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Common Morality: Deciding What to Do Hardcover – August 19, 2004
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"There are many ways in which Gert's description of common morality is illuminating, and his justification of common morality is challenging. I admire the clarity and rigour of this book. I also welcome Gert's dismissal of artificially constructed moral theories that try to shape common morality rather than be shaped by it. This is a stimulating and intelligent book that anyone interested in these issues should read."--Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
"I have admired and been excited by Bernard Gert's account of the moral system ever since I became acquainted with it. His account has made much good sense, and has seemed to correct much that has been problematic about past moral theories. Professor Gert's work is exciting because it presents a clear answer to one of the broadest questions in philosophy--What is the nature of morality?--and it does so in a way that has some of us beginning to think that, after all these centuries, someone has actually gotten it right."--Timm Triplett, Associate Professor of Philosophy, University of New Hampshire
About the Author
Bernard Gert is Stone Professor of Intellectual and Moral Philosophy, Dartmouth College. He is also the author of Morality: Its Nature and Justification, and co-author of Bioethics, and Morality and the New Genetics.
Top Customer Reviews
A few years ago I had the pleasure to find his excellent "Morality. Its Nature and Justification" (a book I strongly recommend). This second small treatise is mostly an abridgement (149 pages only) of the former, but also incorporates some objections that have been moved and new contributions.
Reading Gert is a real pleasure for the mind: not just the stringent logic and systematic proceeding you expect from a moral philosopher, but also a limpid style and an always unassuming non rhetorical tone. I'm not praising this book for easiness or for a enjoyable style, the praise goes to the result, that is a totally clear and consistent exposition.
In a way, Gert is not the typical moral thinker. As far as I know his work, he focused on a very limited field of enquiry: common morality, that is that "ethica minor" that deals specifically with moral action and free will.
His approach is also unusual.
While he claims and demonstrates that moral action can find his justification on the firm foundations of stringent logic, Gert assumes that morality is a totally human convention, not a "social contract" but an implicit language, with its rules, verbs and declinations, developed by human societies to avoid causing, minimize and relieve pain.
Common morality distinguishes between what is morally prohibited/required (moral rules) and what is morally encouraged (moral ideas). To regard a kind of action as morally prohibited/required is to favor making a person liable to punishment for any serious instance of a failure to do/avoid that kind of action.
Avoid causing pain is the main goal of morality: breaking the rules connected with causing pain (Do not kill - do not cause pain - do not disable - do not deprive of freedom - do not deprive of pleasure) with no valid justification, is ipso facto considered an immoral action. Then there are "social" rules (Do not deceive - keep your promises - Do not cheat - Obey the law - Do your duty) that prevent causing pain, affording dependability on the other moral agents. While for the first 5 rules the moral agent is required to follow them strictly with no praise associated, with the second we can begin to talk of virtues in following them, and vices in breaking.
Virtues properly are the moral ideas (helping others), concerned with relieving pain: violation of a moral idea is not liable to punishment, but only of censure and disapproval.
Gert focuses almost totally on the moral rules, analising them and also the procedures to justify their violation.
Compared to his former work, this one is more coherent and simple, and arranged in a consistent and deductive way. In a way this essay could be equated to an Euclidean treatise: we have a system of absolutely general rules and in a deductive way we can easily evaluate every moral/immoral action.
This is by far the best book on common morality I had the chance to read. None the less it seems to me there can be problems at least under two different aspects.
The first is connected with moral ideas.
While for vices we have a degree of judgment (abstension/ justification), here we have nothing but an indistinct praise. To help others is fine, but is a too general rule: is giving charities always good, also when there is no control on how money is employed? Should there be a degree of responsibility in helping others? What is best: giving food to the hungry, or helping him grow food? And what about emergencies?
If we do not have a degree of responsibility in helping others, we will create only addiction, in the long term also indifference and pain will just be postponed but not avoided.
Possibly I guess Gert did not develop this theme for fear to fall in an utilitarian trap... but some degree of control must be considered not just for praising but also evaluating efficacy.
The second is a strange lack. I remember that in the first treatise he observed somewhere that moral action is always concerned with the here and now: it is not concerned with what happened in the past, but only with what could happen if...
This is very consistent with the first five rules, but what with the "social rules"? What should we do with nasty enemies? What with immoral laws? Gert tries to deal with these arguments, but the result is that when tested in a critical environment (say the laws condemning Socrates to death, the Nazi laws, forgiving for concentration camp survivors, conscience objection and its limits) the building trembles visibly.
The same limits are also implied - in a less critical manner - in the theory of the nature of morality as implicit language: one of the two steps procedure for justifying violations is "estimating the consequences of everyone knowing that a kind of violation is allowed"...
