Robert Piercey, “Not choosing between morality and ethics”, The Philosophical Phorum, Volume XXXII, No.

1, Spring 2001 During the last few decades, it has become common to distinguish morality from ethics. Morality, as the term is usually used, is a peculiarly modern type of practical reasoning, one in which rights, universal duties, and categorical obligations are central. Ethics, by contrast, is an older and fuzzier-edged kind of practical thinking. It reflects on the good life more broadly, and it is intimately bound up with the values and self-understandings of concrete historical communities. Contemporary philosophers often take great care to distinguish morality from ethics. Moreover, the philosophers who distinguish these terms usually privilege one over the other, arguing that morality is fundamental and ethics derivative, or vice versa. I have no quarrel with the distinction between morality and ethics. But I want to argue that we cannot and should not choose between them: that the attempt to privilege one of these kinds of thinking over the other is misguided and bound to fail. Morality and ethics, I maintain, are not competing theories of practical

reason but rather complementary and inseparable aspects of our experience as agents. My argument for this claim falls into five parts. After some background, I discuss Bernard Williams’s recent attempt to privilege ethics over morality, and argue that it does not succeed. Then I examine Jürgen Habermas’s claim that morality is more fundamental than ethics, arguing that it too does not succeed. Next, I try to explain why these attempts fail, and propose that we look for some way of not choosing between morality and ethics. Finally, I sketch a way of doing so. My goal here is not to give a fully developed theory of practical reason. I simply want to argue that two popular approaches to practical reasoning will not work, and to make some suggestions about where we might start looking for a new approach. 53 THE PHILOSOPHICAL FORUM Volume XXXII, No. 1, Spring 2001 I The distinction between morality and ethics seems to derive from Hegel. At many points in his work, Hegel distinguishes two sorts of practical reasoning: one grounded in what he calls Sittlichkeit, the other in what he calls Moralität.

Sittlichkeit—usually translated as “ethical substance” or “ethical life”— is associated with Greek practical reasoning.1 It is the “ethical life of a nation in so far as it is the immediate truth—the individual that is a world.”2 A Sittlichkeit is a concrete historical community with a shared way of life. It has its own conceptions of duties, virtues, and the good, conceptions which are taken for granted in this community but which need not be accepted in others. From this standpoint, to be a good agent is to be a good member of one’s Sittlichkeit—to know one’s station and one’s duties. Opposed to this is a view of practical reason grounded in Moralität. Hegel generally uses this term as a synonym for Kantian morality. The moral standpoint “knows duty to be the absolute essence.”3 It insists that the duties which bind agents have nothing to do with the ethical understandings of particular communities—or, for that matter, with anything in the phenomenal realm. Pure reason gives a moral law to itself, and this law obliges categorically. It is valid at all times and all places, not just in some particular ethical community. Thus for Hegel, there are two ways of thinking about practical reason. One

sees it as context-bound and community-based; the other sees it as universal and categorical. One focuses on what is considered good by some community or other; the other focuses on what is right independently of any community. In short, one deals with the “ethical,” the other with the “moral.” I am not suggesting that Hegel’s distinction between Sittlichkeit and Moralität maps exactly onto the contemporary distinction between ethics and morality. Clearly, however, Hegel paves the way for such a distinction. During the past thirty years or so, philosophers of many different stripes have appealed to just this distinction. It appears in at least three contemporary discussions. First, it has surfaced in Anglo-American political philosophy, in the guise of a debate between liberals and communitarians. Liberals do not want the state to endorse any particular view of the good life; they simply want it to enforce a minimal code of right conduct.4 Communitarians reject the liberal conception of the state in favor of one with a richer and more historically specific view of the good.5 Liberals, we might say, want the state to be in the morality business, while communitarians want it to be in the ethics business. A similar debate has

taken place in continental philosophy between self-described neoKantians and neo-Hegelians. The former, such as Karl-Otto Apel, argue that philosophical ethics need not and should not appeal to the intuitions of particular communities. Apel’s discourse ethics places itself above all such communities and claims to 54 ROBERT PIERCEY be able to adjudicate them.6 Neo-Hegelians, such as Hans-Georg Gadamer, argue that this strategy cannot work, and favor “the model of a situationally sensitive practical reason, always functioning against the background of the shared ethical understanding of a community.”7 And on both sides of the channel, defenders and critics of philosophical modernity are also divided by their views of morality and ethics. Champions of modernity such as Jürgen Habermas praise its cosmopolitanism and moral universalism.8 Anti-modernists such as Alasdair MacIntyre condemn modernity as morally bankrupt, and yearn for “local forms of community within which the moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us.”9 With all this intellectual firepower assembled for and against morality and ethics, one might take it for granted that the two are simply opposed, and that

in general. and it takes less for granted than questions such as “What is our duty?” or “How may we be good?”11 Many different considerations might be relevant to the question of how one ought to live. ‘How should one live?’”10 This is a perfectly general question. this view usually is taken for granted. But I think this view is mistaken. About the only general characteristic of ethical thinking is that it is concerned with what Williams calls “Socrates’s question—namely.” about how to live. II Williams begins Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy with a deliberately vague description of ethical thinking. one that makes special demands on agents but that cannot be precisely defined.there is nothing left to do but choose between them. Indeed. Williams thinks we naturally use “a variety of different . It assumes “that something relevant or useful can be said to anyone. The ethical is a unique but fuzzyedged kind of practical thinking. and I think the best way to show this is to look closely at some attempts to choose between the ethical and the moral. Let me now turn to the very influential one undertaken by Bernard Williams.

It has something to do with the Reformation and its understanding of the individual’s responsibility before God. of course.” and moreover that “this is what one would expect to find. Such reflection. the rise of morality is a result of the modern world’s . Williams insists. It also has something to do with the scientific revolution and the subsequent demise of Aristotelianism. Still.”13 The rise of morality is “closely related to processes of modernization” 14 of the last five centuries. is quite different from what he calls moral thinking. Above all. he believes we have an intuitive though vague understanding of what ethical thinking is. He claims that “the word ‘morality’ has by now taken on a distinctive content” that sets it apart from ethical reflection considered more broadly. It is a multifaceted and extremely general reflection on the good life. and Williams does not suggest that we might systematically catalogue all ethical notions.ethical considerations.”12 This is all very vague.” a newcomer whose history is both relatively short and of “special significance in Western 55 MORALITY AND ETHICS culture. Williams sees morality as “a particular development of the ethical. which are genuinely different from one another.

