Why should we follow moral norms


Clarification of the problem

Does the special obligation character of moral norms arise from a special kind of reasonable justification or are sanctions constitutive for moral normativity?
In order to answer this question, one has to know what the terms mentioned, ie “norm”, “sanction”, “morality”, “justification” mean and how they are related. The most general definition of the subject is given by the concept of morality. Through the given question of what should be said, the investigation is restricted to that aspect of morality according to which it consists in a system of norms and whose characteristic is a kind of priority. This specification steers the further questions in a certain direction. So that this does not lead to restrictions, this aspect should be viewed in the context of the other aspects of morality.

One can distinguish at least three aspects of morality: form, content and motivation. Our topic concerns the form of morality, which includes the fact that it occurs in norms, that we make moral value judgments in an objective language, etc. The content today is a kind of universalistic point of view, according to which all people are to be given equal consideration, supplemented by one certain extension to animals. The internalized social sanctions as well as altruistic attitudes belong to the motivation, in traditional morals also the belief in a higher norm authority.

If one proceeds from the aspect of form and here normativity, one could define morality by the fact that it consists of norms that claim priority over other reasons for action. Or from the point of view of the individual, that these are norms that they should obey in a strong sense or that they are obliged to obey. Then the question arises what the meaning of this obligation is. And further, since this obligation is supposed to trump one's own interests, how this meaning can be determined more precisely in such a way that it makes understandable or justifies how an individual can come to act against his interests.

The debate so far

Most philosophical moral theories, both in history and today, have one or the other unequivocal thesis on this. Some authors like R. Joyce or N. Scarano define morality in terms of the force of moral norms or reasons. According to Kant, the justification of the moral commandments lies in the self-legislation of pure reason, which takes the form of an absolute obligation towards a being who also has sensual impulses. According to Ch. Korsgaard, categorical obligations arise from the reasonably reflective self-conception that creates moral self-obligations. Against such categorical positions, P. Stemmer takes the view that moral norms are hypothetical norms, they do not express an ought but a must. According to Stemmer, in moral norms this is specifically related to avoiding the sanction of not being accepted by the community, a goal which, however, cannot be given up with empirical generality. E. Tugendhat's position is also hypothetical; He defines the moral norms through the connection with internalized moral sanctions, whereby the norm system including its connection with sanctions must be mutually justifiable as desirable.

In the meantime there are also a number of less concise, but more complex and more experience-saturated theories that attempt to take up empirical research in evolutionary theory, neurophysiology, psychology and sociology, and I think that we are gradually becoming aware of this research in German moral philosophy as well should take and work in.

The supposed impact of moral norms

Moral norms are often characterized by being categorical or inevitable or resounding. That they are categorical in some sense is true. Because in their usual linguistic usage they do not have the hypothetical form “To reach X you have to do y”, but the form “In situations of type S, the following applies: Action X is forbidden (required)”. But this applies in a similar way to all rules of action that are not purpose-related, not only for moral norms, but also for conventional rules such as rules of etiquette or traffic rules.

Can the moral norms then be distinguished from other norms by the fact that they are inevitable? This is also true in a sense insofar as their content is related to an area of ​​action from which one cannot stay out. But that too is not a sufficient characteristic. You cannot exclude yourself from traffic or behavioral rules. Even those who do not drive a car are still subject to rules as a pedestrian or cyclist, and everyone who moves around other people eats, dresses and thus does things that fall under social etiquette. The argument could then only be that behavior is not as central to social acceptance as morality, the observance of which determines whether one is accepted as a member of society. But with rules of etiquette as much as with moral norms, that depends on the group to which you want to belong. For example, if you want to be accepted in an upper class of society, you must not only achieve success but also meet certain rules of dress and behavior. Those who do not want to meet these standards can of course do without belonging to this group. But just as well, anyone who does not want to obey the norms of universalistic morality, but, for example, takes a position that pays less attention to foreigners, can get out of the group of universalists and join xenophobic circles.

