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Overridingness, Moral
Joshua Gert
Morality is one normative domain among many. That is, not only can we assess
actions as morally right or wrong, or as morally good or bad, but we can also assess
them as legal or illegal, prudent or imprudent, or as prohibited or required by the
rules of etiquette. It is quite obvious that these assessments need not always favor
and disfavor precisely the same actions. For example, it might be morally required in
some cases to perform an action that is prohibited by law, or – some might suggest –
it might be imprudent to do something morally good. The thesis of moral
overridingness is the thesis that moral verdicts are always in some sense supreme
whenever they come into conflict with the verdicts of a distinct normative domain.
This general thesis can be understood in a number of ways. To begin with, we need
to offer an interpretation of the claim that one verdict overrides another. One might
interpret this claim as entailing that, in conflicts of verdicts, it is irrational to go
against the moral verdict (see rationality). Or, one might interpret it as the claim
that the totality of practical reasons, taken together, always uniquely favors acting in
line with a moral verdict, even though it may not always be irrational to act in ways
that are not uniquely favored in this way (see reasons; satisficing). In making the
overridingness thesis clear, one also needs to specify which verdicts are relevant.
Very often, the thesis is understood as restricted to claims about conflicts of
requirements. This is an important restriction, since morality can yield the verdict
that an action would be morally good without being morally required. For example,
in many views, we are not morally required to volunteer our free time doing
charitable activity. In such views, morality favors such action, but does not require it
(see supererogation). On a common interpretation of the overridingness thesis,
the fact that morality favors such action does not imply that there would be anything
problematic in deciding against such a morally good action, and performing some
other action instead: say, an action that would do a better job of promoting one’s
own interests.
Something similar to the thesis that morality is overriding appears as early
as  the first extended philosophical discussions of virtue and justice. Plato’s
Republic (359d–360b) famously contests the view that profitable injustice is to be
preferred when it can be done with impunity. Hobbes (1994 [1651]: Book 1, Chs.
13, 14), similarly, tried to show that injustice was always a bad idea from the
perspective of self-interest. And Kant (1993 [1785]: Ch. 2) argued that the demands
of morality are categorical in a way that no other demands can be. Sidgwick
(1981 [1907]: 508), on the other hand, had grave doubts about the possibility of
demonstrating, in a non-question-begging way, that the impartial perspective

The International Encyclopedia of Ethics. Edited by Hugh LaFollette, print pages 3764–3770.
© 2013 Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Published 2013 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
DOI: 10.1002/ 9781444367072.wbiee010

“the done thing” is to answer invitations that are written in the third person by accepting in the third person. However. the thesis of categoricity seems either false. their fair treatment. However. The requirements of etiquette are similar in this respect. or insufficient to support morality’s claim to supremacy. However. this “just plain ought” is an incoherent fiction. and recognize that the demands of morality will necessarily be backed by decisive reason only for those who have a sufficiently strong contingent commitment to its ends – to the welfare of other people. however. since. in a way that is false of the requirements of etiquette. that their applicability does not depend on our contingent ends or desires. . the interests of others. However. according to Foot. unsurprisingly. to include. whether or not it furthers any of one’s goals. Foot raises important problems for this strategy. there simply is no guarantee that a morally required act always is supported by decisive reasons. says Foot. for instance. and our temptation to appeal to it is best explained by an upbringing that. When it is spelled out more explicitly. If “categorical” simply means “not dependent on our contingent ends. rather than hypothetical: that is. Foot’s suggestion is that we simply abandon that ambition. then one “just plain ought” to do it. mysterious.2 characteristic of morality was to be preferred even to a strictly egoistic perspective. A common way of attempting to show that morality is in some sense a supreme set of norms is to point out that its commands are categorical. Contemporary discussion of moral overridingness might be said to begin with Philippa Foot’s “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives” (1972). we do not withdraw the claim that our friend should not cheat on her taxes just because we are reliably informed that she does not have any ends that would be furthered by filling out her tax forms honestly. not specifically addressed by Foot. and so on.” then we can truly say that moral verdicts are categorical imperatives. this kind of categoricity seems purely grammatical. This strategy encounters other problems. Mill also held the view that we humans are psychologically determined to pursue only what we perceive to be best for us individually. Rather than vainly try to defend the categorical nature of morality in any of the preceding ways. One way of blocking this argument is to extend the notion of a practical reason beyond the realm of interests and subjective desires. instilled in us a sense of the great importance of morality. this need not  undermine the importance of morality. reasons stem only from our objective interests and subjective desires. there remains the thought that if one is morally required to perform some action. Foot’s second interpretation of “categorical” is “guaranteed to be backed by decisive reasons. And utilitarians such as Mill (2001 [1861]: 31–3) were positively clear that the morally correct action might be very different from the action that would produce the greatest benefit to the agent. After all.” However. especially to those who have this commitment. Finally. This argument by Foot touched off a wave of attempts to show that morality is in fact overriding in some significant way. and that does not depend on the action furthering one’s interests or desires.