Far from being synonymous with ethics. however. in the agent’s will. Williams claims that morality “peculiarly emphasizes certain ethical notions rather than others. In Williams’s view.”18 Most importantly.”17 These presuppositions are many. Williams does not claim that obligation as such is unique to the moral. and be judged by the same standards. So what distinguishes morality from ethics? Briefly. And it gives obligation a much more central role than do other kinds of ethical thinking.” and also has “some peculiar presuppositions. morality has a peculiar understanding of obligation. He grants .” It also has a peculiar view of autonomy—it insists that all genuine ethical considerations “rest. and “demands a sharp boundary for itself (in demanding ‘moral’ and ‘nonmoral’ senses of words. morality is a “peculiar institution”16 with an even more peculiar genealogy. ultimately and at a deep level. for instance). modernity requires “every decision to be based on grounds that can be discursively explained. It has an unusual view of moral language.”15 Applying this ideal to ethical thinking yields morality.drive toward “a rationalistic conception of rationality”—its demand that practical reason mimic theoretical reason.

But what kind is that? In Williams’s view. for instance. and that they play a role in. “if my deliberation issues in something I cannot do. morality denies the possibility of certain kinds of ethical conflict. say.”22 Unlike. I cannot. Greek ethics. morality sees obligation as “categorical. and something it is in my power to do. . only an obligation can beat an obligation. ultimately. through no fault of my own. or at the end of the line.”19 It has a “third-personal”20 understanding of obligations and duties. cannot conflict. Morality believes that obligations are unconditional and inescapable. One sign of this is the Kantian dictum that “ought” implies “can”—the belief that if an action is ethically appropriate. end up in situations in which it is impossible for me to be good.that obligations are among the most basic of ethical considerations. . then it is something I am categorically required to do. As Williams puts it.”23 Moral obligations . morality “encourages the idea. Aristotelian ethics. then I must deliberate again. Finally. Behaving ethically is in no way a function of moral luck.”21 Closely related to this is the conviction that “moral obligations . Williams’s quarrel is with the peculiar kind of obligation at work in moral thinking. really. that they go all the way down.

No other ethical considerations can trump them. They apply even to people who.”25 The only ethical consideration that can trump an obligation is a more general obligation. the moralist tries to find some duty from which the first consideration can be derived.”26 Most moralists would say I am permitted to shirk the obligation . at a conflicting time and place. obligations—and therefore judgment and blame—apply categorically to everyone. there is nowhere outside the system. or at least nowhere for a responsible agent. From the 56 perspective of morality. For the system of morality.”24 My only excuse for ignoring an obligation is that some more pressing obligation overrides it.have a stringency which makes them overriding. So whenever an ethical consideration overrides an obligation. Williams’s objection to morality is that this view of obligation has absurd consequences. Suppose I have entered into an obligation to meet a friend. want to live outside that system altogether. Suppose further that at the last minute. “at the limit. Morality tries “to make everything into obligations. Consider the textbook example of promise-breaking. to further some important cause. I am “presented with a unique opportunity.

” This seems to imply that I am always under a variety of exceedingly vague obligations. to forego all morally neutral actions so that I may obey my general duties? Is it not the case that obligations are always “waiting to provide work for idle hands?”27 The point is that “if obligation is allowed to structure ethical thought. it seems. I am acting in accordance with some other. we may begin to get into trouble—not just philosophical trouble. But Williams argues that “once the journey into more general obligations has started. categorically obliged. is that by furthering the cause in question. . But if I am always under exceedingly general obligations such as “Always further important causes when given the chance. But why? If moral obligations are categorical.to visit my friend and further the cause. . it . how can I possibly get out of one? The only answer. something along the lines of “Always further important causes when given the chance.” It seems obvious that some actions are of no moral consequence at all. but conscience trouble—with finding room for morally indifferent actions. . more general obligation.” then how can I ever be permitted to act in morally indifferent ways? Am I not obliged.

can come to dominate life altogether.”28 And to let obligations dominate life is to create not just philosophical trouble. Thus the view of obligation found in morality is unacceptable. But suppose one argued that all ethical reflection. as such. But what would become of Williams’s project if it turned out that ethical reflection and moral obligation are not separable in the way he suggests? Of course the two are distinguishable. The only response to this reductio is to abandon morality altogether —not in order to become ethical nihilists. and Williams’s critique of morality 57 would have to be re-evaluated or rejected. Morality would be indispensable to ethics. The dispute between Ricoeur and Williams would be uninteresting if it were . it would be impossible to write about them in the way Williams and I have done. if they were not. is subject to something like moral obligations. it would reveal a fatal flaw in Williams’s position. If one were successful at this. So let me now turn to one such argument: the one given by Paul Ricoeur in Oneself as Another. It is the system’s reductio ad absurdum. but to replace morality with a more subtle and more flexible style of ethical thinking. but conscience trouble.

On the contrary.”29 Williams. like Williams. for reflections on how one ought to live.” Ricoeur understands a vague and fuzzy-edged kind of practical thinking concerned with the good life. He says that it is “by convention that I reserve the term ‘ethics’ for the aim of an accomplished life”—that is. which turns out to be indispensable. categorical obligations.merely verbal. Further proof that Ricoeur associates the moral with categorical duties is his explicit appeal to Kant in defining morality. This development is concerned with “norms characterized at once by the claim to universality and by an effect of constraint. he argues. By “ethics. So it cannot be the case that Williams defines morality as one thing. actualization of the ethical. would agree with all of this. Ricoeur denies that morality is identical with ethics. which turns out to be separable from ethical reflection. I think. . So the . Morality is “only a limited . Similarly. while Ricoeur defines it as something else. Ricoeur uses the terms “ethics” and “morality” in the same way Williams does.” “Universal” norms characterized by “constraint”: these look very much like Williams’s third-personal.” a particular development of ethical reflection considered more broadly. are bound up with “a Kantian heritage” and with its “deontological point of view. Moral norms. .

