Requirements for Moral Judgments


Although there is no complete list of adequacy criteria for moral judgments, moral judgments should be (1) logical, (2) based on facts, and (3) based on sound or defensible moral principles. A moral judgment that is weak on any of these grounds is open to criticism.  

Moral Judgments Should Be Logical.   To say that moral judgments should be logical implies several things. First, as indicated in the discussion of moral reasoning, our moral judgments should follow logically from their premises. The connection between (1) the standard, (2) the conduct or policy, and (3) the moral judgment should be such that 1 and 2 logically entail 3. Our goal is to be able to support our moral judgments with reasons and evidence, rather than basing them solely on emotion, sentiment, or social or personal preference.

Forming logical moral judgments also means ensuring that any particular moral judgment of ours is compatible with our other moral and nonmoral beliefs. We must avoid inconsistency. Most philosophers agree that if we make a moral judgment—for example, that it was wrong of Smith to alter the figures she gave to the outside auditors—then we must be willing to make the same judgment in any similar set of circumstances—that is, if our friend Brown, our spouse, or our father had altered the figures. In particular, we cannot make an exception for ourselves, judging something permissible for us to do while condemning others for doing the same thing.   

Moral Judgments Should Be Based on Facts.   Adequate moral judgments cannot be made in a vacuum. We must gather as much relevant information as possible before making them. For example, an intelligent assessment of the morality of insider trading would require an understanding of, among other things, the different circumstances in which it can occur and the effects it has on the market and on other traders. The information supporting a moral judgment, the facts, should be relevant—that is, the information should actually relate to the judgment; it should be complete, or inclusive of all significant data; and it should be accurate or true.   

Moral Judgments Should Be Based on Acceptable Moral Principles.   We know that moral judgments are based on moral standards. At the highest level of moral reasoning, these standards embody and express very general moral principles. Reliable moral judgments must be based on sound moral principles—principles that can withstand critical scrutiny and rational criticism. What, precisely, makes a moral principle sound or acceptable is one of the most difficult questions that the study of ethics raises. But one criterion is worth mentioning, what philosophers call our “considered moral beliefs.”

These beliefs contrast with beliefs we just happen to hold, perhaps because of ignorance or prejudice. As professor of philosophy Tom Regan puts it, “Our considered beliefs are those we hold only after we have made a conscientious effort (a) to attain maximum conceptual clarity, (b) to acquire all relevant information, (c) to think about the belief and its implications rationally, (d) impartially, and with the benefit of reflection, (e) coolly.” We have grounds to doubt a moral principle when it clashes with such beliefs. Conversely, conformity with our considered moral judgments is good reason for regarding it as provisionally established.

This does not mean that conformity with our considered beliefs is the sole or even basic test of a moral principle, any more than conformity with well-established beliefs is the exclusive or even fundamental test of a scientific hypothesis. (Copernicus’s heliocentric hypothesis, for example, did not conform with what passed in the medieval world as a well-considered belief, the Ptolemaic view that the earth was the center of the universe.) But conformity with our considered beliefs seemingly must play some part in evaluating the many alternative moral principles that are explored in the next chapter.

      Moral Decision Making: Toward a Synthesis 

Theoretical controversies permeate the subject of ethics, and as we have seen, philosophers have proposed rival ways of understanding right and wrong. These philosophical differences of perspective, emphasis, and theory are significant and can have profound practical consequences. This chapter has surveyed some of these issues, but obviously it cannot settle all of the questions that divide moral philosophers. Fortunately, however, many problems of business and organizational ethics can be intelligently discussed and even resolved by people whose fundamental moral theories differ (or who have not yet worked out their own moral ideas in some systematic way). This section discusses some important points to keep in mind when analyzing and discussing business ethics and offers, as a kind of model, one possible procedure for making moral decisions.    

