Clarification of Term, used in Values Discussions

A Paper by Professor David Aspin
for the NPDP Values Review Project
Some Definitions of Key Terms
When one speaks of someone’s "attitude" to a thing, one generally refers to strong feelings, deeply rooted feelings or convictions, and psycho-physical orientations towards or away from something, that they either like or dislike. Reference to an "attitude" held or taken up by someone implies settled behaviour or a manner of acting on their part, indicative or representative of a particular feeling or opinion about or towards something. Reference to their attitude of mind connotes a settled mode of thinking on their part, an habitual mode of regarding something. a fixed disposition of feeling, liking, approving, desiring; or dislike, aversion, disapproval, revulsion away from something. In ethics some people speak of "pro-" or "con-attitudes"; this indicates clearly that attitudes are affective in character, that they are generally positive or negative. There is also often some associated notion that attitudes are to some extent irrational and that this makes them unamenable to rational argument or persuasion. Attitudes are notoriously difficult to change and the problem of attitude change is generally regarded as one of the most difficult in any undertaking of education in general and moral education in particular.
The carrying out of some process, function, movement or exertion, of which one is consciously aware and which is deliberately controlled and directed towards some end. Together with "conduct", actions and activity are to be distinguished from mere behaviour, which can be unconscious and not goal-directed. Morality has to do with our actions and conduct towards, and with respect to the promotion of good and the avoidance of harm in the case of, other people: moral action and moral judgement is always "other-regarding".
A maxim is a proposition or judgement that commends itself to acceptance. In logic and mathematics an axiom is regarded as a self-evident proposition requiring no demonstration but assented to as soon as stated; this then functions as a rule or principle determining and guiding intelligible and allowable discourse and judgement in all discourse in the field. There is a sense in which this notion also obtains in ethical discourse. A moral maxim is what is thought fitting in matters of judgement or conduct - a self-evident principle, which all should follow: a well established, generally/widely accepted or universally conceded first principle of conduct. Some people take or search for such maxims as rule or laws to help them decide and act in moral matters.
Perhaps the best known moral axiom is the famous "Categorical Imperative" of Immanuel Kant: he made his test for assessing whether something could be determined to be one’s moral duty the application of the principle "Act only on that maxim that you would be willing to become a universal moral law"; or "So act as if you were by your maxims a law-making member of the Kingdom of Ends". This is a formulation of the principle "Do Unto Others as You would that they should do unto You" into what Kant called "the Moral Law". Such an axiom leads on to a number of the prime presuppositions of moral discourse and conduct: the principles of liberty, equality, tolerance, respect for other persons, consideration of other people’s interests, and so on. These principles are procedural not substantive.
A belief is both a proposition or a statement of an idea or contention as true or existing, and our psychological assent to it and holding of it as true. The important point here is two-fold: one is the content of the proposition, the other is the emotional commitment we have to that proposition. We make a commitment to a proposition or statement as true on various grounds - that of some external authority, that of evidence, that of the force of our own perceptions, memories, intuitions, and so on. But there is always an affective element involved in our assenting to or holding of a belief: some proposition, statement or idea is put forward to us (often with some persuasive force) or something occurs to us (often with considerable resonance) and we see it as a notion or claim that can be entertained, assented to, accepted, and espoused. Sometimes we espouse such claims or notions with a very firm opinion; this can extend run to a state of intense psychological conviction (often some-one accepts that something is true almost in spite of the evidence, and this comes close to prejudice). Or it can go the other way and involve the stance of doubt, in which one is extremely hesitant about the strength that one can give to one’s claims that something is to be taken as true; in such a case one may be prepared to do no more than merely suspend disbelief.

Beliefs relate to the psychological and subjective elements in our grasp of reality and the ways in which we interpret what we take to be our world. We can share them with other people but not in such a way that we thereby give people our warrant for acting as though what we claim is actually true (that condition is typical of our claims to "know" something to be the case).