To understand the definition of pride is to see that we can be proud only of certain things—namely.” Unlike Williams. on thinking about the good life—we can see that there are certain purely logical constraints on its subject matter. “Moral Beliefs. It is somewhere between the two. This is neither a purely semantic point nor some sort of transcendental deduction about ethical experience. is one of these. Pride. He argues that once we reflect on the nature of ethical thinking—that is.” and equally fuzzy-edged definitions of “ethics. To take a more familiar example. or cease to be ethical thinking. Comprehensive ethical thinking must involve certain features. Ricoeur does not think that the definition of ethics needs to remain quite so fuzzy-edged. it is something like the claim Philippa Foot advances in her well-known paper. however. of “achievements or advantages” that are in some way our own.30 Foot believes that the terms “good” and “right” bear the same relation .disagreement between Williams and Ricoeur is more than a verbal one. They give equally precise definitions of “morality. for example.” Foot argues that certain attitudes and beliefs have an “internal relation” to their objects.

To understand what “good” means is to see that there are certain purely logical constraints on what things we can call good. roughly. that one cannot just reflect on the good life. we see that any such reflection has to have certain features. The first means. Ricoeur’s point. Following Aristotle. “narrative unity. projects. I take it. he claims that ethics necessarily involves “aiming at the ‘good life’.”31 Let me break this formula into its components. in just institutions. is similar to Foot’s.to good things and right actions. and so on. This is not necessarily to say—with MacIntyre. one must also reflect on the good life.” It is merely to say that any answer to Socrates’s . for instance—that one must conceive of one’s life as a teleologically structured. Once we understand the definition of ethics—no matter how fuzzy-edged it may be—we see that there are certain features any complete ethical inquiry must have. with and for others. Consistent ethical thinking has to involve structured reflection on one’s life as a whole—on one’s goals. Once we know what it means 58 ROBERT PIERCEY to reflect on the good life. But what features? Ricoeur outlines three.

we can flesh out our fuzzy-edged intuitions about ethical reflection.”33 More specifically. the totality of which Ricoeur calls “solicitude. and that any complete answer to Socrates’s question will make reference to organized ways of “living together as this belongs to a historical community.” a “broader unity” in which particular actions can be integrated.”34 Finally. One cannot aim for a good life all alone. one needs to relate to “other selves” who have “the role of providing what one is incapable of providing for oneself. to pursue the good life is to do so in “just institutions. our reflections on the good life should say something about forming life plans.” 35 In short. At a minimum.” The thought here is that humans are social and historical creatures. relating to other selves. To be an ethical agent is to give oneself a “life plan. and participating in social and political institutions.32 The second part of Ricoeur’s formula means that to aim for the good life is to do so “with and for others. Ricoeur thinks that without too much difficulty.question will involve an implicit or explicit conception of the good. Ricoeur argues with Aristotle that friendship is necessary for the good life. These activities .” To reflect on ethics is to see the necessity of certain interpersonal relations.

are essential parts of ethical thought. And this is true at each level of Ricoeur’s analysis. Ricoeur’s point is that these activities can be carried out in such corrupt. It is sufficient to note that no agent who understands what the good life is will think one can achieve it by following an evil life plan. At the first level. Next. Second. when one pursues the good life by forming a life plan. Certain answers to Socrates’s question can just be ruled out of court. Just as Foot argues there are some objects to which the terms “good” and “pride” cannot conceivably be applied. without ceasing to be ethical reflection.” where “wrong” is a term of moral disapproval. Ricoeur thinks there are some activities that ethical reflection cannot possibly involve. misguided ways that we would no longer recognize them as the activities they are. Note again the parallel to Philippa Foot’s work. Ricoeur argues that there are certain obvious ways in which each of these activities can go wrong. This does not mean “do wrong things. to strive for the good 59 MORALITY AND ETHICS . one cannot knowingly give oneself an evil life plan. There is no need to give content to the notion of evil here.

if humans are social creatures who seek the good life in historical communities. solicitude and friendship can be corrupted in such extreme ways that they cease to be solicitude and friendship. Like evil life plans and the improper treatment of others. But clearly. To deny this is to misunderstand what solicitude and friendship are. there is no need to give content to this idea just yet. they are blatant corruptions of the ethical.” Ricoeur argues. These are institutions that do not allow the agent to pursue the good life—that is. . Ricoeur argues. is to see even the most general ethical reflection as subject to certain norms. First. institutions that are unjust. the ethical intention must “pass through the sieve of the norm. The only way to avoid corruption of this sort. then it lacks a feature that ethical reflection has to have. the agent is obliged not to furnish herself with an evil life plan. Again. Ethics turns out to be governed by three highly abstract sets of norms. “Because there is evil. At each level.life with and for others is to see the impossibility of relating to others in certain ways. Finally. then there are certain kinds of communities that any agent would recognize as ethically unacceptable.”36 If it fails to do so.

you shall not kill.” For very complicated reasons.“the aim of the ‘good life’ has to be submitted to the test of the moral obligation. At each of the three levels.”39 This test “amounts to setting (something) aside. institutions which fail to treat agents as autonomous beings with conceptions of the good. which might be described in the following terms: ‘Act only in accordance with the maxim by which you can at the same time will that what ought not to be. will indeed not exist. Ricoeur thinks these norms will take the form of Levinasian injunctions about the treatment of the other. at the third level. “it is necessary to subject the ethical aim to the test of the norm. They will appear as “prescriptions and prohibitions stemming from the Golden Rule in accordance with the various compartments of interaction: you shall not steal.’”37 Similar norms arise at the second level. Ricoeur thinks agents are committed to resisting the appearance of radically unjust institutions. as this will be expressed in each of the three spheres. Communities must be structured so as to prevent such injustice. you shall not torture.”38 Finally. in response to “the figures of evil in the intersubjective dimension established by solicitude.”40 . namely evil.