Can one then exclude the moral norms by trumpeting all other kinds of norms, by having a special kind of impact? This thesis points to an important point, which, firstly, it sees too strongly and, secondly, only affects its effects, instead of first explaining its meaning and origin.

First, it is not the case that moral norms or reasons trump all other norms or reasons. They do not beat all norms, because in the liberal constitutional state it is rather the legal norms that provide the framework within which individuals are allowed to realize their moral ideas. Nor do they suggest any other kind of reason. The origin of action are individuals who decide how they want to act. This is done through a practical reflection on the good life, in which all aspects of the situation can be included and weighed up. From the individual action perspective, moral reasons are just one type of reason alongside others that do not always automatically have the greatest weight.

Second, however, is that we attach relatively great importance to moral reasons, not because of the mysterious penetration of moral norms, but because we accept a certain point of view as regards content, the point of view that everyone as persons who have to lead their own life, must be taken into account. The fact that moral norms are decisive is not a primary fact, but only a consequence of this substantive standpoint of universalistic-egalitarian morality. This point of view implies that we want all individuals to be able to pursue their own good lives, and this attitude, in turn, can only be consistently represented if we are prepared to take everyone into consideration in this regard, i.e. at least norms of non-violation to adhere to the fundamental aspects of the good life of others.

What remains of the priority thesis is that we only designate a person as a moral person if he grants everyone the same right to pursue his own good life and is prepared to take basic considerations, in particular not to intervene in it. To what extent a person's morality also includes a deferment of one's own wishes in favor of the support of others is debatable and remains a question of assessment. But also the basic moral reasons for not hurting follow for the individual like all other reasons from certain own attitudes and can thus be considered in special cases in the context of his other reasons for action. But if the precedence says nothing more than that a person with moral attitudes normally assigns a certain weight to the moral reasons, then we do not find a strong moral ought here.

What other explanations of such an ought are there? Two possibilities determine the debate. One possibility is that it has a special justification status, the other that it expresses social sanctioning. It seems to me advisable to limit the term sanction to this second possibility - social sanctioning - and not to designate every negative consequence of action, such as missing a purpose or committing an inconsistency, as a sanction, because otherwise this term loses its specific function.

Is the special feature of moral obligation based on an excellent reason?

If one looks at traditional moral concepts, morality is understood in such a way that the norms are based on myth or religion, i.e. are understood as given by gods or other higher powers. The talk of the obligatory character of the norms has a clear meaning here. The norms are issued by a higher authority that is believed in. They are founded in such a way that they are given by a power in which one believes. Since higher powers can also observe human action where other people do not know anything about it, there is also fear in such situations of arousing the wrath of the superhuman authority and, as a result, negative reactions. Since such convictions are constitutive for the identity of traditional societies, the individuals can also reciprocally refer to the common self-image and make moral demands in its name. The sense of obligation is then ultimately explained by the fear of normative authority and the possibility of being punished by it. These sanctions, similar to those in law, may be externally linked to the act. The identification with the authority, through which one sees oneself as valuable, since it represents a superhuman power, can at the same time give rise to internal sanctions in that one sees oneself as worthless and feels shame if one falls short of the accepted values.

It is obvious and is often seen in such a way that as a result of this fact moral norms and obligations lose ground if the belief in higher authorities is lost in enlightened times. More specifically for the European Enlightenment in the 18th century: The weakening of the Christian religion and the incipient liberal appreciation of diverse individual life plans lead to the questioning of the previous normative authority. How can the moral obligation be saved, or can it be saved at all?

The external sanctions are now being transferred to the legal system. Morality is no longer externally sanctioned, but one could consider whether the internal sanction can not be saved. It seems that even in enlightened times people experience themselves as worthless if they lag behind a moral concept with which they identify. However, it would have to be explained why lagging behind a self-chosen concept of life can trigger feelings of disworthiness of similar strength as the motivating sanction before. Furthermore, concepts of life contain components that are not morally specific. The failure of projects or the failure of relationships can lead to feelings of inferiority.

