Ariadne's Thread on Justice


Criticizing Moral Theories 

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Profewssor Sidgwick Speaking

OK. Here's the lecture.

I would like to make some comments on how you might criticize moral theories in general. I want you to try to keep these ideas in mind as you criticize Rawls. These aren't the only methods of criticism, not by any means. But everyone agrees that they are powerful techniques.


  • It may be possible to show that a key concept in some theory is incoherent i.e., that it contains a contradiction within itself when analyzed and elaborated.

  • It may be possible to show that a key concept is extremely vague or obscure. The early 19th-century utilitarians spoke about maximizing happiness and hoped to create a scientific morality with that goal. Someone might argue that the concept of happiness is to vague to bear this much theoretical weight.

  • It may be possible to show that the theory is internally inconsistent in that two of its principles are logically incompatible. For example, someone might argue that Rawls claims to value the separateness of individuals, but that he in fact ends up by ignoring that very separateness.

  • It may be possible to show that a theory presupposes something that is false or problemmatic. Michael Sandel, for example, argues that Rawls' theory presupposes a view of the self that is fatally flawed.

  • It may be possible to show that the logical consequences of a theory are false or morally unacceptable. Someone might say, for example, that if one holds a certain principle, then if follows logically that one must accept this or that implication. If the implication is morally abhorrent, then this may be used as an argument against the principle. In this type of criticism it is not important that we pedict that anything will actually occur or not occur (or that it will occur often). Moral philosophers often construct hypothetical examples and counter examples of this sort. The liklihood that such an example will occur in real life is not relevant to this type of argument. It is not about whether things are likely to happen.

  • It may be possible to show that if the principles of a given theory were adopted as government policy, then certain consequences (e.g., an increase in wealth or poverty) would follow. If the consequences are morally good or morally abhorrent, then this may be used as an argument for or against the theory. In this case, it is crucial that we can plausibly predict that certain things will occur. We might call these consequences "empirical consequences" as opposed to "logical consequences."

  • It may be possible to show that the theory is based on false assumptions -- either empirical assumptions or assumptions of some other kind.  For example, it is sometimes said that modern liberalism presupposed a certain concept of the self and that such selves do not exist or are not typical.

  • It may be possible to argue by moral analogy. When using this sort of argument one argues that two situations are morally analogous. Therefore, if one applies a certain moral judgment to the first situation, one is obliged to apply the same moral judgment to the second. For example, Peter Singer has argued that affluent people are morally obligated to give a large portion of their wealth to the poor by constructing an analogy to a situation in which we are obliged to allow an expensive automobile to be destroyed rather than let a child die. If this situation is analogous to the relationship between the world's wealthy and the world's poor, then the same judgment must be made in both cases.

  • Sometimes it's possible to show that if one denies a certain theory there are serious problems. A similar approach is to show that all of the alternatives to one's theory are flawed.

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