avoid evil. and so on. are obliged not to behave in certain ways. They resemble nothing so much as Saint Thomas’s extremely general account of natural law in the Summa Theologiae: Act virtuously. as such. and a great deal more needs to be said about both. They are what Williams would call thirdpersonal or categorical obligations. To shirk these obligations is to stop being an ethical agent. But if Ricoeur is right. Ricoeur’s norms are relatively thin and unsubstantial.Ricoeur’s argument. They are so fundamental that they go all the way down. So Ricoeur’s three general norms are not just one type of ethical consideration among others. And of course. 60 ROBERT PIERCEY including many that are not obligations at all. as it were. Ethical agents. then even the most general of ethical reflection is subject to certain norms. there is much more to ethics than these obligations. It is whether ethics is subject to any . Ricoeur grants that there are many other ethical considerations. and my reconstruction of it. Of course. But the issue is not whether all ethical reflection is subject to substantial norms. are highly abstract.

it is at the heart of a debate between self-described neo-Kantians and neo-Hegelians. While the defenders of ethics prove to be on shaky ground. as I will now try to show. If Ricoeur is right. One of the most distinguished participants in this debate is Jürgen Habermas. One might conclude that Williams has simply picked the wrong side of the debate —that if ethics requires morality. then it must be the moral that is more basic than the ethical. then. the defenders of morality are no better off.norms that go all the way down. for Williams’s attempt to privilege ethics over morality. the universal over the concrete. then at least three of the norms governing action do go all the way down. More specifically. So much. III I suggested above that the distinction between morality and ethics has figured prominently in recent continental philosophy. the individual over the community. But that would be a mistake. and not the other way around. Much of . That is enough to show that moral obligation cannot be abandoned—that morality is an indispensable moment of the ethical. One might conclude that we should favor the right over the good.

42 Second. this formalism at the level of theory leads to empty tautologies at the level of practice. So let me begin my discussion of Habermas’s neo-Kantianism on this point. For Kant.41 First. I think Hegel has four distinct objections to Kant’s moral philosophy. an action’s rightness is in no way a function of the particular 61 . he objects to the formalism of Kantian ethics. can be given an appropriate form for the purposes of testing. and that those who see it as a non-starter are simply mistaken. Kant thinks an action is permissible if the maxim on which it is based has an acceptable logical form—namely. the form of universalizablity. According to Hegel. Any maxim. he claims. Hegel objects to the abstract universalism of Kant’s ethics.Habermas’s recent work is an attempt to articulate a contemporary version of Kant’s moral philosophy—a Kantianism for the linguistic turn. however. If Habermas’s resurrection of Kant is to be at all plausible. Habermas argues that some form of Kantianism is still viable today. and that Hegel’s famous critique of it had been entirely successful. Until recently. Following Habermas. there was something of a consensus in continental thought that Kant’s moral philosophy was a nonstarter. it should respond to this critique.

MORALITY AND ETHICS situation in which it is performed. In Hegel’s view.”47 The result of Kantian ethics turns out to be the absolute freedom and terror of the French revolution. Hegel attacks the self-righteous moral zeal of Kantian ethics. It is right because I can consistently will that it become a universal law. Hegel criticizes Kant for having nothing to say about how moral norms can be applied in practice. Kantian moral judgment “remains external to individual cases and insensitive to the particular context of a problem in need of solution. For these reasons. and not at all in the consequences of an action. Hegel thinks ethics must be based on something richer and .”45 Finally.”43 Third.” 46 Kantian ethics “recommends to the advocates of the moral world view a policy that aims at the actualization of reason and sanctions even immoral deeds if they serve higher ends.”44 Habermas calls this problem the “impotence of the mere ought. Kant’s moral agent strives to bring “the good into actual existence.” if necessary through “the sacrifice of individuality. Such a will has “its object merely as pure duty”—it is unable to “see the object and itself realized. Kant places moral worth solely in the will.

as Kant maintains. The moral philosopher cannot pull out of thin air norms that bind all human beings—or perhaps all rational creatures—at all times and all places. At best she can articulate the shared ethical understandings of a concrete community. Basing ethics on Sittlichkeit therefore solves the problem of application which plagues Kantian ethics. For while ethical behavior is not just equated with a group’s customs and practices. The same holds for Hegel’s fourth objection. An action’s moral worth is not just a function of consistent willing or of a maxim’s logical form.more concrete than Kant’s good will. Unlike Kantian ethics. An ethics of Sittlichkeit denies that a supreme moral principle can be described in purely formal terms.”48 Hegel’s good will is . This something is Sittlichkeit. To privilege Sittlichkeit over Moralität is also to deny that practical reason is universal. an ethics of Sittlichkeit does not sever moral duty from “the formative process of spirit and its concrete historical manifestations. it is intimately bound up with them and incapable of being defined apart from them. We need no longer ask whether a good but impotent noumenal will can do anything moral in practice.

Habermas claims that of the four criticisms Hegel levels at Kant.at home in the world.” This moral point of view. Habermas responds to this critique in two ways. Kant’s main goal is not merely to offer a test for logical or semantic consistency. he claims that Hegel’s arguments against Kant are simply not as good as they seem. It is to “postulate the employment of a substantive moral point of view. several miss the mark entirely. with Hegel’s charge of formalism. it just does not follow that this principle issues only in tautologies. more nuanced versions of Kantian moral theorizing might withstand Hegel’s objections. generates the content of morality.” Though Kantianism defines its supreme moral principle in formal terms. for instance. and need not subordinate the world to itself by any means necessary. and not the categorical imperative. Some do not work at all. First. Such is the case. The . some apply only to the particular version of Kantianism that Kant himself articulated. Habermas asserts that “Hegel was wrong to imply that these principles postulate logical and semantic consistency and nothing 62 else. Other.

he claims. in that I just happen to be born into some concrete . following Kant. which gives rise to Hegel’s objections about the impotence of the mere ought. the shared ethical life of some actual community. he argues. He therefore performs a sort of reductio on Hegel’s critique.51 One’s Sittlichkeit is contingent. It is to pass judgment on the “conflicts of action [which] grow out of everyday life.”50 and so forth. because privileging Sittlichkeit over Moralität leads to unacceptable conclusions. Having abandoned this metaphysical commitment. But Habermas argues. that considerations about how actual communities happen to live are irrelevant to ethics. much less tautological ones. subjective motives. Habermas thinks he can avoid one of the standard objections to neo-Kantianism. He “gives up Kant’s dichotomy between an intelligible realm comprising duty and free will and a phenomenal realm comprising inclinations. Hegel cannot be right about morality. Habermas’s second rejoinder to Hegel is more direct. It is this dichotomy.”49 Habermas also points out that he rejects much of the metaphysical baggage attached to Kant’s ethics. Sittlichkeit is always some particular Sittlichkeit.philosopher’s task is not to generate maxims at all.

