2.(22/6/14) What is Common Morality? 


The term “common morality” may be used to refer to the moral system that is associated with the Judeo-Christian tradition, or, more narrowly, to the moral system developed by Bernard Gert. The latter is the focus of attention here; however, Gert’s is intended to be a system that has universal application and moreover it has much of the intuitive appeal of the former.# To begin, common morality is a non-consequentialist system. Recall that the difference between non-consequentialist systems and the consequentialist alternatives depends on whether the rightness and wrongness of actions, choices, behaviour, etc., is solely a matter of their consequences. For example, suppose someone tells a lie. The consequentialist will work out, or try to work out, all the consequences of the lie, including what might happen to the person’s reputation and future trustworthiness if the lie is found out, and weigh the good in the balance with the bad. If the good outweighs the bad, then lying was at least permissible on that occasion, possibly even the right thing to do if there were no better alternative. Most (contemporary) non-consequentialists do not deny that consequences count, but they also give weight to other considerations, such as the integrity of the moral rule against lying.# Lying itself is a bad thing to do, even it has good consequences on some occasions. Lying is morally wrong according to common morality because it is deliberate deception and as such it is harmful. Consequentialists are not, strictly speaking, able to give the same account: having defined a desirable/undesirable property which they seek to maximise or minimise with respect to consequences of actions, they can point to the fact that lying tends to produce more bad outcomes and that is why it is harmful. Whether this is a better account of what is going on is a matter for debate.


The core of common morality is a set of ten rules about kinds of actions, eight of which prohibit harming. Thus we have: Do not kill, Do not cause pain, Do not disable, Do not deprive of freedom, Do not deprive of pleasure, Do not deceive, Keep your promises, Do not cheat, Obey the law and Do your duty (Gert 2004: 20). The first three rules prohibit physical harms. The next five rules all prohibit different categories of harm, some seemingly worse than others – on the whole one would probably prefer to be deprived of pleasure rather than deprived of freedom. Gert resists the suggestion that the rules could be collapsed into two or three general prohibitions, including simply Do not harm, because this implies that harms are homogeneous (Gert 2004: 21). But this does not mean that such a formulation will not be convenient for our purpose, bearing in mind Gert’s caveat - we might then think of the list of moral rules as giving a specification of what counts as harming. It is clear that weapons can be used to kill, cause pain and disable, and no doubt if we were to distinguish more subcategories of physical harms, weapons would cause those as well. Weapons can be used to deprive people of their freedom by threatening physical harm if the victim does not comply.


One can now see why common morality could represent a universal morality, because no one wishes to be harmed, regardless of her background and culture. So at the very least one can see why every rational individual would want every other individual to abide by the rules with respect to those he or she cares about. This is what Gert refers to as the egocentric attitude, which one hopes can be replaced by the moral attitude, where the agent regards the rules as binding on herself as well as in regard to everyone else (Gert 2005: 163-172). In other words, when an agent adopts the moral attitude she acts impartially in regard to the moral rules. This universal character of common morality is something that it shares with Kant’s moral theory: Kant spoke of acting according to maxims of behaviour that can be generalised to universal principles of action binding on all moral agents - it seems that the rules of common morality, at least the first three, could stand as maxims that satisfy this test.  Finally, that fact that common morality comprises a set of moral rules, something else it shares with Kantianism, does not serve to distinguish if from all forms of consequentialism – more on this later. 


Common morality maintains that actions, etc., that cause harm are prima facie morally wrong because they violate one or more of the moral rules.# They are not morally wrong tout court because such violations may have adequate justification, and if so, the original judgement of moral wrongdoing is to be withdrawn. Some non-consequentialist moral systems, again typically associated with Kant, have rules that are absolutely binding and do not admit exception (perfect duties) and it is this aspect of Kantianism which most sharply distinguishes it from common morality. Clearly, if it is permissible to violate a moral rule provided there is justification, then what counts as a justification will be of paramount importance, and the moral system in question must provide a satisfactory method for assessing purported justifications. For a system like common morality with its rules that prohibit harming, it would seem that justifications for acts that violate the rules would most likely claim that greater harms are prevented; for if harming is bad, surely preventing harm must be good or at least such as to justify violations of rules that prohibit harming. The rules constitute the most basic ‘content’ of the system and surely one could not accept a method of justification informed by totally different ideas about moral conduct from those expressed in the rules. In fact common morality has, in addition to the moral rules forbidding harm, a set of moral ideals which agents are encouraged (but not required) to follow, and these ideals urge the prevention of harm. The set of rules and the set of ideals are not 1:1, which is to say that where there is a rule prohibiting a particular harm there is not necessarily an ideal encouraging the prevention of that same form of harm. However, there is some correspondence between rules and ideals: for instance there is a rule that prohibits killing and an ideal that encourages the prevention of killing and similarly for the other physical harms.# I will make some comments about the moral ideas before coming back to the question of justification – we can however now accept that promoting a moral ideal might amount to justifying the violation of a moral rule.


It may not be clear at first why there should be a difference in kind between the moral rules and the moral ideals, which is such that it is forbidden to violate the former while agents are only encouraged to act in accord with the latter, especially when the rules are not absolutely binding. The reason the rules have different status from the ideals is because the rules can be followed impartially – one can simply harm no one – while the ideals cannot be followed impartially. No one can prevent all harms, or all harms of a given kind, so any prevention must be selective and partial, whereas Gert, and others, believe it should be possible to follow the demands of morality impartially and hence it cannot be obligatory to prevent harm. One difficulty with (many forms of) consequentialism is that agents must be partial in their promotion of good ends – they simply cannot do good for everyone -  and moreover must try to maximise the good whenever they act. This seems both impossible and much too demanding. Common morality avoids these problems by making morality manageable and less demanding: it is possible to avoid moral wrongdoing simply by refraining from harming: and, as we have seen, everyone can agree that harming is bad and that morality should at the very least prohibit harming. The present concern is with proposition that weapons research is morally wrong because it provides the means to harm, not with any positive judgement to the effect that conducting weapons research promotes the good or brings people happiness. So perhaps the problem of impartiality for the consequentialist will not be an obstacle for evaluating weapons research on the basis of that kind of moral system.



Gert, B. (2004) Common Morality. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gert. B. (2005) Morality: Its Nature and Justification. Revised Edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.