even if it is true that moral verdicts take all the relevant practical reasons into account. and can be viewed as all-things-considered verdicts (Becker 1973). it is important to distinguish overridingness from inescapability. A second problem for the strategy of assuming that morality is all-inclusive is that. those verdicts might not take . it still might be that. or a club to which one still belongs. one would still be doing something morally wrong – one would therefore not have “escaped” morality – but one might nevertheless be justified in a more comprehensive way: for example. this strategy. that keeping the promise would involve significant hardship that was unforeseen at the time the promise was initially made. there are two worries about this line of thought. moral verdicts do take considerations regarding self-interest into account. On such occasions. from this conclusion. It can thus appear that moral verdicts take other things into account. at least in cases of conflict between its verdicts and those of some other domain. one might point out that there seem to be religious people who are honestly committed to morality. then it may seem that one can defend the overridingness of morality by noting that while verdicts regarding self-interest do not take moral considerations into account. The first is that morality may simply not take everything into account. Against this strategy. according to which the reasons we have do depend on our contingent commitments. It is a common claim that certain considerations – ones that might in fact have a psychological pull on us – are morally irrelevant. Hence. it is a short step to the further conclusion that what one ought to do – full stop – is what morality requires. the rules of a club. Some have attempted to defend a weakened version of the overridingness thesis. which is in some sense a psychological hypothesis. even if there is no escape from morality in this sense. one has sufficient reasons to justify violating its requirements – just as one might have such reasons to violate the laws of a country in which one is living. If any of these claims are true. say. seems falsified by empirical evidence. For example. It would take much more than a simple appeal to a handful of cases in which self-interest is morally relevant to establish that none of the considerations that are morally irrelevant are ever themselves genuine practical reasons. Shiffrin 1999). but for whom religious requirements trump all other concerns. or from the laws of a particular country from which one can escape by emigrating. The central conflict that most theorists have in mind when discussing the overridingness of morality is the conflict between morality and self-interest.3 In arguing for the overridingness of moral verdicts. However. To say that morality is inescapable is to distinguish it from. it can count as a moral justification for the violation of a promise. one might be either rationally required or rationally justified in acting in a way that morality condemns. considerations of self-defense can sometimes morally justify the injury of other people. However. Similarly. but according to which any genuine commitment to morality entails regarding it as one’s most important commitment (Phillips 1977. And. If this is what one is primarily thinking about. this means that morality does not in fact take them into account. from which one can escape by resigning. on some occasions.