”55 It does so by adopting a universal. impersonal standpoint—morality requires that we “break with all of the unquestioned truths of an established. unjust. concrete ethical life. how I relate to my “life history” and “traditions. evil. Ethics provides “advice concerning the correct conduct of life and the realization of a personal life project.ethical community rather than another.”56 Contra Hegel. on the other hand. aims at “agreement concerning the just resolution of a conflict in the realm of norm-regulated action. So Sittlichkeit is an unsuitable foundation for ethics. Habermas draws a sharp distinction between ethical discourse and moral discourse.”53 It helps me understand who I am. Moral discourse. Habermas argues that “the question ‘What should I do?’ is answered morally with reference to what one ought to do”52—not what I ought to do as a participant in some shared ethos.” 54 and what sort of person I would like to become. Some ethical substances are immoral. As a result. Ethical questions concern what it is good for me to do. The mere fact that this Sittlichkeit is mine has nothing to do with its being moral. in the sense of what will help me lead a flourishing life. Sittlichkeit cannot have .

He privileges morality over ethics. Instead.the last word on how we should live. however. It “prefers to view shared understanding about the generalizability of interests as the result of an intersubjectively mounted public discourse. Only universalizability makes a norm acceptable. Kant’s main insight. Ethics is not practical anthropology. the right over the good. in Habermas’s view.”57 Habermas articulates this shift in his “universalizability principle. his discourse ethics. the moral philosopher cannot move from premises about how actual communities behave to conclusions about how one ought to behave. does not define a universalizable norm as one capable of being willed by any agent whatsoever. Habermas’s discourse ethics bases universalizability on language. of course. Habermas privileges the universal over the concrete.” or U: “every valid norm has to fulfill the condition that all concerned can accept the consequences and the side effects its universal . The version of Kantianism which Habermas endorses is. Like Kant. is that morally acceptable norms must be universalizable. Habermas. And it is a version that Habermas considers immune to Hegel’s 63 MORALITY AND ETHICS criticisms.

”60 While Moralität is prior to customary ethical life. Thus to participate in discourse and violate U is to be caught in a performative contradiction.”61 In other words.observance can be anticipated to have for the satisfaction of everyone’s interests (and that these consequences are preferred to those of known alternative possibilities for regulation). “discourse is not a procedure for generating justified norms but a procedure for testing the validity of norms that are being proposed and hypothetically considered for adoption. At the same time. For Habermas.58 U—which Habermas explicitly calls a reformulation of the categorical imperative59—preserves the main insight of Kantian moral philosophy. implicitly accepts this principle.”63 It does not try to generate substantial moral norms. it is “always embedded in what Hegel called Sittlichkeit.”62 some of which is “ultimately discarded as being not susceptible to consensus.” Habermas sees U as a presupposition of intersubjective discourse. U is not vulnerable to charges of abstract universalism or practical impotence. which might be vulnerable to charges of abstract universalism or practical . he claims. Anyone who engages in discourse. discourse ethics is “dependent upon contingent content being ‘fed’ into it from outside.

is expressed by U—by the ability of certain norms to be accepted by all participants in a .”65 The moral standpoint. It should now be clear why Habermas is an important participant in the debate between morality and ethics. But is this attempt successful? Does it vindicate Kant over Hegel. the right over the good. by contrast. For Habermas. Discourse ethics offers only a testing procedure. once and for all? I have my doubts. Still. It is a denial that practical reasoning should start with the self-understandings of actual communities. the ethical sphere includes all considerations concerning “an established. And his claim that Moralität is prior to Sittlichkeit is an attempt to privilege morality over ethics.impotence. the shared ethical norms of concrete communities must justify themselves through this testing procedure.”64 all considerations involving “the context of a 64 ROBERT PIERCEY particular self-understanding. But Sittlichkeit must justify itself before the tribunal of Moralität. We cannot dispense with Sittlichkeit. concrete ethical life. His critique of Hegel amounts to a denial of the primacy of ethical thinking.

then being moral cannot be wholly independent of any particular Sittlichkeit. for two reasons. And it seems to me that Habermas’s account of morality is parasitic on certain virtues. Morality tests the content that it receives from some ethical life or other. but one need not participate in any particular ethical life to be moral.”66 surely the virtues are. If any practical considerations are “embedded in the context of a particular self-understanding. U.practical discourse. Our ability to behave morally consists solely in our ability to apply U and abide with its consequences. Being moral is. a function of having undergone a particular kind of socialization. It seems clear to me that applying U at all. The first way in which Habermasian morality requires an account of the virtues has to do with the problem of application. and therefore taking up the moral standpoint at all. as I am suggesting. This last claim seems indefensible to me. does nothing . participants in discourse need certain virtues even to use U. But if. at least in part. it will be recalled. Virtues are character traits which dispose one to act in certain ways. and they emerge only through very specific processes of ethical education. requires the cultivation of certain virtues.

