Section  3 The Three Levels of Abstraction

Three levels of abstraction: Theories, Principles, Judgments

The difference between normative ethics and metaethics highlights something about both ethics, and philosophy in general: there are varying levels of abstraction in our reflection.

Webster's dictionary provides the following definition of abstraction:

"to consider apart from application to or association with a particular instance"

In other words, abstract and particular have to be understood in terms of one another. Perhaps it's best to begin with an example:

"I am feeling sad right now."

"Sad feelings often follow tragedies."

In the first statement, the speaker is not making an abstraction. That statement is quite specific, concrete, and particular. It refers to a particular person, a particular feeling, and a particular time.

In the second statement, the speaker is abstracting from experience. One might ask the question: from what is s/he abstracting? And the answer is clear: s/he is abstracting from himself (s/he's not talking about the feelings of a particular person), he is abstracting from a particular time, and he is abstracting from a particular feeling, or a particular occurrence of a feeling. He's talking about sad feelings -- in general; about people -- in general; and about the pattern of feelings and events -- in general.

Well, in ethics it is common to move between various levels of abstraction. We can make very specific, or particular statements, such as: it was wrong for that man to lie to Congress. That is a judgment, not a principle, and certainly not a theory.

So,  it is helpful to discern three levels of abstraction in ethics:

1. Theories
2. Principles
3. Judgments

The least abstract are ethical judgments. At the level of judgment, we look at particular acts, decisions, feelings, aspirations, etc. and evaluate them. This is, I think, the most common type of ethical experience. It is here that we'll say, for example, that "Going through that red light was morally permissible for John last Tuesday night, because ....", or "It was right that Mary took her mom's car away when she did, since ..." (Keep in mind the distinction between morally permissible and morally obligatory.)

Ethical judgments almost always look above them for guidance. Usually we try to figure out what to do in particular circumstances by appealing to ethical principles. For example, we might think: "It's important to be honest. OK, then, I won't cheat on this upcoming exam." Principles are rules of behavior. Not just any rules, though. They not the same as etiquette, or prudence*. They are general statements about actions which folks ought to do, or ought to avoid. There is a great deal of agreement in principles -- most cultures and most people agree that, for example, it's important to tell the truth, to be kind, to be respectful of others, to avoid harmful manipulation, to live up to one's responsibilities to others, etc.

Many professions have detailed ethical codes of behavior. The AMA (American Medical Association), the APA (American Psychological Association), among many others, have written documents specifying ethical principles which all doctors, or all psychologists, should follow. What you'll find in these documents are statements about the principles that should guide behavior.

When people refer to "their morals", usually they are referring to their principles -- the moral codes by which they live their lives. Principles aren't usually beliefs or commitments that "I make up for myself." They are far, far, far more often inherited. We learn them from our elders, from our leaders, from our parents, from the texts and authors that influence us, from our ministers, etc.

But just as we refer to principles when we seek to figure out what we ought to do in particular circumstances, we look to theories to legitimate, refine, and critique principles. These are the most abstract, and they incorporate metaethical reflection. We will be looking closely at some ethical theories soon.

*Prudence: skill; shrewdness; the use of reason to manage resources and risk. Though it might be true that folks ought to be prudent, that one have a moral obligation to one's family and dependents to be prudent with one's money, prudence often refers to choices that has little to do with ethics. Some ethicists (like Kant) argue that our ethical obligations require us sometimes to act in conflict with prudence. Here is a brief explanation of one version of the position that ethics is nothing more than prudence:

The definitive statement of social contract theory is found in Chapters 13 through 15 of Hobbes's Leviathan. Briefly, Hobbes argues that the original state of nature is a condition of constant war, which rational and self-motivated people would want to end. These people, then, will establish fundamental moral laws to preserve peace. The foundation of Hobbes's theory is the view that humans are psychologically motivated by only selfish interests. Hobbes argued that, for purely selfish reasons, the agent is better off living in a world with moral rules than one without moral rules. Without moral rules, we are subject to the whims of other people's selfish interests. Our property, our families, and even our lives are at continual risk. Selfishness alone will therefore motivate each agent to adopt a basic set of rules which will allow for a civilized community. Not surprisingly, these rules would include prohibitions against lying, stealing and killing. However, these rules will ensure safety for each agent only if the rules are enforced. As selfish creatures, each of us would plunder our neighbors' property once their guards were down. Each agent would then be at risk from his neighbor. Therefore, for selfish reasons alone, we devise a means of enforcing these rules: we create a policing agency which punishes us if we violate these rules. Like rule-utilitarianism, Hobbes's social contract theory is a three-tiered moral system. Particular acts, such as stealing my neighbor's lawn furniture, are wrong since they violate the rule against stealing. The rule against stealing, in turn, is morally binding since it is in my interests to live in a world which enforces this rule.

From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Social Contract Theory entry.

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Copyright Stephen O Sullivan and Philip A. Pecorino  2002. All Rights reserved.

Web Surfer's Caveat: These are class notes, intended to comment on readings and amplify class discussion. They should be read as such. They are not intended for publication or general distribution.

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