “talents” shouldn’t be distinguished from “virtues”, and that “social virtues” shouldn’t be regarded as virtue proper.

In this he follows “ancient moralists”: “We need only peruse the titles of chapters in ARISTOTLE’S Ethics to be convinced, that he ranks courage, temperance, magnificence, magnaminity, modesty, prudence, and a manly openness, among the virtues, as well as justice and friendship.”

The discussion is lengthy, but Hume’s claims would include:
Everyday language doesn’t cleanly distinguish talent and defect from virtue and vice;Everyday sentiment doesn’t distinguish the types — we’re ashamed and proud of defects and talents in the same way that we are of social virtues and vices — in fact, we are more ashamed and more proud of them, and more likely to praise and blame other people on the same bases;We praise and blame the involuntary as well as the voluntary; andNon-social virtues are closely connected with the social — like love and marriage, you can’t have one without the other.


‘statements of value… in so far as they are not scientific… are not in the literal sense significant, but are simply expressions of emotion’ — AJ Ayer

— Instead of fact/norm, you might classify the moral as a subset of the factual, and try to treat area of concern as distinctive — “The moral is that which deals with human nature, happiness, flourishing, behaviour, etc”. Well, maybe this sort of definition does work — I don’t know; or maybe it embroils you in vagueness.
— My three ideas could also have been challenged on the basis that moral claims aren’t meaningful to begin with, but are closer to “oops” and “ouch”. But I don’t take this line; I don’t doubt their meaningfulness.
— You could also ask if the definition adequately accounted for grey areas. Is making a child happy by buying him/her an ice-cream a moral matter? — I suspect that if you surveyed, you’d find that people would hum and ha, and you’d get a sprinkling of yes, no, and maybe.
— Regarding the difficulty of distinguishing talent from virtue, Terence Irwin, in his 1999 edition of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics writes (at pages 254-5): “Though Aristotle rejects the Socratic belief in the unity and identity of all the virtues, he thinks… each virtue is inseparable from all the other virtues.”
— This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article David Hume. The image of Brad Byers came from this website. The image of AJ Ayer came from this website.