Being able to apply norms is partially a function of belonging to a highly specific Sittlichkeit. The application of rules requires a practical prudence that is prior to the practical reason that discourse ethics explicates.”67 How does it arise. But any Kantian would admit that norms are not enough.but test moral norms. But if this is so. by undergoing a highly specific moral education in a highly specific kind of community. then it seems that Moralität cannot be prior to Sittlichkeit. We need to apply them—that is. There can be no procedure for testing moral norms which is completely separate from . How does one apply the norms which U reveals as acceptable? Habermas admits that this principle “cannot regulate problems concerning its own application. It determines whether a proposed norm is universalizable and thus morally acceptable. then? How does one become a Habermasian phronemos? The only possible answer seems to be that one acquires the ability to apply norms well in the same way one acquires other virtues—namely. we need to know how to go about acting on them.” But what is this prudence? Habermas says that it is “not subject to the rules of discourse.

Laws need to be enforced. and procedures need to be carried out.” Indeed. Norms obviously need to be applied. In this respect moral norms are like legal ones. He has tried to respond to the objection that “practical reason may be forced to abdicate in favor of a faculty of judgment when it comes to applying justified norms to specific cases. this indispensability is not itself a moral matter. Moralität requires Sittlichkeit.”68 His argument is that while 65 application is indispensable. They have nothing to . “Discourse ethics. but questions of enforcement presumably come after questions of articulating and justifying the law. “can handle this difficulty.any shared ethical understanding.” Habermas says. so a sharp distinction between the moral and the ethical can be maintained. Application does not enter into the contents of moral norms and procedures. Agents can be moral only if they have the good fortune of belonging to a certain kind of ethical community. Habermas is not unaware of this difficulty. But this is a matter posterior to moral theory. he does not consider this objection at all damaging to his work.

My claim. Accordingly. I am arguing that the way in which a norm is applied enters into the norm’s content. Those who doubt this would do well to remember Wittgenstein’s discussion of following a rule in the Philosphical Investigations. I am not advancing the trivial thesis that there is a difference between recognizing a norm as valid and putting it into practice. in such a way that it is impossible to state these norms coherently without making some reference to how they will be applied. it seems to me.do with whether a given law is coherent or just. Habermas cannot claim that problems of application do not concern the moral theorist. Rather. it is not a matter with which the moral theorist need be concerned. This view of norms seems untenable to me. The lesson of the rule-following considerations. is that there are two different ways . Habermas argues that moral norms are no different in this respect. is not merely that norms must be applied if they are to have any effect on our practices. As a result. My claim is a stronger one: that application enters into the individuation of norms and procedures themselves. They must be applied. but their application is not a distinctively moral matter. unlike Habermas’s.

4. . if we see a norm as wholly separate from its application.”69 To see a norm in action is to gain a nondiscursive understanding of how to obey it or go against it.of understanding normatively structured behavior. .” is best described as following the rule “Add 2. Someone who describes the series “2. 12. 37. No linguistic description of normatively structured behavior is sufficient . 6. 8 . On this view. it can be “exhibited in what we call ‘obeying the rule’ and ‘going against it’ in actual cases. someone who counts “2. . How? In a word. 14 . Although our understanding of the norms governing behavior cannot be captured linguistically. One is to see it as the enactment of a linguistically stated rule.” In other words. which remains external to the behavior itself. . And this is the only way of doing so. however. . 6. we do individuate norms. .” as an instance of “Add 2” has no way of knowing whether the person counting will continue with “10. Clearly. . . 4.” or with “15. . through practice. we have no way of individuating norms from one another. 23. 8 .” Wittgenstein shows that this understanding of normatively structured behavior must be wrong. because an indefinite number of types of behavior fall under any such description.

To take a simple example. it becomes apparent that the virtues are at work elsewhere in Habermas’s moral theory as well.to individuate the norms in question from others. Once we concede this point. So Habermas’s attempt to separate moral procedures from concerns about prudence and virtue is bound to fail. But if this is the case. one needs to be a good listener. To articulate a norm just is to know how it works in practice. Consider that Habermas defines morality in terms of discourse. then we cannot 66 ROBERT PIERCEY accept Habermas’s claim that application is not essential to the moral. Highly specific virtues are already at work when we do so much as state a norm. Rather. this means one must have . Among other things. But surely one needs certain virtues to be able to participate in discourse at all. We cannot even state it coherently without making some reference—no matter now veiled and intuitive—to how it is applied. application enters into the content of moral norms and procedures. U is no different from other norms in this respect. Not just any agent who talks counts as a participant in discourse—only certain kinds of agents do.

In knowing what it means to participate in discourse. Ethics requires morality.the ability to empathize with others. and no . On the one hand. restrictions that can only be called moral ones. Williams’s attempt to privilege the ethical over the moral seems bound to fail. One must also possess a certain moral imagination. unconditional restrictions on the content of ethics. even recognize her as a participant in discourse. IV We now face a peculiar antinomy. If someone lacked these virtues. But on the other hand. I suspect that we could find many similar examples throughout discourse ethics. Thus we cannot accept Habermas’s claim that the moral is independent of the ethical. an ability to visualize what it would be like for proposed norms to be adopted. Ricoeur is right: there are categorical. we would not. The very idea of an ethical understanding that has not passed through the sieve of the moral norm is simply incoherent. Habermas’s attempt to privilege morality over ethics also seems bound to fail. the skill of taking on the perspective of other participants in discourse. it seems to me. There are no moral norms. we have already appealed to some sort of account of the virtues. Morality presupposes ethics.

debased moment of it? That would be a peculiar suggestion. It is not just that we do not know how to decide which of the terms is primary and which derivative. It rather seems that in principle. morality also presupposes ethics. there is no way to privilege one over the other. an ethical standpoint that ignores the categorical injunction against evil life plans and unjust institutions is simply not an ethical standpoint. As I have suggested. We can no more seek the . So while ethics presupposes morality. that are absolutely prior to every ethical community. We cannot even state them without making some reference to how they will be applied. As Ricoeur argues. should we continue to try and choose between the ethical and the moral? Should we continue to see one term as primary and the other as a derivative.procedures for testing moral norms. because each needs the other in order to be what it is. Norms and procedures are vacuous. Having seen this. there are equally compelling arguments on both sides of the 67 debate. and this application involves highly specific virtues and processes of ethical education. Nor is the problem a merely epistemic one.

but we cannot separate them enough to choose between them. is that ethics and morality are not simply opposed. Likewise. a morality that has not emerged from some particular Sittlichkeit and that can be applied without highly specific virtues is simply not a morality. it seems to me.good under such conditions than we can feel pride for achievements that are not in some way our own. and more besides. We must. take it as a brute fact that we find ourselves bound by a wide variety of competing practical considerations. Why not? The answer. This experience is at once ethical and moral. I suspect. We can distinguish them in a philosophical analysis. but in their very essence. They should not be seen as competing theories about our experience as agents. Ethics and morality are intimately bound up with one another—not just in our way of thinking about them. And the reason we cannot so separate them is that our experience as agents is just too complex to be reduced to one or the other. . They are better understood as moments or aspects of that experience —abstract moments that we can distinguish philosophically but cannot separate in practice. While there are family resemblances among them— while we can.

