Universalizability, Needs, and Moral Judgements

Dowling, Keith William (1990) Universalizability, Needs, and Moral Judgements. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Can there be an answer to the question 'which moral judgements ought anyone to make?' that does not depend upon contestable value assumptions? My essay brings together two hitherto unconnected ways of responding to this problem to be found in recent meta-ethics; the claim that our particular moral judgements must be universalizable and the claim that our commonsense moral beliefs are grounded in human needs. I will try to show how these two features, uni versalizability and needs, get us to the heart of our ordinary moral beliefs and practices. I will try to show also that an interpretation of the universalizability thesis, based upon human needs, provides us with a theory-neutral rule with which a rational autonomous judger can answer the 'which moral judgements?' question. There are three parts to the essay. In Part One, I will show some of the formal conditions that particular moral judgments must meet if they are to satisfy my interpretation of the universalizability thesis. First of all, there is the generally conceded requirement that when a person makes such a judgement he must be consistent, in the sense that he must be willing and able to accept the same judgement for all similar cases in propria persona. I will show, however, that the universalizability rule in ethics requires more than this. Secondly, to be universalizable his judgement must be impersonal, in the sense that the reason given for it must be contextually relevant and must elucidate the judgement. Thus even as a necessary theory-neutral rule, pace Hare, universalizability implies certain restrictions on the possible content of moral judgements. Nevertheless these are only formal requirements; they do not tell us which moral judgements anyone ought to make. Moral abominations can be contextually relevant and universally consistent judgements. More importantly, left like this the universalizability rule seems to be trivial. Mutually incompatible and contradictory judgements satisfy it. I will go on to argue that if the rule is to be nontrivial, it must be given a material interpretation. This is to say, the interpretation must retain the moral neutrality of the universalizability rule yet also specify some other morally non-controversial requirement, so that the rule can have a direct bearing on moral judgements. Is this possible? In Part Two, I will try to show what the morally non-controversial requirement might be. I will begin by arguing that all persons have certain non-volitional needs in common. They need certain capacities, abilities, drives, if they are to function and if they are to flourish. I will show that as well as having empirical support, these claims can be philosophically supported by arguments of an a priori sort. I will then show that such needs underlie most, if not all, of our commonsense moral beliefs. Thus we can see why our moral beliefs matter to us; judging and acting in accordance with them meets the needs in question. In Part Three, I will bring the two important features of my account together into a universalizable-needs thesis. I will argue that in a joint investigation, where we attempt to answer the 'which moral judgements?' question, (i) any singular judgement based upon a need-reason is prima facie correct and (ii) any further judgement that can be derived by universalization from (i) is also prima facie correct. To put the point differently, such singular moral judgements will satisfy the rule U.R. II: If A judges that X morally ought to do F for the need-reason R, then any rational person must judge that anyone to whom R applies ought to do F. When we bring these two aspects of our moral thinking together in other words, we obtain a material interpretation of the universalizability rule. I will show how a number of uncontroversial moral judgements conform to U.R. II; their denials can be faulted as being inconsistent, uniquely naming, or in other ways rationally flawed (e. g. the hypothesized state-of-affairs implied by the denial of the universalized judgement is unintelligible as an account of a moral practice). I will argue also that in contexts where different universalizable-needs conflict, we can and do objectively weigh one against another. Finally, I will show how my account provides an answer to some of the dilemmas and seemingly intractable moral conflicts discussed in the recent literature. If I am correct, the arguments in this essay seriously undermine many recent answers to the question of how our everyday moral beliefs are to be justified. More importantly, if I am correct, the universalizable-needs thesis presented here provides a theory-neutral criterion with which we can determine morally right from wrong judgements.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Philosophy
Date of Award: 1990
Depositing User: Enlighten Team
Unique ID: glathesis:1990-78188
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 30 Jan 2020 15:37
Last Modified: 30 Jan 2020 15:37
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/78188

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