If, however, feelings of shame or lack of self-worth need not have any moral content, then firstly they do not help to exclude the specifically moral ought. Second, it is questionable whether these feelings can be meaningfully understood as sanctions in the given description. A sanction presupposes a sanctioning authority that does not simply coincide with the acting person. There must then either be a part or aspect in the person that has a special value, or there must be an authority outside the person who can establish norms and ensure compliance with them through sanctions. Kant takes the first path, the second the conception of moral norms as reciprocal social demands.

Kant makes a demanding attempt to save a special moral ought under enlightened conditions. First of all, this has the meaning of an excellent justification from pure reason. At the same time, however, Kant must show how this ought is possible. To this end, he tries to transfer the concept of autonomy, which was previously used in states that are independent of other states and which have their own laws, to individuals by understanding the individual, insofar as he participates in the world of pure reason, as the norm subject which takes a practical principle from the mere form of the law of reason, which has a form of obligation for itself qua instinctual being. This attempt to replace Christian authority with something comparable does not succeed, since all members of liberal society do not need to believe in pure reason in a supersensible world any more than in Christian morality. As Schopenhauer rightly stated against Kant, the legal form comes from the idea of ​​an authority, and it remains strange that as a member of two worlds one can give oneself commandments from a higher level. Kant's experiment, which is understandable under certain historical conditions, is not very attractive today. Apart from the internal conceptual problems of the Kantian construction, the increasing neurophysiological and evolutionary theoretical knowledge about the origin and functioning of the human brain speaks in favor of an empirically founded concept of reason. What has been explained here on the basis of the Kantian position applies analogously to all other attempts to derive what is special about moral normativity from a strong, non-empirical concept of reason. If the moral obligation cannot be a rational ought in a distinctive sense and neither can it be an authoritarian ought, but viewed from the original context of the ought there must be a kind of normative authority from which the moral norms emerge and which sanctions them, all that remains is that this instance are the other members of the society. So it seems that authoritarian morality could be avoided by reciprocity; H. so that all are mutually normative authorities and the origin of sanctions for one another.

Moral obligation as social sanction?

Let us therefore assume that the moral ought lies in the psycho-social anchoring of the norms, i.e. in the fact that in the event of violations, special sanctions, censure and outrage against others or self-reproach and feelings of guilt arise in one's own case. However, a number of difficulties then arise. On the one hand, there is not a sufficient criterion here either: Not all norms associated with psychosocial pressure are moral norms (think of the norms of the performance society). If one specifies that these are the norms that define what a good community member or a good cooperation partner is, two further problems follow: First, morality is limited to cooperation rules in the narrower sense, which means that consideration for non-cooperative beings as well the consideration of non-cooperative aspects of the life of community members is excluded. Second, the reference to social sanctioning only makes sense within a real community.

As the first problem shows, the universality of our present point of view cannot be explained from the form, but only from the content of morality. Most moral theories that focus on normativity blur these two aspects; for them subjects and objects of morality coincide. According to these conceptions, beings could perhaps also be counted among the objects of morality who are only potential members of the moral community which generates and enforces norms. In this way, however, the extension of morality to animals, which has meanwhile become obvious to many, cannot be made understandable. The moral norms of content that are widely accepted today relate to all fundamental aspects of consideration, and without prejudice objects of consideration are all who can be considered, i.e. all who are capable of suffering. This corresponds to empirical studies, according to which moral situations are identified by many test subjects by the fact that they are about the well-being of others, about not violating them and respecting their rights.

The second problem points to a gap between the extent of the content of morality and the extent to which it is sanctioned.It is true that one can counter the well-known objection that where there is little risk of discovering a moral violation there is a lack of social sanction by referring to the internalization of the sanction, the feelings of guilt or the guilty conscience that will arise. This answer does not help, however, when it comes to objects of morality that are spatially or temporally distant. For reasons of principle, members of future generations cannot be the origin of sanctions, and people who live in geographically distant communities are, at least in fact, not. The social pressure with which one is socialized primarily affects actions within the real community and loses its strength with greater distance. But then it would have to apply accordingly to its internalization or the moral motivation explained in this way that it becomes weaker with increasing distance.