Williams praises Gauguin.71 Habermas celebrates the disengaged moral judge who can apply U to practices as though completely detached from them. who fled to Tahiti after shirking obligations that most of us would consider very real. Our experience is just too complex for that.for instance. Each seems more interested in reductionistic theoretical categories than in subtle moral phenomenology. If we are to make any progress in practical philosophy. and richness of our moral and ethical experience. label some of them “ethical” and others “moral”—there is no reason to think we might systematically catalogue them all or reduce them to one of their instances. these figures embody aspects of our experience as agents. it seems to me. and the irreducibility”70 of our experience as agents. diversity. Neither seems particularly concerned with how human beings actually lead their lives. Naturally. Indeed. But . the diversity. begin by “preserving the fullness. these heroes are remarkable for their lack of humanity. It is telling that while Williams and Habermas both have their moral heroes. the most striking similarity between Williams and Habermas is their willingness to marginalize the fullness. and to that extent they are useful thought experiments. we must.

like many of the good things in life. if it is entirely unresponsive to moral phenomenology. Perhaps instead of making one prior to the other. then perhaps something has gone wrong. Perhaps. V The contrast between morality and ethics is usually seen as a contrast between . But I am suggesting that one of the tasks of philosophy is to make sense of our experience as agents. complementary aspects of our irreducibly complex experience as agents—then the attempt to choose between them is doomed from the start. then. And.they do not live through moral and ethical experiences that are anything like those of real agents. If a moral or ethical theory does not mesh with this experience at all. it involves going back to Hegel. and this may be a sign that something is amiss. No doubt there are several ways of doing so. I am not suggesting that common sense and everyday experience are philosophy’s final 68 ROBERT PIERCEY court of appeal. we should look for a way of thinking the two together. we should try to find a way of not choosing between them. If ethics and morality are what I am suggesting they are—that is. What follows is a sketch of one.

The view of practical reason usually called neo-Hegelian today is one that Hegel places at the level of abstract right. For Hegel. agents do not just deliberate about particular situations. which are opposed to more universal moral concerns. Morality is used as a synonym for any universalistic view of practical reason. This distinction is often thought to be rooted in Hegel’s distinction between Moralität and Sittlichkeit. But it is important to point out that this is not Hegel’s understanding of Sittlichkeit. At the level of Sittlichkeit. In the Philosophy of Right and the Phenomenology of Spirit. an ethics of Sittlichkeit is not just any ethic which sees practical reason as contextbound. This level—where one sees moral obligations as “the immediate concept and hence also essentially individual”72—is beneath both Moralität and Sittlichkeit. ethics as a synonym for any view of practical reason as community-based. Hegel uses Sittlichkeit to refer to a synthesis between the universal and the particular. Sittlichkeit is rather “the unity and truth of these two abstract moments—the thought Idea of the good realized in the internally reflected will and in the external .the universal and the particular.

It is not just a concrete ethical life. but as syntheses of the universal and the concrete. could one regard concrete ethical communities as Hegel does— as particular ethical substances which embody universal moral principles? No thinking person sees our political and cultural institutions as rationally structured and morally benevolent.”73 A Sittlichkeit is a special kind of ethical community. Perhaps it would be useful to think of moral communities as Hegel does—not as brutely given ethical substances. How.world. Perhaps it would be fruitful to follow Hegel here. and to avoid having to choose between morality and ethics. 69 MORALITY AND ETHICS This suggestion is bound to seem absurd at best and offensive at worst. Nor should we have any faith that they are progressing . but a concrete ethical life with a rational and moral structure. one which embodies a universalistic moral standpoint in a particular community. we might ask. Perhaps seeing this kind of ethical community as fundamental will allow us to avoid choosing between the abstract senses of Moralität and Sittlichkeit.

Of course it would be absurd to suggest that the institutions of Western liberal democracy. as given. we have no reason to understand it in that way. but for politics. nor could it ever . But suppose one saw Hegelian Sittlichkeit not as something given. Moreover. there is some precedent in contemporary philosophy for understanding Sittlichkeit along these lines. or at least approximated. It would be equally absurd to suggest that they are becoming so on their own. Suppose one saw it as an ideal to be realized. and a moral category that can help us overcome a dichotomy which cripples much contemporary philosophy. strikes me as a non sequitur. It has never existed anywhere. So even if Hegel understands Sittlichkeit as a union of universal and particular ethical principles. but as a task to be achieved. Suppose further that one saw the realization of this ideal as a task not for philosophy. however. ever more benevolent. Habermas presents it as a regulative ideal that we must use when thinking about discourse.and so becoming ever more rational. Consider Habermas’s view of the ideal speech situation. This last claim. are both rationally structured and morally benevolent. Perhaps this sort of ethical substance would be an appropriate moral category.

And the onus is on us to change that speech situation. and what sort of universality.74 But it might be fruitful to think of moral and political communities in this way—as concrete ethical substances which ought to have ideally rational and moral structures. Habermas has recently cautioned against seeing the ideal speech situation as a goal to be reached through practice. If philosophy cannot choose between morality and ethics on its own. should our institutions embody? Whose rationality. Perhaps all that philosophy . its outcome is to that extent invalidated. Philosophers cannot do this on their own. of course. the onus is on us to change them. Nor do I think philosophers should answer them. It is a political task. There are unanswered questions here. and it can only be achieved through political practice. Granted.exist. to make it a closer approximation of the ideal. are at issue? I do not have answers to any of these questions. What sort of political action is appropriate here? What sort of rationality. And to the extent that they fall short of this ideal. and whose morality. But if we discover that a discourse has been conducted under less than ideal situations. then neither can it bring the two together on its own.