Often reference to our "beliefs" implies our acceptance, tenure and emotional commitment to some particular set of beliefs. These may be political, social or theological. In this case what is referred to is a set of strongly held commitments that are functions of our most profound and fundamental preconceptions about the nature of human beings, or society, or the divine, and/or the relationships subsisting between them, and the ways in which these commitments define and structure our thoughts, arguments, decisions and actions as a consequence. It is here where we begin to speak of "faith", "creed", "credo", and "ideology". All these relate to people’s most deeply held convictions about the nature of human beings and the best form of society.

Conscience is sometimes taken to be the name of some inner disposition, sense or organ in human beings; it is often associated with the idea of the “moral faculty” , which some people believe all humans have. We do not know whether there is any such thing, however: it is more likely that when we speak of “conscience”, all that is implied is a strong internal awareness of thoughts or actions that we ought, or ought not, to be having or doing. Reference to conscience is a “facon de parler”: phrases involving the word can be interpreted along such lines as the following: “to have a conscience” is to be sensitive to moral considerations, “to have no conscience “is not to be sensitive to them; “to consult one’s conscience” is to exercise one’s moral judgement, and so on.
People disagree in belief when one of them utters a statement or proposition and the other denies it. If what one of them asserts is true, what the other of them asserts to the contrary of that must be false. There can be disagreement in attitude between people who are not asserting any statements or beliefs at all, as when one approves of something the other disapproves of. It is a further question whether moral disagreement (eg about abortion or euthanasia) is more a matter of disagreement in attitude or in belief.
Duty is one of the main concepts in ethics: it refers to acts or activity held to be morally binding or obligatory on an individual, enjoining upon people that which they ought or are bound to do, carry out, perform. Duty implies clear moral obligation, equally binding on all people and being transformed into one’s own personal task and formulated with reference to one’s own situation at a specific moment. Acts done out of a sense of duty are typically held to be opposed to acts done out of inclination, beneficence, or solely with regard to their consequences and not to their intrinsic moral worth. The concept of duty is closely linked with other moral concepts characterising the moral activity of the individual, such as responsibility, accountability, autonomy, self-consciousness, conscience and motive.

The interpretation of the origin and nature of duty has been one of the most difficult problems in the history of ethics: the foundations and sources of duty have been sought and found in divine commandments, in the a priori moral Law (Kant’s “Categorical Imperative”), and human beings’ natural pursuit of pleasure and happiness (Hedonism, Utilitarianism).   Critics of these positions argue that, if we derive our duty from divine authority, we are not then being truly moral, personal “autonomy” being one of the key features of moral conduct; others aver that a position in which “intentions” are over-riding determinants of the value of a moral act opens the door to a situation in which “the end justifies the means”. Kant’s position rejects both these and elevates “duty” as the only sure basis of moral action. His ethics are known as “deontological”, in consequence.

“Ethics” and “morals” are often used by people as though they were synonymous or as though the one in some way added to the other. In much lay language there often tends to be the notion that “ethics” equals “higher order moral principles”, while “morals” refers to actual patterns of behaviour (often sexual). The point to remember is that “ethics” is Greek (“ethos”, “ethe”) and means the same as “morals” in Latin (“mos, mores”) and for this reason the two can be used more or less interchangeably in ordinary language. However, there are special uses: in one of them “ethics” connotes the rules of conduct recognised in certain fields of human activity, professions, vocations and the like, meaning a normative set of principles or morals determining and guiding appropriate behaviour in that field (the “Hippocratic Oath” is a good example of this). In this sense it can often refer to the set of substantive moral principles by which people choose or undertake to live: the Japanese code of ethics that we know as “Bushido”. or the “Honour Code” at West Point Military Academy, might be good examples here.

In philosophy “Ethics” can also refer to substantive rules of conduct set out and elaborated in the moral system of a particular school or writer, relating to their account of the nature of morals and of the ways in which moral questions should be treated, such as the principles of Epicurean ethics.

