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Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 13.3 (2003) 189-192

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Is There a Common Morality?

Robert M. Veatch
Senior Editor

One of the most exciting and important developments in recent ethical theory—especially bioethical theory—is the emergence of the concept of "common morality." Some of the most influential theories in bioethics have endorsed the notion using it as the starting point of their systems. This issue of the Journal is devoted to these developments.

The core idea of a common morality is that all humans—at least all morally serious humans—have a pretheoretical awareness of certain moral norms. The claim is that normal humans intuit or in some other way know that there is something wrong with things like lying or breaking promises or killing people. These purportedly universally shared insights can provide the raw data from which ethical theories are constructed. As such, they are perhaps analogous to the raw sense data that are relied on in the natural sciences to launch the construction of scientific theories and accounts of the nature of reality. Some common morality theorists suggest an analogy between the natural and the moral sciences.

In the natural sciences there is a widely shared belief that some raw sensory data are perceived by all normal humans and provide the basis for the construction of various scientific theories. For example, it is widely believed that all normal humans looking at the top light on a traffic signal perceive something that in English is called "red." Of course, different cultures will use different language to describe this experience. They may parse the boundaries differently (varying on the exact borderline between red and orange), provide widely differing accounts of why the experience of "red" occurs, and eventually generate significantly different theoretical formulations to explain the experience of redness. Moreover, some individuals may look at that top light of the traffic signal and not see color at all. One generally, however, does not account for this by denying there is any objective, generally shared basis for the experience that produces a sensation of redness in normal people. One simply explains the experience of the one who fails to see color by positing a defect in perception, called "color-blindness."

Some moral theorists suggest that something analogous happens when humans look at the moral scene. The claim is that all normal humans in all places and cultures "see" certain moral requiredness. They see that some behaviors are, in some sense, generally wrong; that other behaviors are generally right; that [End Page 189] some character traits are generally praiseworthy, others blameworthy. No sophisticated common morality theorist denies that, as with color-blindness, there may be occasional outliers who for one reason or another fail to intuit or perceive these simple, abstract moral norms. Certainly, people in different cultures will define the terms differently, will recognize different limits on the norms, and will construct different theories to account for their experience. The primitive idea that there is something generally wrong with killing other humans will be articulated very differently in different cultures—some referring to the "sacredness of life;" others to a duty not to kill, a right to life, or a prohibition on killing the innocent. Some may extend the insight to a duty to prolong living, others limit it merely to a prohibition of direct, active killing. Some may endorse more exceptions—for killing of unjust aggressors, for killing in just war, for killing in self-defense; others, such as pacifists, will be much more stingy in doling out exceptions. Certainly, people at different times and places will articulate the norms in different language and embed them in different theories. The basic claim of common morality theorists, however, is that there is some primitive, pretheoretical insight that is shared by all normal, morally serious persons.

Recently, the notion of a common morality has served as a starting point for bioethical theories as diverse as Bernard Gert, Charles Culver, and Danner Clouser's Bioethics: A Return to Fundamentals (1997) and the latest edition of Tom Beauchamp and James Childress's Principles of Biomedical Ethics...


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pp. 189-192
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