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Universalisability Notes

Philosophy Notes > Ethics Essays

This is an extract of our Universalisability document, which we sell as part of our Ethics Essays collection written by the top tier of Cambridge students.

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What, if anything, follows from the claim that moral judgements are universalisable?
In this essay, I will argue along the lines of John Mackie, outlining his three stages of universalisation. I will say that what follows from the claim that moral judgements are universalisable is only that moral rules aren't based on simple numerical facts and preclude one's being egoistic about their application; that they take into account others' positions and how one would act therein; and also, in much broader terms, that they take into account some consideration of the facts that different people have different tastes/desires etc. However, I will argue that it does not necessarily follow that the weighting given to each person's ideals in a moral rule need be equal. Throughout the essay, I will speak of moral rules, from which I take it moral judgements are derived. I will start by outlining some generally held beliefs about the universalisability of ethical laws. R.M. Hare argues that it is a requirement of logic that individuals in relevantly similar situations must act in the same way. That is to say that if we say that it is wrong for Johnny to shoot kittens, then we are compelled to say that it is also wrong for Michael to shoot kittens, provided their situations are relevantly similar. 'Relevantly similar' here encompasses things like the fact that Michael isn't being attacked by kittens, for instance, or that Johnny doesn't work for the RSPCA, therefore, incurring different responsibilities i.e. not being hypocritical. John Mackie claims that this principle itself is, in some sense, indisputable, but that its interpretation leaves much room for discussion. The first, obvious question, is over what is meant by the term 'relevantly similar'. It is important to remember, I think, that without this clause of 'relevant' differences, universalisability of moral laws would be a difficult and absolutely useless maxim, as no two situations are exactly alike. I think we wouldn't want to say that a man who shoots a small child, and a man who shoots a small child whilst wearing a hat, are subject to different moral judgments in virtue of the warmth of their heads, for instance. Clearly, they are relevantly similar, in so much as the hat distinction has nothing to do with the morality of murder (one assumes). On the other hand, if the man with the hat was not shooting a small child, but rather a fully-grown murderer, who has advanced on him sharply with a knife, then I think that there now is a relevant difference between the two that we would want to factor in, in some way, to our moral judgements thereof. First of all, this difference is going to have to be qualitative; if something is right for x and wrong for y, it cannot be so purely in virtue of x being x and y being y, but rather because of some qualitative difference which sets the two apart. This rules out one kind of egoism, insomuch as one cannot exempt oneself from moral duties by the sole virtue of being oneself. Similarly, by inversion, one cannot condemn in oneself what one permits in others, purely by that same virtue. This, Mackie claims, must hold at a wider, country, level also. For instance, a rule cannot constrain Egypt and yet not Belgium, without a relevant difference. What is important in each of these cases is simply that those who have constructed, or put forward the relevant difference within, the moral rule sincerely believe a

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