Sometimes “ethics” can mean the same as “moral philosophy”; at other times it can refer to particular parts of the subject matter of moral philosophy, as when, for example, people distinguish between “Meta-ethics” (the logical analysis of moral discourse, judgement or action, from a particular philosophical perspective) and “Normative Ethics” (particular sets or systems of substantive principles enjoining people as to how they ought to think, judge or to behave when moral questions arise. The Christian ethic would be an example here).

The word “moral” comes from the Latin (“mos, moris”, plural “mores”) and meant initially simply the ways in which people behaved. From that developed very rapidly an emphasis upon the ways in which it was felt desirable, right or proper that people should behave and this gave the normative dimension to the word that was once merely descriptive (this was also true of “ethos” in Greek). Thus from this developed an emphasis upon moral guidelines that rapidly acquired the status and force of prescriptions or rules in relation to people’s actions, volitions, intentions, or character.  Moral maxims or principles are concerned with matters of people’s ability to discern and act upon the distinction between right and wrong, good and evil, and with goodness or badness of character, disposition or behaviour traits. They imply a concern for the development of a settled disposition in people to make distinctions between right and wrong in matters of inter-personal conduct and relations and the ways in which such conduct and relationships are and should be regulated.

Moral discourse is now largely concerned with rules of morality and conduct generally, as giving people guidance along the path towards “virtue” : exhibiting a regard for impersonal and universally acceptable standards of perfection (behaviour that admits no criticism or incurs no censure or blame in matters of general conduct

Moral knowledge and moral understanding (though some people would doubt whether there can be knowledge in matters of morality, since the criteria for what counts as “truth” are very unclear) is concerned with our perceptions, judgements, opinions, relating to our ability to discern and make distinctions we make between right and wrong. Moral education is concerned with the attempt to help us develop the power of apprehending the difference between right and wrong and the ability to understand, see the relevance of and apply concepts and terms involving the articulation and bestowal of praise or blame, approval or censure, commendation or condemnation in moral matters. The “moral law” of which some people speak is simply a connotative term for that body of requirements, obligations and rights, in conformity to which virtuous action consists. People’s actions subject to the moral law are those acts having the property of being right or wrong in accordance with the principles enunciated or dictated by that particular principle or set of principles.

Moral philosophy (also called “Ethics”) is that part of philosophy generally which treats of the virtues and vices in human conduct, and of the criteria by which we recognise and discriminate between right and wrong; it also treats of the formation of virtuous character, and the ways in which human beings decide how they ought to act, and in accordance with what standards, as well as the springs and origin of such actions. Moral philosophy is concerned with virtue and vice, the rules of right conduct, the excellence of character or disposition as subjects of a study that is analytical and critical, showing by what concepts, criteria and principles people deliberate in moral matters and arrive at their moral judgements and decisions. This is therefore the philosophical study of morals and morality, to be distinguished from scientific or factual studies of moral conduct (eg moral psychology or sociology) and from the expression of first-order normative moral views.

Moral questions are about behaviour, but not simply about behaviour as such, for the question of morality does not arise except in a social and institutional setting. Morality is not concerned with the description or analysis of the way in which people in social and inter-personal settings,
  relationships and transactions do in fact behave. Morality concerns the conduct of ourselves in relation to other people, and theirs in regard to us, and the way in which we agree between us to regulate ourselves in our interpersonal transactions by the adherence to a set of principles. Our agreement to do so rests on our recognition that our interests are preserved and promoted within the nexus of relations and obligations that constitute our lives as human beings.

