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  • “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”: Some Thoughts on Kellenberger’s Argument
  • Steven Ross (bio)

The author takes up James Kellenberger’s claim that relationships are “more fundamental” than moral principles. It is argued that the relationship we bear to others simply in virtue of being persons is a creature of moral theory, and so the dichotomy required for Kellenberger’s thesis, the contrast between relationships and moral principles, cannot be made out.

The connection between personal relationships and morality is complicated. It is clearly central. It is also obscure, in that I do not think, past a platitudinous point we reach fairly quickly, there is that much clarity or unanimity on how this connection should be described. In his article in this issue titled “Why Human Relationships Are Deeper Than Moral Principles,” James Kellenberger, as the title of his essay suggests, offers one reading of this connection, a reading that understands “human relationships” (I will from here on in usually speak simply of relationships) as “more fundamental” than moral rules or moral principles. Indeed, Kellenberger argues that relationships are the most fundamental thing in all of morality, the touchstone from which all else springs. He provides his view in very straightforward terms, and so I reproduce it at some length here:

The main thesis of this essay can be stated simply: human relationships generate and fashion moral principles. If this is correct, the very content of moral principles is determined by human relationships. To begin, let us observe that at least some human relationships are normative. At least some relationships have moral demands that we are required to meet, for, as most are aware, some human relationships have requirements that can be violated. For [End Page 25] most this is evident regarding, for instance, marital relationships, with their requirement of marital fidelity, and regarding friendship relationships, or friendships. My argument is that human relationships in general have this normative character. They have requirements that we may or may not meet, and when we violate our relationships by not meeting their requirements we are morally at fault. There is a normativity to our moral principles and a normativity to our human relationships, and the latter normativity gives content to the former while the former derives from the latter.

(p. 5; all quotations from Kellenberger’s essay are cited by page number in the present issue)

Of course, I began by speaking of the connection between personal relationships and morality, and Kellenberger speaks here of the relation between relationships and “moral principles,” or moral rules, which is not quite the same thing. Indeed, in saying what he thinks the connection between relationships and moral principles might be, Kellenberger is in fact offering an account of morality. Morality, this web of justifiable constraints and obligations that binds us all, stems from “relationships,” not from mere “principles,” and it does so in two ways. Morality has the content it has because of relationships, and moral rules or norms are justified, when they are, because of relationships.

I will be fairly brief with the “content” part of this argument. That moral rules get their specific content in specific cases from specific relationships seems to me a claim that will meet with little opposition. In a sense, it is simply the contextualist’s point: the content of a general rule is always “filled in” by the particular context in which it is applied. To this point is added the further claim (which I will just assume here for the sake of argument) that all “contexts” turn out to be relationships of one sort or another. The utilitarian who asks us to “promote the most net utility” is hardly averse to adding “and what that means in a specific case will be filled in by the particular facts and relationships in question.” For me at least, the more interesting claim being made here is the one about justification, namely, that the fundamental normative work morality requires is performed by relationships, not by moral rules. That is, the justification story we offer when justifying a moral course of action points, in the end, [End Page 26] to a relationship, not to some general rule...


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pp. 25-36
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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