Morality: Its Nature and Justification

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For more than thirty years, philosopher Bernard Gert has been developing and refining his distinctive and comprehensive moral theory. His classic work, The Moral Rules: A New Rational Foundation for Morality, was first published in 1970. In 1988, Oxford published a fourth revision titled Morality: A New Justification of the Moral Rules. In this final revision, Gert has produced the fullest and most sophisticated account of this influential theoretical model. Here, he makes clear that morality is an informal system that does not provide unique answers to every moral question but does always limit the range of morally acceptable options, and so explains why some moral disagreements cannot be resolved. The importance placed on the moral ideals also makes clear that the moral rules are only one part of the moral system. A chapter that is devoted to justifying violations of the rules illustrates how the moral rules are embedded in the system and cannot be adequately understood independently of it. The chapter on reasons includes a new account of what makes one reason better than another and elucidates the complex hybrid nature of rationality.

Although Gert's moral theory is sophisticated, it is presented with a clarity that enables it to serve as an excellent introduction for beginning philosophy students, as well as fruitful reading for advanced undergraduate and graduate courses. Unlike most moral theories, his account of morality is developed in sufficient detail to be useful to those interested in problems of applied ethics. This book will appeal to those engaged in business ethics, engineering ethics, environmental ethics, and especially medical ethics. In the manner of the works of Thomas Hobbes and John Stuart Mill, this book addresses the general philosophical reader and at the same time makes an important contribution to the philosophical literature.

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Brilliantly written book taking a fairly new approach to morality than has been the norm not only in religious studies but in philosophy as well. Instead of adopting a proscriptive approach telling us how morality ought to be, Gert uses a descriptive approach describing the actual informal public system of morality as it exists. This is a dramatic shift towards the proper role of any moral theorist, that of describing reality.
Gert also offers explanations of why morality is how it is, based on the fact that we are decision making entities that are vulnerable and live in proximity to other such entities.
Gert only makes one error in my opinion, and that is in the application of his own methodology. He adds in two rules that are either clearly not moral rules, or else redundant, in order to get to ten rules. Those two are Obey the Law, and Do Your Duty.
The former Gert intends as a lubricant to help society function. He is thinking of food inspection laws, building laws, and others that we are told (often falsely) simply protect us from harm. Though there is not time to explore this here, such laws not only do not actually protect us from harm, they often expose us to greater harm. They are simply unnecessary and thus by his own argument this is not an actual moral rule.
The other, Do Your Duty, is simply redundant. Either you have explicitly accepted an obligation, such as those of a life guard, and so you are bound by Keep Your Promises, or the duty is a moral one already covered in the other moral rules. There is no need for this as an additional rule.
All in all, this is a must read for anyone who wants to speak of, or know the nature of morality as it actually exists.


Rationality and Irrationality
Goods and Evils Benefits and Harms
Moral Rules
The First Five
The Second Five
Justifying Violations
Moral Ideals
Moral Judgments
Why Should I Be Moral?
Morality and Society

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About the author (1998)

Bernard Gert is in the Department of Philosophy, Dartmouth College.

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