The commitment of human beings to such obligations is exemplified in our use of language and our development of individual and community relations in the institutional forms of various kinds, in which our values and systems of value are embodied. This commitment starts with our birth and increases as we come to maturity. Being the creatures we are, and living as we have to under the constraints of the natural and social conditions surrounding us, we could not possibly survive, much less flourish, without being enmeshed in and having to conform to the customs, conventions and norms of all the various institutions that human beings have established and developed in order to stabilise their identity, understand and control their environment, and endeavour to give some point and purpose to their lives.

The chief of these institutions is language and inter-personal communication. It is in and through these that human beings they have found it possible to form and give expression to our sophisticated conceptions of the world and all our main concerns in it, in which the various elements of meaning, truth and value are enmeshed. Our judgements on matters of significance and value are negotiated and settled at the level of the community and in the various forms of relationship, institutions and agencies in and by means of which the life of each community is carried on.

We do not simply choose to ‘accept’ or to “play the game” of morality and that this ‘choosing’ depends in turn upon our ‘acceptance’ of the institutions in which morality is characteristically exercised. In virtue of the kind of creatures we are and the characteristic form of life we share, and given the ways in which, as fellow-constituents in it, we articulate it and elaborate upon it between ourselves, the presence, function and direction of values and regulative principles feature very largely in the norms and conventions of the various institutions into which human beings, in our communities, are progressively initiated and of which we become bearers and beneficiaries.

That initiation into values and morality, therefore, is concerned with helping us to understand that human life is beset with obligations. One of the aims of this form of life, and of the values education that gives young people an initiation into it, will be to give us a knowledge of the rules which function in this mode of relating to other people and to seek to develop in us a grasp of its underlying principles, together with the ability to apply these rules intelligently, and to have the settled disposition to do so. For without such an education in values and morality we should be significantly impoverished in our attempt to come to terms with the demands we face in our lives and to exercise our informed choice in order to make that process manageable, tolerable, and possibly even enjoyable.

Such an education will help to make us see that our life and community is capable of being improved upon, and that just possibly the exercise of our intellectual resources, imagination and creativity can help to add quality to it and make it excellent. An education in values will help us to develop and articulate the reasons which both satisfy us and are open to public evaluation for any particular value judgement or moral decision or for any general moral code that we may make for ourselves or come to adopt, within the institutional framework of our human personhood.

Thus human conduct and action is moral, when it is engaged in consciously and intentionally as part of a whole pattern of behaviour towards other people, in accordance with principles. As such it will be based upon certain beliefs about the rights and duties people have, to do, in some way, with the furtherance of the interests of people in general, the promotion of their welfare and the inhibition of prevention of harm to them. These beliefs will rest upon certain core notions about what constitutes right and wrong - our most basic beliefs concerning the meaning and value of human life and the importance of social and community cultures in sustaining and enriching it - and what one ought to do, as well as an awareness of what ‘ought’ language, in the realm of inter-personal conduct and social relations, commits one to.

Our judgements and actions in moral matters will spring from a free choice on our part, as mature moral agents, and will be based upon our ability to give reasons for those choices that are relevant and appropriate, capable, in principle, at all events, of being judged such by people generally. This means that the moral actions we undertake will be such as can be judged to be generalisable: impartial and equally binding on all those who regard such an act as intending to promote human welfare. The latter consideration will mean that the grounds for the action will not be trivial but will really count for something - will have ‘a certain magnitude’. They will be held sincerely and applied and exercised with consistency.

Morality is about adopting, justifying, analysing, or applying principles in inter-personal affairs in the world, that are universalizable, over-riding, other-regarding, action-guiding or prescribing, and, significantly related to the promotion of human welfare and the avoidance or inhibition of harm to human beings. Our attending to these requirements in moral matters is nowhere more called for than in our observance of the various rules and conventions governing all the occasions of inter-personal communication and relations in which we are called upon, as actors, to participate.