Thus, the reference to the psychosocial sanctioning of moral norms cannot fully grasp not only the content, but also the motivational dimension of morality. However, the question of moral motivation must be clarified if we want to clarify the nature of the moral obligation more precisely. Because the question of why one should or must act morally in a certain situation in which strong reasons for one's own well-being speak against it also arises for that area in which form and content coincide. As Aristotle clearly saw, for the individual the moral act, like any other act, is fundamentally in the context of his or her life as a whole and from this perspective is a matter of practical consideration with reference to one's own good life.

The answer has already been mentioned in connection with the priority thesis: Acting morally means restricting the pursuit of one's own good life in favor of the welfare of others. Because it is enormously important for the functioning of society that morality is observed, the system of internal sanctions as a formal aspect of morality has developed in relation to this content. But one can ask oneself whether this system alone guarantees an effective or at all meaningful anchoring of moral principles. Sanctioning moral affects do not have absolute strength. If you experience it, if you can only achieve one of your goals by violating a moral norm, then you might think about what's worse for your life as a whole, the feeling of guilt or the frustration at giving up the goal.

Here, too, ancient ethics offers a much more meaningful picture of moral motivation. What is generated by moral socialization are primarily character dispositions, with good socialization virtues that ensure that people consistently act according to the norms because they have internalized suitable positive motives for action, the focus on a good, and incorporated them into their self-image. The feeling of guilt would then not be something of its own, which is introduced as a sanction with the norm, but it would be the downside of a positive attitude, the breaking of which triggers a negative self-assessment. That the moral sanction works in this way, in the context of positive motives internalized in virtues, and not as a mere negative sanction for breaking a norm, also seems psychologically more understandable.

The primary positive motive that can establish a morality of consideration for the well-being of all seem to be altruistic feelings, as they initially appear within concrete relationships of kinship and friendship, in which mutual expectations develop. A non-emphatic concept of ought or must and obligation can be introduced here. One partner in such a relationship can make requests or demands (or, in the case of beings who cannot do so, implicitly expect something); The other person, where he does not meet such a justified expectation, can develop a feeling of guilt that he is violating emotional ties that he himself has entered into and which he generally affirms. These affective reactions would hardly be called sanctions, the exertion of social pressure, on a daily basis. Rather, they are consequences of the action due to a relationship that exists between two people.

As Schopenhauer rightly noted, one can only come from here to a generalized virtue of human love if one thinks about the nature of life in general and adopts the view that every sentient being on earth strives for its own Arguably is at risk of suffering and deserves compassion. In this way, unlike the theory of sanctions, both the universalization of the content and the motivation for morality can be explained. While the social pressure decreases with distance, the reference to a reflective positive attitude can explain why, for example, someone can also be helpful to someone they may only see once in a lifetime.

Now there are moral areas to which altruistic attitudes are less suitable. There are actions that, as such, create obligations, namely promises and contracts. These constitute an ought that initially does not need to have any special weight with regard to the content of morality, to one's well-being. You can make an absolutely trivial promise to someone whose failure to fulfill not much depends. Still, one would say that once one has made the promise, one is bound by it. Do we then encounter the special moral ought here?

What is at hand here is first of all the everyday narrow sense of obligation, according to which one can explicitly enter into certain obligations. The content here is not norms or a system of norms, but concrete actions that are promised to another person, in such a way that one decides in this regard, disregarding current and later own interests. Now the institution of promise of this kind constitutes mutual reliability, which must exist if social interaction and cooperation is to be possible, and accordingly there will be social pressure with regard to the development of a reliable attitude. As far as the individual acts of fulfilling or breaking a promise are concerned, promises made to strangers often take the form of institutionalized agreements that are linked to external sanctions, that is, become part of the law. Within personal relationships, it seems less a sanctioning affect than a decline in trust and other informal reactions as a result of a breach of promise.