If morality is a common language, we can believe that in specific environments actions considered immoral could find "common" justification: racial laws, ethnic cleansing... not to talk of the controversial abortion laws (in which a moral agent can accept, claim for conscience objection if she's a doctor or oppose, sometimes by acting likewise immorally).
If you've been so patient and kind to follow me so far, there can be a chance you share some of my interests.
You are truly welcome if you can suggest other readings or just share ideas and comments!
Thanks for reading.
In many ways Gert is the grand old man of practical ethics and this little book should make his procedures available to all who wish to act and access others actions upon a moral grid. A general account of morality with practical and accessible general rules could have revitalizing effect on public discourse and the holding our leaders and their decisions ethically accountable. However the skills suggested in this text may also help one clarify one's own values as well as assess the common good.
Moral problems do not always come in the form of great social controversies. More often, the moral decisions we make are made quietly, constantly, and within the context of everyday activities and quotidian dilemmas. Indeed, these smaller decisions are based on a moral foundation that few of us ever stop to think about but which guides our every action.
Here distinguished philosopher Bernard Gert presents a clear and concise introduction to what he calls "common morality"-the moral system that most thoughtful people implicitly use when making everyday, commonsense moral decisions and judgments. Common Morality is useful in that-while not resolving every disagreement on controversial issues-it is able to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable answers to moral problems.
In the first part of the book Gert lays out the fundamental features of common morality: moral rules, moral ideals, and a two-step procedure for determining when a violation of a moral rule is justified. Written in a nontechnical style, the ten general moral rules include rules on which everyone can agree, such as "do not kill," "do not deceive," and 'keep your promises." The moral ideals include similarly uncontroversial precepts such as "relieve pain and "aid the needy." In the second part of the book Gert examines the underlying concepts that justify common morality, such as the notions of rationality and impartiality.
The distillation of over 40 years of scholarship, this book is the most accessible version of Gert's influential theory of morality as well as an eye-opening look at the moral foundations of our everyday actions. Throughout the discussion is clear enough for a reader with little or no philosophy background.
Excerpt: A complete moral theory should not be taken to be a theory that provides a unique answer to every moral question. Rather, a complete moral theory should explain and justify the overwhelming agreement on most moral matters while at the same time explaining and justifying the limited disagreement on some of the most important moral matters. Moral theories that provide no explanation or justification for unresolvable moral disagreement are incomplete; those that claim there are no unresolvable moral disagreements are false.
A complete moral theory must not only provide analyses of the three concepts that are central to any account of morality-that of morality itself, of impartiality, and of rationality-but also show how these concepts are related to each other. A complete theory must also relate morality to human nature, making it clear why any beings having the essential features of human nature such as fallibility, rationality, and vulnerability would develop a system of morality with all of the features of our common morality. Al-though common morality is a system, it does not remove the need for human judgment. It is true that common morality is systematic enough that a computer could be programmed so that, provided with the facts of the case, it always comes up with acceptable moral answers. However, another computer could be programmed differently and still always come up with acceptable answers. There is no computer program that can tell you which of the competing computer programs you should adopt.
We often hear the complaint that scientific advances are out-stripping moral advances, as if we need to make new moral discoveries to deal with the new scientific discoveries and technology. We do need to understand how common morality applies to new situations, but there is no need for moral advances. Common morality, together with an understanding of the new situations created by scientific discoveries and technology, is sufficient to deal with any problem with which we are confronted. However, many people would prefer to make morality seem problematic. It is much harder to act immorally if you recognize that what you are doing is clearly immoral. Hobbes claims that if our interests were as affected by geometry as much as they are by morality, we would have no more agreement in geometry than we have in morality. The purpose of this book is to provide such a clear, coherent, and comprehensive description of morality and its justification, so that no one will be able to deceive himself or others about the moral acceptability of his actions. This will not eliminate immoral behavior, but by making it harder to defend immoral policies, it may contribute to the goal of common morality, which is the lessening of the amount of harm suffered.
While Moral Armor shows how the pattern of biological life builds into a complete description of a moral individual, then proceeds into his social relationships, artistic bias, and finally the institutional structures designed by either type of man (good versus evil), Common Morality in contrast, indicates an implicit moral language that exists via sentiment and common logic, which reflects the premises most would agree on as moral or immoral. Both emphasize a like cognitive ideal: moral self-responsibility.
With a preference for logic resting close to the core of Mr. Gert's contribution, I'd declare Aristotle's Laws of Logic the place to begin from an epistemological perspective (for the layman, this is a math-style method of validation for how any topic gets itself reasoned out). While Aristotle's work lies at the base of mine, I prefer the biological angle for structuring and validating moral actions since we can picture it, we use it every day ALREADY, and as it's SO much easier to convey.
In the most important topic facing mankind, it is good to see someone moving toward a clearer understanding of what constitutes rational, ethical behavior. I look forward to matching wits to help the world along, perhaps on TV talk show panels, some day soon.