“Ought” is a general verb expressing duty or obligation of any kind, strictly used of moral obligation, relating to what is right, good, just, fair, equitable, beneficial to people generally. “Ought” in this sense should be distinguished from the hypothetical “ought of instrumentality or expediency, found in such uses as “If you want to stay healthy, you ought to watch your diet and take exercise regularly”. “Ought” used in moral discourse is categorical and is used with two implicit features: that the obligation being expressed or undertaken is (1) prescriptive - that is, action-guiding - and (2) universalisable (or “generalisable”) - that is, relating to everyone in a relevantly similar situation. This verb is found in conjunction with first-order (or “normative”) substantive moral principles such as “we ought always to tell the truth”; “people ought to keep their promises”; “we ought not to inflict pain unnecessarily”, “we ought to give to charity when we can”, and so on.
Principle comes originally from the idea of “beginning”, “origin” or “head of” something; “principle” serves as the fountain-head and source of fundamental truth and functions as the basis of reasoning and operation in a particular domain (very much like the Greek “arche”, as in “arche-type”). From this develops the idea of a ruling principle or standard, functioning as an ordinance governing behaviour in a particular realm, and so eventually connoting the rule or code of right conduct to be followed by an individual or people generally operating in that realm. So in moral matters a principle functions as a general law or rule as a guide to action, or a standard against which particular actions can be assessed. It gives an individual a motive or a reason at the most profound level of moral commitment to guide or lead them to action. When people act “on principle” they do so out of adherence and commitment to a particular moral axiom or conviction that they hold firmly and will not easily, readily or quickly give up.
“Right” actions are those done in accordance or conformity with the some standard, rule or principle laying down what is good, just, equitable, or morally praiseworthy and worthy of emulation. Such actions are recognised as “right” by the application of that standard or principle and held up as examples of moral or legal “rectitude” - what may be seen as correct, proper, fitting, or appropriate, as answering to the demands or norms of that which is suitable or required in the particular case or moral situation in question.

“Wrong” or “bad” actions are those which are morally unjust, unfair, improper, inappropriate, amiss, worthy of censure, blame or condemnation and to be seen as something not to be emulated. “Evil” acts are those worthy of even stronger condemnation as defining an action or conduct that is vicious, pernicious or in some other way morally odious, insofar as it inflicts damage, injustice, or iniquity on people who suffer at the hands of those perpetrating the malevolence involved. In a legal sense “wrong” connotes violations, transgressions or infringements of the law. Sometimes this involves the invasion of people’s rights, to their damage, prejudice or harm; sometimes the claiming, seizure or possession of something, that is unjustified or unwarrantable on legal or moral grounds.

The idea of “rule” is strongly linked with the idea of standard, principle, regulation or maxim, governing individual conduct; it connotes the idea of a standard of discrimination, estimation, judgement or direction. A rule sets up a criterion, test, canon, standard or bench-mark by which all actions or products in the domain in which it is regulative are to be measured or judged. In moral matters a rule is regarded as a principle regulating activity, practice or procedure. Here the notion of rule often connotes good order and discipline, conduct, behaviour, manner of acting. The ideas of “rule”, “standard”, “principle” belong generally to the same cluster of ideas: they function as regulative criteria, bench-marks or ordinances setting up norms and exemplars in the area in which they are established, referred to and applied.
A standard is set up in order to present people with an authoritative or recognised exemplar of correctness, perfection, that shall then serve as a point of reference in matters in which particular qualities, functions or requirements come into play. It provides people with a demonstration of excellence, a criterion, a “bench-mark, against which they can then measure their own achievements, attainments, performances, activities or efforts to attain to a similar degree of excellence in the class of endeavour in which that standard sets the rules. Generally a standard is viewed as a prescribed object of endeavour, or as the measure of what is correct, appropriate or adequate for some purpose. The standard “metre” rule set in a wall in Paris may serve as an example here.
We speak here of “values” in ethics, as opposed to monetary value or the values of efficiency and effectiveness in delivering a particular product or reaching a particular desired end. In ethics a value can be seen as something which is worthy of esteem for its own sake, which has intrinsic worth. It signifies the “excellent” status of a thing, object, situation, person, performance, achievement, etc., or the estimate in which it is held, according to its real or supposed worth, usefulness or importance, as “ex-celling” (standing out from, being above, other things) in a particular class of comparison with other objects of a similar kind. Thus to assess the value of something is to consider a thing as being of some worth, importance, or usefulness, in a class of comparison in which, by the application of criteria, we rate it highly, esteem it or set store by it. It also relates to the particular principles or standards of conduct by which a person seeks or chooses to live.

