One method of moral assessment is to apply a moral principle. Appeals to Consequences, Rules, and Rights are specific examples of this general approach.
This method has the following steps:
Step 1: Present and argue for the moral principle.
Step 2: Describe the relevant qualities of X.
Step 3: Show how X meets or fails to meet the conditions set by the principle.
Step 4: Draw the relevant moral conclusion in regards to X.
As an example, imagine a situation in which an athlete has to decide whether or not to use a questionable performance enhancing drug. Suppose that the athlete takes as her principle that cheating in competition is wrong and that the drug has the qualities that would make using it cheating. The athlete would conclude from this that using the drug would be wrong.
Assessing Moral Principles
While the full assessment of a moral principle would tend to be a complex process, the following general standards can be used:
· A moral standard must be presented.
· This standard must be supported by arguments (the arguments are also subject to assessment).
· The application of the principle must produce reasonable solutions to the moral problem.
· The principle must be coherent.
· The principle must be plausible.
· The principle must correspond to our moral intuitions or provide adequate grounds for abandoning our intuitions.
A principle that fails to meet these standards is defective. Naturally enough, a principle can be criticized on these grounds and it is to this that the discussion now turns.
One way to respond to this argument is by arguing against the principle by showing that it fails to meet one or more of the standards presented above. If the principle is flawed or incorrect, then its use would also be flawed.
As an example, consider the athlete’s principle presented above. The athlete’s unethical agent might argue that using the drug would not be cheating because it is almost impossible to adequately define “cheating.” After all, athletes use a wide variety of enhancements (expensive equipment, special training, and supplements) so the line between cheating and performance enhancement is blurred beyond recognition.
Another way to respond is by attacking X. This is done by arguing that X lacks the relevant qualities and hence does not meet the conditions set by the principle. For example, consider the athlete’s principle once more. The agent might argue that the drug does not have the qualities that would make using it cheating. After all, the clever agent might argue, many performance enhancing substances and methods are not considered cheating.
One final way to respond to this method is to employ a counter-principle. It can be argued that X is better assessed by a different principle. This is actually using another argument of the same type against the original. If assessment by the new principle is a better assessment, the first assessment is undercut.
Turning one last time to the example of the athlete’s principle, the agent might argue that a better principle is that it is morally acceptable for an athlete to use any means to enhance performance (and make more money).