In the abstract, it might seem impossible for people to reach agreement on controversial ethical issues, given that ethical theories differ so much and that people themselves place moral value on different things. Yet in practice moral problems are rarely so intractable that open-minded and thoughtful people cannot, by discussing matters calmly, rationally, and thoroughly, make significant progress toward resolving them. Chapter 1 stressed that moral judgments should be logical, should be based on facts, and should appeal to valid moral principles. Bearing this in mind can often help, especially when various people are discussing an issue and proposing rival answers.     

First, in any moral discussion, make sure participants agree about the relevant facts. Often moral disputes hinge not on matters of moral principle but on differing assessments of what the facts of the situation are, what alternatives are open, and what the probable results of different courses of action will be. For instance, the directors of an international firm might acrimoniously dispute the moral permissibility of a new overseas investment. The conflict might appear to involve some fundamental clash of moral principles and perspectives and yet, in fact, be the result of some underlying disagreement about what effects the proposed investment will have on the lives of the local population. Until this factual disagreement is acknowledged and dealt with, little is apt to be resolved.     

Second, once there is general agreement on factual matters, try to spell out the moral principles to which different people are, at least implicitly, appealing. Seeking to determine these principles will often help people clarify their own thinking enough to reach a solution. Sometimes they will agree on what moral principles are relevant and yet disagree over how to balance them; identifying this discrepancy can itself be useful. Bear in mind, too, that skepticism is in order when someone’s moral stance on an issue appears to rest simply on a hunch or intuition and cannot be related to some more general moral principle. As moral decision makers, we are seeking not just an answer to a moral issue but an answer that can be publicly defended, and the public defense of a moral judgment usually requires an appeal to general principle. By analogy, judges do not hand down judgments simply based on what strikes them as fair in a particular case. They must relate their decisions to general legal principles or statutes.   

A reluctance to defend our moral decisions in public is almost always a warning sign. If we are unwilling to account for our actions publicly, chances are that we are doing something we cannot really justify morally. In addition, Kant’s point that we must be willing to universalize our moral judgments is relevant here. We cannot sincerely endorse a principle if we are not willing to see it applied generally. Unfortunately, we occasionally do make judgments—for example, that Alfred’s being late to work is a satisfactory reason for firing him—that rest on a principle we would be unwilling to apply to our own situations; hence, the moral relevance of the familiar question: “How would you like it if…?” Looking at an issue from the other person’s point of view can cure moral myopia.

    Obligations, Ideals, Effects

As a practical basis for discussing moral issues in organizations, it is useful to try to approach those issues in a way that is acceptable to individuals of diverse moral viewpoints. We want to avoid as much as possible presupposing the truth of one particular theoretical perspective. By emphasizing factors that are relevant to various theories, both consequentialist and nonconsequentialist, we can find some common ground on which moral decision making can proceed. Moral dialogue can thus take place in an objective and analytical way, even if the participants do not fully agree on all philosophical issues.

What concerns, then, seem common to most ethical systems?   Following Professor V. R. Ruggiero, three common concerns suggest themselves. A first concern is with obligations. Every significant human action—personal and professional—arises in the context of human relationships. These relationships can be the source of specific duties and rights. In addition, we are obligated to respect people’s human rights. Obligations bind us. In their presence, morality requires us, at least prima facie, to do certain things and to avoid doing others.

A second concern common to most ethical systems is the impact of our actions on important ideals. An ideal is some morally important goal, virtue, or notion of excellence worth striving for. Clearly, different cultures impart different ideals and, equally important, different ways of pursuing them. Our culture respects virtues like tolerance, compassion, and loyalty, as well as more abstract ideals like peace, justice, fairness, and respect for persons. In addition to these moral ideals, there are institutional or organizational ones: efficiency, productivity, quality, stability, and so forth. Does a particular act serve or violate these ideals? Both consequentialists and nonconsequentialists can agree that this is an important concern in determining the moral quality of actions.

