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Chapter 15, ‘Harms, Losses and Evils in Gert’s moral Theory,’ applies one of the upshots of the discussion in Chapter 14 to Bernard Gert’s moral theory. The chapter is very short and is perhaps best understood as a continuation of the discussion in Chapter 14 of the consequences of the distinction between harming/not-aiding and losses/no-gains for moral theory. In what follows I assume Kamm’s distinction as it is made out in Chapter 14.

The main question of the chapter is whether Gert’s theory is to be understood as resting on the harming/not-aiding distinction or, as he suggests, on the evil/good distinction. I take it that the connection between the evil/good distinction and the losses/no-gains distinction derives from the importance for Kamm (in Chapter 14) of the distinction between what happens to the victim and what an agent does to the victim (p.431). In what follows I do not discuss Kamm’s Figure 15.1, this is partly because I didn’t follow it (my fault entirely) and partly because I thought that I could give an account of the main question of the chapter without it — hopefully responses to this post will decide about the latter at least!

Gert’s Theory

Gert holds that “the point of morality is to lessen evil, not to promote goods. Evils are things that it is irrational for an agent to seek or not avoid” and includes loss of goods (Kamm, p.451). Gert’s theory involves five moral rules that require us not to cause evil and five more that are require us not do things that usually (but not always) cause evil (like breaking promises). There are also moral ideals that encourage us to prevent evils. [Interestingly, moral ideals can become moral rules within the context of a community or profession. Hence, caring is a moral ideal for ordinary people but for physicians providing care might be a duty and so, be morally required.] There are justifiable exceptions or violations of the rules in cases of conflict. These, as Kamm points out, are largely justified in cases where the violation will prevent greater evil. [More specifically, the degree to which all rational impartial persons would agree that less harm would be suffered if this kind of violation were publicly allowed is the degree to which the violation is justified.]

Kamm’s Three Points

There are three elements involved in the discussion of Gert’s theory that are important here: (i) Gert’s insistence that “the goal of morality is the lessening of evil”; (ii) the connection between Gert’s view and Hobbes’s view; and, (iii) the connection of these to common morality. In the second and third cases it is Gert who makes the connection — in the case of common morality, he takes his view to represent common morality and to justify it.

Kamm makes three points designed to support the main question of the chapter — whether Gert’s theory, connected as it is to common morality, is better understood as resting on the harming/not-aiding distinction or on the evil/good distinction. The first of these points should itself be divided into three: (a) Gert’s system rules out more than the ‘serious’ kinds of evil/losses with which Hobbes was concerned and that could motivate people to flee the state of nature; (b) Gert gives more weight to not causing a loss than helping to prevent it and more weight to helping to prevent a loss than providing a gain (even when the person ends up in the same position) — this, I take it, is shown by the structure of the moral rules, moral ideals and their resolution in conflict cases and is meant by Kamm to show that Gert is more concerned with the harming/not-aiding distinction than the loss/no-gain distinction (and hence the evil/good distinction); (c) Gert’s assertion that abiding by the first five moral rule requires no action and the primacy of these five rules shows this concern harming/not-aiding distinction also.

These points seem by and large OK. A note on (a) however: The connection between Gert and Hobbes is more complex than Kamm suggests, partly because Hobbes is more complex. For one thing it is a contested matter of interpretation whether Hobbes’s theory requires losses that do result in very bad conditions to motivate moving out of the state of nature or whether it is the lack of security, ie. the possibility of these, that leads to the covenant.

Kamm’s final two points go to the connection between Gert’s theory and common morality. First, there are better ways of reducing evil than Gert’s rules so if it was the case that point of common morality was to reduce evil, then the rules of common morality would not be Gert’s. Second, Kamm suggests that common morality does not permit us to break another’s arm in order to avoid having our arm and leg being broken by a villain. So common morality requires us to obey the rule not to cause harm even if more evil would be caused to us. In both of these cases, since Gert takes himself to be describing and justifying common morality, this point puts pressure on the reducing evil claim. Again, these points seem fair enough. It is fair of Kamm to assume, here, that the connection between Gert’s theory and common morality is as Gert says it is, and these remarks challenge reasonable features of common morality from within the connection Gert has in mind.

A Further Thought

When I first looked at Gert’s moral theory my first reaction was that it was an interestingly different form of rule-consequentialism. Back then I wrote, in a review of Gert, Culver and Clouser’s book, Bioethics: A Return to Fundamentals (OUP, 1997):

Overall, the moral theory that is offered by the authors can be understood as a form of rule-consequentialism. What is or is not morally acceptable is largely dependent on moral rules and justifiable violations of them, whilst the criteria for moral acceptability are given in terms of the avoidance of five kinds of harms: death, pain, disability, deprivation of freedom and deprivation of pleasure. Thus the theory is a rule-based one with the locus of moral value centring on the avoidance of harms. What is right is determined by what is good.

One significant feature of the theory that distinguishes it from other consequentialist theories is the importance of publicity in cases where a violation of a moral rule is being considered. “A consequentialist system is concerned only with the foreseeable consequences of the particular violation, not with the foreseeable consequences of that kind of violation being publicly allowed” (p.46). A central idea throughout the book is that morality is a public system and hence, what is morally acceptable or unacceptable is determined by what would be acceptable to impartial rational agents to whom the system applies.

Kamm, Gert and various others clearly take the theory to be a non-consequentialist one. The discussion in this chapter of Intricate Ethics seems to re-ignite this question (at least for me). If Kamm is correct about Gert’s theory, it seems reasonable to consider Gert a non-consequentialist. If not his theory still appears to me to be an interesting form of rule-consequentialism — that is, on the ‘lessening of evil’ interpretation that Kamm is concerned to deny. This turns Kamm’s assumption at the beginning of the chapter on its head — i.e. if Gert is to be understood as a non-consequentialist then his theory is to be understood in terms of the harming/not-aiding distinction described by Kamm. I’m very interested to hear what others think about this …


  1. 1. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | October 21, 2007 1:06 am

    Mark, thanks a lot for your helpful summary and comments.

    On your question about whether Gert is a rule-consequentialist or a nonconsequentialist, I suppose that Kamm’s analysis shows at least that (Kamm’s) Gert is not a maximizing kind of consequentialist. If he were, and if the loss to you of obeying the moral rule not to harm someone is even greater than the lost you would cause her, Gert would not insist that you may be required to suffer the loss, which he does (according to Kamm).

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