Moral theory and moral alienation

Journal of Philosophy 84 (2):102-118 (1987)
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Most moral theories share certain features in common with other theories. They consist of a set of propositions that are universal, general, and hence impartial. The propositions that constitute a typical moral theory are (1) universal, in that they apply to all subjects designated as within their scope. They are (2) general, in that they include no proper names or definite descriptions. They are therefore (3) impartial, in that they accord no special privilege to any particular agent's situation which cannot be justified under (2) and (3). These three features do not distinguish moral theories from other theories, nor indeed from most general categorical propositions we assert. Yet, in recent years, these features of moral theories have been the target of a certain concerted and sustained criticism, namely, that to be committed to such a moral theory, or to aspire to act in accordance with its requirements, results in what has come to be known as moral alienation. Moral alienation, according to this criticism, consists in (i) viewing one's ground projects from an impersonal, "moral point of view" engendered by one's acceptance of the theory; (ii) being prepared to sacrifice these projects to the requirements of moral principle; and (iii) making such a sacrifice specifically and self-consciously in order to conform to these requirements. Moral alienation is said to manifest itself in one (or both) of two ways, depending on the nature of the project thus susceptible to sacrifice. One may be alienated from oneself, if the project consists of tastes, convictions, or aspirations that are centrally definitive of one's self. In this case one's commitment to the project can be at best conditional on its congruence with one's moral theory. It is claimed that this must make for a rather tepid and unenthusiastic commitment indeed. Alternatively, one may be alienated from others, if the project is an interpersonal relationship such as a friendship, marriage, or collegial relationship. In this case one's responses to the other are motivated by one's awareness of what one's moral theory requires. It is claimed that this obstructs a genuine and unmediated emotional response to the other as such. My aim here will be to argue that this very compelling criticism - call it the moral-alienation criticism - is nevertheless misdirected. The real culprit is not any particular moral theory, but rather a certain familiar personality type that may or may not adopt it.

Author's Profile

Adrian M. S. Piper
APRA Foundation, Berlin


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