A third common consideration regards the effects of actions. Although nonconsequentialists maintain that things other than consequences or results can affect the rightness or wrongness of actions, few if any of them would ignore consequences entirely. Concern with consequences generally finds a place in ethical theories and certainly in business.

Ruggiero isolated, then, three concerns common to almost all ethical systems: obligations, ideals, and effects. In so doing he provided a kind of practical synthesis of consequentialist and nonconsequentialist thought, which seems appropriate for our concerns. A useful approach to moral questions in an organizational context will therefore reflect these considerations: the obligations that derive from organizational relationships or are affected by organizational conduct, the ideals at stake, and the effects or consequences of alternative courses of action. Any action that honors obligations while respecting ideals and benefiting people can be presumed to be moral. An action that does not pass scrutiny in these respects will be morally suspect.

This view leads to what is essentially a two-step procedure for evaluating actions and choices. The first step is to identify the important considerations involved: obligations, ideals, and effects. Accordingly, we should ask if any basic obligations are involved. If so, what are they and who has them? What ideals does the action respect or promote? What ideals does it neglect or thwart? Who is affected by the action and how? How do these effects compare with those of the alternatives open to us? The second step is to decide which of the three considerations deserves emphasis. Sometimes the issue may be largely a matter of obligations; other times, some ideal may predominate; still other times, consideration of effects may be the overriding concern.


 Keep the following rough guidelines in mind when handling cases of conflicting obligations, ideals, and effects:

1. When two or more moral obligations conflict, choose the stronger one.

2. When two or more ideals conflict, or when ideals conflict with obligations, honor the more important one.

3. When rival actions will have different results, choose the action that produces the greater good or the lesser harm.   

These guidelines suggest that we know (1) which one of the conflicting obligations is greater, (2) which of the competing ideals is higher, and (3) which of the actions will achieve the greater good or the lesser harm. They also presuppose that we have some definite way of balancing obligations, ideals, and effects when these considerations pull in different directions. 

The fact is that we have no sure procedure for making such comparative determinations, which involve assessing worth and assigning relative priorities to our assessments. In large part, the chapters that follow attempt to sort out the values and principles embedded in the tangled web of frequently subtle, ill-defined problems we meet in business and organizational life. It is hoped that examining these issues will help you (1) identify the obligations, ideals, and effects involved in specific moral issues and (2) decide where the emphasis should lie among the competing considerations.  

Moral Issues In Business, 7th ed., William H. Shaw & Vincent Barry

Wadsworth Publishing Company, Belmont CA, 1998

Chapter 2: Normative Theories of Ethics,   pg. 72-74



                                    Ethics Case Study Format


A. Purpose (What is intended?)

B. Problem (What general or apparent problematic?)

C. Procedure (What Methodological steps taken to address the problem to fulfill the purpose?)

        I.   Case Summary

             A. Situation (Who? What? When? Where? Why?)

             B. Explicit Problem (What must be resolved? What declared options?)

       II.   Central Issues

      III.   Ambiguities/Assumptions

      IV.   Considerations

A. Obligations

1. fidelity            (definition) (Embodied by whom in the case?)

2. gratitude               ""                          " "

3. beneficence           " "                          " "

4. fairness                " "                          " "

5. self-improvement   " "                          " "

6. non-injury             " "                          " "

7. productivity           " "                          " "

8. profitability           " "                          " "

B. Ideals

      1. life                  (definition) (Embodiment)

2. goodness             " "                " "




3. justice                 " "                 " "

4. honesty               " "                  " "

5. freedom               " "                  " "

6. quality                 " "                  " "

C. Effects (What several consequences follow from the tensions between

                    "obligations" and ideals"?)

      V. Priorities (What weighting is assigned the discernible values or consequences?)


                          A. Solutions/Moral Reasoning (Use Barry’s "moral reasoning logic".)

                          B. Strengths

                          C. Weaknesses

                          D. Personal Application



Last Updated: 6/3/19
OU Login