Common Morality

I am going to argue that everyone has a responsibility to get vaccinated. I am going to see if this should be taken to be (exclusively) a moral responsibility, or if there is a sense it which it is (also) a social responsibility. I am not going to assume that the idea of moral responsibility is straightforward of uncontroversial, so I shall give a quick outline of the viewpoint I shall adopt here. Moreover, the concept of social responsibility is not well-articulated, so it will be necessary to try to give a plausible account of it. There is therefore more than one kind of responsibility - there is also legal responsibility, in addition to the two kinds already mentioned. One might suppose that these ideas have common features because they are all species of responsibility but also differences because they are of different kinds. And this is correct, and not only are there differences among kinds, there are differences within kinds which reflect different moral systems. The viewpoint that I shall advocate is different, for instance, from the alternative informed by the utilitarian system of morality, and I shall explain it here with reference to the Harm Principle.


John Stuart Mill formulated what has become known as the Harm Principle: “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” (Mill 1954a: 73). He wrote this in a work on political philosophy and as such is a template for a system of laws: the message being that in a civilised community, the law of the land should allow citizens as much freedom as is consistent with the prevention of harm to others. This principle can also guide the actions of moral agents, in the sense that actions that cause harm to others are morally wrong. All other actions are permissible, which is to say that as far as this system of ‘common morality’ is concerned, people can do whatever they like provided they do not harm others. This sounds simple and straightforward, but the details are rather complicated. For example, there can be episodes in which agents harm others, but their action turns out to be justified because by doing some harm, greater harm was prevented. Thus, the system of common morality is not absolutist, in the sense that its strictures against harming admit of no exceptions.


By contrast, the utilitarian system is ‘consequentialist’, and so requires agents to act in such a way as to ‘maximise utility’. On this account it is only consequences of actions that count when judging the right and wrong ways to act and these consequences are evaluated with respect to a conception of what is ‘good’. According to Mill himself, people ought to act in such a way as to maximise happiness, not their own (necessarily) but those for which their actions could have the most effect. Thus for Mill, happiness is what is good. Giving some money away, for example, rather them keeping it might make the recipients a lot happier than the agent, so she should give the money away. Happiness is not the only possible interpretation of utility and other philosophers have suggested alternatives, but we need not consider these here (with one exception to be mentioned in a moment). However, we might already get the impression that this is a very demanding system of morality: if a person has the opportunity to maximise happiness by acting in a certain way and does not do so, then he has done the wrong thing. Actions that are permissible according to common morality may be condemned by the utilitarian.


Common morality is clearly much less demanding than (Mill’s version of) utilitarianism. One might wonder if it is not demanding enough. For instance, if preventing harm can be grounds for withdrawing a judgement of moral wrongdoing for an act that causes (some) harm, then evidently preventing harm is something that is important from the standpoint of common morality: it can expunge moral wrongdoing. This raises the question as to whether, to be consistent, common morality should also require agents to prevent harm, as well as not cause harm. There is a version of utilitarianism, called negative utilitarianism by Karl Popper, which evaluates the consequences of actions with reference how much harm is prevented, rather than by positive benefit. However, the objection made to standard ‘positive’ versions of this utilitarianism apply here also, and we can use the same example. Giving away money and assets to poor people in poor countries will prevent harm. Even if someone takes this idea very seriously and gives away most of her assets, what remains will most likely still have ‘more utility’ in a country where there is famine and disease than in her own (the assumption is that we are taking about agents who are from fairly affluent countries). The logical end for the disposal of assets only comes when the agent has rendered herself destitute.



A moral system should not be so demanding that in practice no agent can live up to its demands. What is appealing about common morality is that one can live up to it: refraining from unjustified harming is all that it demands. However, being harmed is what everyone wants to avoid – this is almost a truism – so if all morality demanded was that we should not harm one another, then this seems to be enough. On Bernard Gert’s version of common morality, there is, in addition to moral rules that forbid harming, a set of moral ideals which encourage agents to prevent harm. Unlike the rules, the ideals are not mandatory: not living up to an ideal and failing to prevent harm on a given occasion is not morally wrong. If the rules and the ideals had the same status, then common morality would be a version of negative utilitarianism. But why would one live up the moral ideals? I think for the following reason: we think well of someone who prevents harm, whether it is to ourselves or to others. We have a good opinion of them – we would, I assume, admire the person who gives a way a lot of her money to help people in poor countries. Insofar as there is a ‘right thing to do’ according to common morality, it is to prevent harm. The fact that some people are kind and generous and do good deeds is taken account of by common morality.