Values are to do with matters that take place in the public realm and that we perceive and judge to be matters of importance. We make judgements, that commend or condemn, on matters of importance that take place in the world: values relate to our praise or blame of styles of behaviour, the productions and performances of artists, verdicts of judges, the conduct of politicians, the activities of schools, the policies of economists, inter-personal relationships, occurrences that we experience as a result of the forces of nature, states of affairs in the community, decisions of churches, questions as to people’s culture. Such things are part of our thinking and talking on matters of value, our value judgements, and our decisions and actions as to our own and other people’s “good”.

Thus conduct, performances, situations, occurrences, states of affairs, productions, all these are associated with the ways in which we perceive, appraise, and are inclined towards or away from such objects, productions, states of affairs, performances, manifestations of conduct. We desire them, we wish to be like them or to possess them, to replicate or emulate them. And we are willing to approve, praise and commend those objects, performances, to other people.

We propose to other people that such objects or states of affairs, styles of behaviour, are targets that provide us with standards of excellence that all should aim at, that they are models that can function as guides for our conduct or for our judgement, in ways that all of us could make our own, and commend to other people. Such states of affairs, objects, performances, that we are inclined towards and commend to other people as worthy of emulation, function as norms and criteria of excellence that are interpersonal; they are prescriptive for the generality of the population who we hold can and should experience similar regard for, give similar approval and commendation to the objects, conduct, performances etc to which they are applied. These things give us principles to guide our conduct and by which we can all regulate our lives and strongly commend to other people to follow.

Values are neither private, nor subjective. Values are public: they are such as we can all discuss, decide upon, reject or approve. Value judgements constitute bridges between us as to the ways in which we ought to act, or the things that we ought to admire. Also, values are objective. They are in quite a decided sense “hard”. They are arrived at and get their life from their status as inter-subjective agreements in our community as to what things shall count as “important” . Such agreements are constituted in the institutions that make up our social and communal life. For example:
without the institution of banking, monetary exchange and fiduciary trust, a dollar coin is just a brute piece of metal. It is such institutions that give our values their intelligibility and their objectivity. The act of writing a cheque is quite as objective as the action of looking down an electron microscope, because it has meaning, intelligibility that we value, but not only value: it is something upon which we base our subsequent actions. Values are “hard” in that they are fundamental parts of the fabric of our social relationships. It is in the warp and weft of those social relationships that our judgements of value are articulated, developed, agreed, settled and acted upon. And these objectivities of value are the result of discussion, negotiation and agreement, and are settled at the level of the culture of a community.

“Virtue” was systematically explored by Aristotle who saw in it the particular “excellence” of any activity or pursuit. This enabled him to distinguish between “intellectual excellence” (exhibited in people’s intelligence, knowledge and understanding, the chief virtue of which was “wisdom”) and “moral excellence” (exhibited in the uprightness, goodness, probity and rectitude of people’s characters, the virtue of which is seen in the “practical wisdom” with which they conduct their affairs and relate to other people). The intellectual side of Aristotle’s distinction has now more or less disappeared; “virtue” now relates largely to moral excellence, worth or value in matters of inter-personal conduct; it often also connotes qualities of mind or character held to be admirable from the moral point of view. Sometimes the term is used with respect to a particular domain of human behaviour, connoting chastity, purity or innocence, for example in sexual matters.
D N Aspin            7 September 1996
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