NOTES on Bernard Gert (1934-2011): Morality


Bernard Gert was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1934. The source of this essay is a paper that Mr. Gert gave at Ohio University

I. A Moral Theory

First, Mr. Gert gives his definition of a moral theory:

A moral theory consists of the analysis of the concepts necessary to explain and, if possible, justify morality, viz., rationality, impartiality, and morality itself, together with an account of how they are related to each other.

In addition to this definition, Mr. Gert identifies the things that a moral theory must do:

  • It must provide an account of rationality.
  • It must provide an account of impartiality.
  • It must identify the “essential features of morality” — for example, a list of moral rules.
  • It must say why some actions are prohibited, other actions are required, and still other actions are encouraged.

II. Morality

Mr. Gert’s definitions of morality and of a public system are as follows:

Morality is a public system for guiding and judging the behavior of all rational persons. A public system is a system

(1) that all persons to whom it applies, those whose behavior is to be guided and judged by that system, understand it, i.e., know what behavior the system prohibits, requires, allows, and encourages; and,

(2) that it is not irrational for any of them to accept being guided or judged by.

His example of a public system is that of a game. A basketball player understands and accepts the rules, and he or she does not find it irrational if he or she or other players commit a foul and have to pay the penalty for it.

III. Rationality

To Mr. Gert, rationality is a central concept of morality. A moral system must be acceptable to rational persons. However, Mr. Gert takes irrationality to be a more basic concept than rationality. This is how Mr. Gert defines irrationality:

A person with sufficient knowledge and intelligence to be a moral agent acts irrationally when he acts in a way that he knows (justifiably believes), or should know, will significantly increase the probability that he will suffer death, pain, disability, loss of freedom or loss of pleasure, and he does not have an adequate reason for so acting.

For example, a person who sticks his or her hand in a blender and then turns the blender on just to see what it feels like is behaving irrationality. The reason for this action is not adequate considering the pain and disability the person will suffer. (I have known a mentally ill person who cut off the tips of his fingers just because he felt like it.)

IV. Impartiality

According to Mr. Gert, another central concept of morality is impartiality. Morality requires that we be impartial to other people. (I can’t give A’s to a pretty student just because she’s pretty.) Mr. Gert does stress that we must identify the group to whom we must be impartial. According to Mr. Gert,

When discussing morality, the minimal group toward which one must be impartial consists of all moral agents, including oneself, and former moral agents who are still persons; and the respect in which one must be impartial toward this group is in using the moral rules to guide one’s behavior and to make moral judgments.

Things such as race, sex, religion, and creed are not relevant considerations. (For example, we can’t be impartial only toward white people.) What is relevant is rationality and being a person. A person who has lost his or her reason but who is still a person must also be considered impartially.

V. The Justified Moral Theory

According to Mr. Gert, “The moral theory that all impartial rational persons would choose as a public system that applies to all rational persons is the justified moral system.” The rules of this system appear below:

A. Moral Rules that Prohibit Evils All Rational Persons Want to Avoid

“1. Don’t kill.

“2. Don’t cause pain.

“3. Don’t disable.

“4. Don’t deprive of freedom.

“5. Don’t deprive of pleasure.”

B. Moral Rules that Prohibit Actions that Generally Lead to Evil

“6. Don’t deceive.

“7. Keep your promise. (Don’t break your promise.)

“8. Don’t cheat.

“9. Obey the law. (Don’t break the law.)

“10. Do your duty. (Don’t neglect your duty.)” — This means in your job or profession.

Gert allows for exceptions (riders) to these rules. How does one know when to make an exception? Gert’s answer is this:

Everyone is always to obey the rule unless an impartial rational person can advocate that violating it be publicly allowed. Anyone who violates the rule when an impartial rational person can not advocate that violating it be publicly allowed may be punished.

However, this does not mean that all rational people will always agree about exceptions. People can legitimately disagree over a ranking of goods and evils. In contrast to other ethical theorists, Mr. Gert recognizes that an ethical theory will not always lead to agreement about what we ought to do.

For example, should doctors lie to their patients? This used to be done regularly. A patient would be dying of cancer, and the doctor would know it, but the doctor would tell the patient that he or she had nothing to worry about. Some rational people may argue that this policy relieves some of the suffering the patient would otherwise undergo. Others may argue that if it were publicly known that doctors sometimes lie to their patients, then healthy patients would suffer because when their doctor told them that they were OK, they would not know whether to believe the doctor. In addition, isn’t the doctor depriving a terminally ill patient of the freedom to make decisions based on accurate information when the doctor lies to the patient?

VI. Contrasts With Other Systems for Guiding Conduct

Mr. Gert’s moral system incorporates, but differs from, both Kantian Ethics and Utilitarianism. His system has both rules (Kantian in nature) and also pays attention to consequences (Utilitarianism). However, Mr. Gert’s moral system also differs from these two ethical theories.

For example, Kantian ethics can be rigid. Mr. Kant even wrote that one ought never to break a promise! Mr. Gert’s moral system, however, allows one to break one’s promise if the consequences will be good; for example, if breaking a promise will result in saving an innocent person’s life.

Another example: Utilitarianism could allow cheating on a test, if it were unlikely that the student would not be caught. However, Mr. Gert’s moral system would not allow cheating on a test, because “if this kind of violation were publicly allowed, it would eliminate the possibility of even having exams.”

VII. Moral Ideals

Mr. Gert also believes in moral ideals, such as preserving life and relieving pain. However, these ideals merely encourage certain kinds of actions — they do not require them. For example, you are not required to run into a burning house to save the house’s inhabitants, although it would be praiseworthy if you were to do so.

VIII. A Short Summary

As Donald Borchert, Alburey Castell, and Arthur Zucker, the authors of the textbook An Introduction to Modern Philosophy, say, “Our attitude toward the moral rules should be one that allows violations (exceptions) if and only if an impartial, rational person can publicly advocate that violation.”


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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