1982). Jürgen Habermas. 265. After Virtue. Phenomenology. trans. “Is the Ethics of the Ideal Communication Community a Utopia? On the Relationship between Ethics. The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Michael Sandel. 365. 266–94. 1987). IN: University of Notre Dame Press. MA: MIT Press. Seyla Benhabib and Fred Dallmayr (Cambridge. 2nd ed. trans. 263. . for instance. Hegel. 4 The definitive contemporary statement of this view is. 2 Hegel.” in The Communicative Ethics Controversy. for instance. Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge. MA: MIT Press. Phenomenology. 5 See. MA: Harvard University Press. Utopia. A Theory of Justice (Cambridge. “Afterword: Communicative Ethics and Contemporary Practical Philosophy. of course. 1977). Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press. and the Critique of Utopia. 333. 1984). John Rawls.” in The Communicative Ethics Controversy.V. ed. 3 Hegel. 9 Alasdair MacIntyre. Liberalism and the Limits of Justice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Phenomenology of Spirit. University of Notre Dame 70 ROBERT PIERCEY NOTES 1 See. 1990). 1971).can do is make the world safe for politics. A. (Notre Dame. 7 Seyla Benhabib. for instance. 6 See Karl-Otto Apel. 8 See.

Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana. 1995). 22 Williams. NJ: Prentice Hall. Ethics. 6. 20 Williams. 29 Paul Ricoeur. 19 Williams. 185. 6. 17 Williams. Oneself as Another. 12 Williams. 180. Cahn and Joram G. “Moral Beliefs. Ethics. 18 Williams. 30 Philippa Foot. 4. Oneself as Another. 24 Williams. Ethics. Ethics. 26 Williams. Haber (Englewood Cliffs. 16 Williams. 23 Williams. Ethics. Ethics. 21 Williams. 1985). 25 Williams. Oneself as Another. 35 Ricoeur. Oneself as Another. 180. ed. Ethics. 178. Ethics. Ethics. 18. Ethics. Ethics.” in Twentieth Century Ethical Theory. Steven M. 33 Ricoeur. 367. 178. Oneself as Another. 11 Williams. 28 Williams. Ethics. 175. 172. Ethics. 8. Oneself as Another. 1992). 180. 176. 180. Kathleen Blamey (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Ethics. 15 Williams. 170. 182. 7. Ethics. 174. . Ethics. 16. 13 Williams. 34 Ricoeur. 31 Ricoeur. 177. 178. 4. 181. trans. 32 Ricoeur. 14 Williams.10 Bernard Williams. 194. Ethics. Ethics. 27 Williams.

45 Habermas. 204. Christian Lenhardt and Shierry Weber Nicholsen (Cambridge. and the Moral Employments of Practical Reason.” 203.” 9. MA: MIT Press. . Ciaran P. 50 Habermas.” 196. Phenomenology.” 5. 44 Hegel. Oneself as Another. 39 Ricoeur.” 195. 49 Habermas.36 Ricoeur. 38 Ricoeur. Oneself as Another. “Moral Employments of Practical Reason. MA: MIT Press. “Morality and Ethical Life. 365–74. 71 MORALITY AND ETHICS 37 Ricoeur. 53 Habermas. 218. 41 Habermas lays out these objections in “Morality and Ethical Life: Does Hegel’s Critique of Kant Apply to Discourse Ethics?” which appears in Habermas. 1990). 366. 46 Hegel. Justification and Application. “Moral Employments of Practical Reason. Oneself as Another. 54 Habermas. trans. Phenomenology. 43 Habermas. 221. Phenomenology. the Ethical.” 196. 52 Habermas. “Morality and Ethical Life. Cronin (Cambridge. “Morality and Ethical Life.” 8. 48 Habermas. 42 See Hegel. 40 Ricoeur. 221. 47 Habermas. 51 Habermas argues this in “On the Pragmatic. Moral Consciousness and Communicative Action. “Morality and Ethical Life. “Morality and Ethical Life. trans. 170.” 196. “Morality and Ethical Life.” in Habermas. Oneself as Another. Oneself as Another. 233. “Moral Employments of Practical Reason.” 204. 1993).

1991). ed. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and .” 101. 65 Habermas.” 4. “Moral Employments of Practical Reason. 74 Jürgen Habermas. “Moral Employments of Practical Reason. Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 67 Habermas. “Discourse Ethics. 59 Habermas. B. 74. “Discourse Ethics. W.” 9. 69–70. 70 Paul Ricoeur. Elements of the Philosophy of Right. 68 Habermas. F.” 72. 61 Habermas.” 12. 1991). 73 Hegel.” in The Communicative Ethics Controversy. Philosophy of Right. H. Nisbet. 63 Habermas. “Discourse Ethics. “Morality and Ethical Life. Philosophical Investigations. trans. From Text to Action. 72 G. Kathleen Blamey and John B. M.” in Ricoeur. 22. 58 Jürgen Habermas. “Discourse Ethics.” 12. “Moral Employments of Practical Reason. 1981). “Discourse Ethics. 62 Habermas. 1953). 57 Habermas. Hegel.” in Williams. 64 Habermas. Thompson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 71 Bernard Williams. Anscombe (Oxford: Basil Blackwell.” 203. trans.” 210. trans. Allen Wood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2. “Moral Luck.55 Habermas. G. “Morality and Ethical Life. 62. “Discourse Ethics. “Discourse Ethics: Notes on a Program of Philosophical Justification.” 100. 69 Ludwig Wittgenstein. “Moral Employments of Practical Reason. E. 66 Habermas.” 96. “Moral Employments of Practical Reason. 81. 60 Habermas. 56 Habermas.” 4.” 100. “On Interpretation.” 101.

Democracy. trans. 322–23. 72 ROBERT PIERCEY . MA: MIT Press. William Rehg (Cambridge. 1994).