this is consistent with the fact that one may have instrumental reasons to act in line with such requirements: say. each quite independent of the other (see Haji 1998 and McLeod 2001). is that whenever an action is morally required. That is. For example. This interpretation begins with the idea that there is a domain of generic practical reasons – reasons that have some power to require us to act. acting against moral requirements. prudence. Nor could there ever be a conflict between morality and  rationality on this view. This would happen if morality took self-interest into account. and combines them to yield an all-things-considered verdict. These are reasons against murder – reasons that presumably should be taken into account by any verdict issued by the overarching domain of rationality. The preceding problem with the verdict-based interpretation of overridingness leads to another way of thinking of overridingness. but discounted its importance to some degree. and etiquette. and some power to justify us in acting against other such reasons. One apparent problem with the view that the overarching domain of rationality takes the verdicts of the special domains as inputs is that those verdicts are presumably backed by reasons. to say that morality takes considerations of self-interest into account – as the preceding examples show is sometimes true – is not yet to say that those very same self-interested considerations might not justify. if the moral wrongness of the murder also counts as a reason relevant to an overall assessment. these reasons seem to be counted twice. The overridingness thesis is that whenever one of these input verdicts is “morally required. say. It should be noted that this interpretation of the . that same action is favored by reasons that somehow outweigh – or decisively oppose in some other way. which we might call “rationality.” This system takes as input the overall verdicts of special domains such as morality. What is distinctive about this interpretation is that the overall verdicts of each special normative domain are treated as distinct reasons. It also holds that the rational status of an action is determined by some function of these reasons. except the overarching domain of rationality that gives sense to  the overridingness thesis. One common way of thinking of the overridingness thesis is in terms of an overarching normative system. then the bare verdicts of certain normative domains might be shown not to entail the existence of any reason whatsoever. if one wishes to placate a powerful person who takes such requirements very seriously. verdicts of prudence or self-interest do. some plausible reasons why murder is wrong are that it deprives someone of some part of the life he or she would otherwise have lived. To take those verdicts themselves as reasons seems to involve an objectionable double-counting. For example. However. what one would need to show. and of thinking of rationality as an overarching normative system. If one takes this view. in order to demonstrate that morality is overriding. and that it causes suffering to the friends and family of the person who is killed. Of course.4 them into account in the same way in which. This would be enough to show that moral verdicts defeat the conflicting verdicts of any other normative domain. in some more comprehensive way. it may be that a requirement of etiquette just by itself provides no such reason.” then the all-things-considered verdict – the verdict of rationality – favors that action. such as by undermining – the reasons favoring any contrary action. On the reasons-based approach to moral overridingness.

at least in part. Of course. then the only kind of moral theory that could possibly vindicate overridingness is a theory on which moral requirements are simply a subset (perhaps a maximal subset) of those actions uniquely favored by reasons. The problem then remains the same: from the general perspective. These reasons are simply very different from the reasons of relevance to the decision of a specific agent regarding the choice of a particular action in particular circumstances. and requires us to act in the ways maximally favored by such reasons. and may yield a verdict at odds with the moral one. For if the claim of moral overridingness is simply the claim that a morally required action is always uniquely favored by the totality of relevant reasons. the incompatibility of the overridingness thesis with a contractualist theory by itself does not indicate which of the two ought to be abandoned or modified. Stroud argues persuasively that overridingness. Sarah Stroud illustrates this problem by asking us to consider a series of moral views. the idea that overridingness should be understood simply in terms of the weight of all relevant practical reasons also faces troubles – at least for those who advocate the overridingness thesis. At least this is true if. The reasons that favor choosing such a system under certain hypothetical circumstances will derive. is incompatible with various moral theories. these “discounted” reasons become undiscounted. for example. Even a purely consequentialist moral theory. may create problems for the defender of moral overridingness (see consequentialism). Suppose then that we allow self-interested reasons some weight in the moral theory – but not the full weight they receive from the general perspective on reasons that is unattached to any special normative domain. her point can be carried further than she carries it. However. This is the thesis that moral requirements are somehow the product of rationality (Nagel 1970: 3. as Stroud believes.5 overridingness thesis is very closely related to the thesis of moral rationalism (see rationalism in ethics). The problem that this view presents for the overridingness thesis is that the reasons that are excluded by this moral theory return to claim their due when we turn to consider what action is favored by the totality of reasons. And there is no reason to believe that they cannot yield a verdict that is opposed to the moral verdict. Korsgaard 1986: 5). which considers the agent’s interests as equal to the interests of other people. for the choice of the set of rules is not even the choice of an action – it is the choice of a comprehensive system. However. from the consequences of that system being generally known and accepted. The first such view takes only other-regarding reasons into account. “all else being equal. a contractualist theory that explains moral requirements in terms of a set of rules that rational people would agree on in certain hypothetical circumstances (see contractualism). There is absolutely no reason to suppose that an action required by such a set of rules will also always be maximally favored by the available reasons in the actual circumstances in which an agent must decide how to act. a person’s reasons for pursuing her own aims are stronger than her reasons to advance someone else’s” (Stroud 1998: 183). Consider. . interpreted in terms of reasons. And there is no reason to think that the action favored by the favored system will also independently be uniquely favored by the available reasons in those particular circumstances.