In any case, being obliged does not directly imply such a sanction or reaction, but being obliged in this sense is simply what is constituted by the act of promising. Moreover, despite the social importance, there is no absolute obligation here either. The fulfillment of a promise, if there are strong reasons of another kind against it, can also be the subject of a practical consideration. Nevertheless, it is part of the practice of making a promise that it justifies a cessation of reliability by the fact that promises are normally viewed as unbalanced. Again, the basis of this attitude cannot be knowledge of the danger of social pressure and a guilty conscience. The justification is similar to that given for general consideration, but now does not concern altruistic attitudes towards all beings capable of suffering, but rather the more specific respect for beings capable of reciprocity. It can only lie in the reflected notion that all people live a life and are dependent in some respects on the behavior of others for the success of life, and consequently can only make plans with the involvement of others if there are some reliable agreements.

What is left of morality?

As a result of the question of a special moral ought I can now state: There is an obligation in a normal, non-emphatic sense on the basis of justified expectations within personal affective ties and in the manner of justified expectations that are based on an explicit promise. In addition, an expanded concept of obligation arises in the construction of a universalized positive attitude for the good of all, which is only partially connected with social sanctions and can therefore also best be understood as an implication of a positive attitude developed by the individual. In all cases it is not about an absolute ought / must, but one that can basically be weighed against other types of reasons in a practical consideration of one's own good life. The moral ought could at best correspond to the universalized concept of obligation. Then does the way I have described it mean that the moral obligation is ultimately a kind of self-commitment? That doesn't seem to make much sense. This manner of speaking would lead back to a kind of Kantian model, according to which one part of us could give the other rules. Then all that remains is that the positive attitude for the good of all does not represent a special ought, but a reflected will.

But if moral reasons are based on one's own attitudes of will, do not they become reasons like everyone else, and is the specificity of morality not completely lost? I do not think so. According to my suggestion, what is specific about morality lies in the content of expanded altruism. It can only lie in this content and not in the sanctioned nature, the psychosocial pressure, because, as shown, it also exists in other areas. The specifically moral guilt feelings are not internal sanctions, but only the downside of friendship or other positive attitudes towards another being, in other words, just one aspect in an affective conglomerate that defines such a bond.

A view that fixes morality to the isolated moral affects of indignation and guilt is much more likely to collapse if we should come to the insight that this system has evolved for reasons of evolutionary utility which is or is dubious under today's conditions at least with the insight into its contingency loses its persuasiveness. Since feelings of guilt and social pressure are bothersome, one could try to immunize oneself against this pressure and get rid of the feelings of guilt. On the other hand, one cannot get rid of the pre-moral feelings of guilt that arise against the background of altruistic ties if one is interested in positive relationships with others.

I am careful here and leave it to this "if". Philosophers are responsible for general matters and therefore like to make general statements. But the empirical evidence often looks more diverse. In the psychological theory of motivation, it is assumed that there are different basic types of motivation such as power, performance, connection (desire to bond) and that one type dominates in some people and the other in others. People whose motivation to follow up is weak are likely to have less strong generalized altruistic attitudes. Since most people will have a mixture of different types of motivation, it is generally true for all of these types that there is a problem of weighting between the reasons for action arising from them. A moral character will be attributed to those people who have developed a universalized altruistic attitude and only lag behind this where an action means renouncing important personal wishes for life. Since everyone only has one life, it remains to be seen where the exact line is to be drawn between wishes for one's own good life and the demands of generalized altruism and which actions one would describe as not only morally correct, but also supererogatory.

Text slightly shortened by the editorial staff. The original text with footnotes and references appears in: Eva Buddeberg and Achim Vesper (eds.), Moral und Sanktion, Campus Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2011 (expected).


Ursula Wolf is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Mannheim.