6 A weaker hypothesis. One way of defending this position would be to appeal to incommensurability of reasons (see incommensurability (and incomparability)). reasons. 86–106. 82. 772–94. Henry 1981 [1907]. “In Search of the Moral ‘Must’: Mrs Foot’s Fugitive Thought. Christine 1986.” Philosophical Review. vol. vol. incommensurability (and incomparability). Owen 2001. pp.” Philosophical Quarterly. then it is possible that one might never be required to act contrary to morality. If the reasons that favor a morally required action are always incommensurable with the reasons that stand behind other reason-backed verdicts such as the verdicts of prudence or self-interest. 161–80. 27. 27. Ishtiyaque 1998. Haji. Z. Indianapolis: Hackett. “On Morality’s Dethronement.” Journal of Philosophy. Nagel. rationality. ed. Philippa 1972. See also: consequentialism. vol.” Philosophical Review. and therefore the totality of relevant reasons will not uniquely favor acting contrary to morality. Lawrence 1973. Phillips. Princeton: Princeton University Press.” Philosophical Papers. John Stuart 2001 [1861]. David 1997. supererogation REFERENCES Becker. Seana 1999. and justifying action that the agent would otherwise be required not to perform. . Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. 14. vol. then those latter reasons will not be stronger than the moral reasons. vol. 1977. vol. McLeod. Shiffrin. 5–25. Leviathan.” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly. pp. pp. ed. FURTHER READINGS Copp. “Moral Overridingness and Moral Theory. 170–89. ed. pp. “Moral Overridingness and Moral Subjectivism. 79. Thomas 1970. “Just Plain ‘Ought. Indianapolis: Hackett. contractualism. The Possibility of Altruism. “Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives.” Social Philosophy and Policy. vol. Utilitarianism. “The Ring of Gyges: Overridingness and the Unity of Reason. Edwin Curley. D. Thomas 1994 [1651]. “The Finality of Moral Judgments: A Reply to Mrs. Stroud. 140–57.” Ethics. is that if an action is morally required. Korsgaard. Kant. 364–70. James Ellington. The Methods of Ethics. pp. vol. Mill. Sarah 1998. closely related to overridingness. Foot.’” Journal of Ethics. Immanuel 1993 [1785]. then the available reasons never uniquely favor acting contrary to that moral requirement. “Skepticism about Practical Reason. 81. vol. 269–91. pp. Foot. pp. 5. 83. Indianapolis: Hackett. Hobbes. pp. George Sher. satisficing. and if the reasons that stand behind moral requirements always have sufficient strength in the justifying role. Sidgwick. pp. A related suggestion is that generic practical reasons play two roles: requiring action. If this is true. Indianapolis: Hackett. 109. 305–16. rationalism in ethics.

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