Philosophy, Department of


Date of this Version



From Nelson Potter and Mark Timmons (editors), Morality and Universality, ix-xxxii.


Copyright 1985, D. Reidel Publishing. Used by permission.



The aim of the present volume is to show that recent philosophical thought on universalizability is multifaceted and alive, and is making advances. This has been done by presenting a wide variety of work by authors who are among the best of those currently working on these issues. This introduction has aimed to present the main points of our authors in summary form, exhibiting some of their relationships to each other.

Now that we have briefly discussed the papers included here it can be seen that they each have an important role to play in further discussions of this general topic. The pieces by Singer, Gillespie, and Cork discuss and reassess one of the major works on this aspect of moral philosophy, Singer’s own Generalization in Ethics. O’Neill, Nakhnikian, and Harrison take views each opposed to the other on the interpretation of Immanuel Kant’s view on universalizability. Kant is surely the single most important historical writer on this topic in ethics. Michael Gorr takes up a recent important new work by another major contemporary figure in the literature of universalizability, the man who created the term, R. M. Hare. Nielsen considers (and rejects) connections with the seemingly related concept of impartiality. Lycan considers a problem arising in the application of certain universalizability principles, viz., that some kinds of moral issues seem to be unique, and thus, frustratingly, to allow of no clearcut moral analogies with other issues that could be used to alleviate our moral perplexity. Rabinowicz discusses a closely related issue that is also discussed in various ways by O’Neill and others, the problem of how to interpret the universalizability principle so as to avoid the Scylla of the banal useless truism, and the Charybdis of an unuseable notion of “ethical relevance.” The issue is that of the relativity of descriptions of action that are to be evaluated morally, the multiplicity of available descriptions, and the seeming arbitrariness of choosing one description over another.

The essay by Frederick Olafson, which chooses as its text an interesting and neglected passage from an important classic of moral philosophy, J. S. Mill’s Utilitarianism, illustrates the ways in which utilitarian and deontological themes often intermingle in discussions of universalizability. The same point is illustrated in different ways in the work here by Harrison, Gillespie, and Narveson. “Unfairness” considerations are surely best understood as nonconsequentialist if not Kantian in their appeal. The fact that (if Gillespie is correct) Singer’s theory, which has been taken by most readers to be consequentialist, contains, when properly understood, an important appeal to the deontological characteristic of “unfairness” illustrates the complex interplay of consequentialist and Kantian moral characteristics which we have also seen in other papers.

In fact it is often difficult to discern when a conception of universalizability is purely consequentialist as opposed to when it contains appeals only to deontological elements. Likewise it is sometimes difficult to discern whether a universalizability principle is merely “logical” and hence nonsubstantive, or whether it may in fact have some important element of extra-logical substance.

The distinctions on which we based the organization of this volume of essays, though important ones, are often overlooked or overridden by actual philosophical practice. This present introduction is not intended as a brief for philosophical purity with respect to such distinctions. The common presence of “impurity” surely reflects something important about the moral phenomena that are under discussion.

There is no common theme or new consensus that emerges from this collection. Any attempt to achieve consensus or to unify under a common theme is surely premature. In no case, we think, does an essay in this collection resolve and thereby close off further philosophical discussion. The usefulness of the essays is much more likely to lie in a different direction—in the direction of providing advances upon previous current discussion and thereby not closing off but rather opening up these issues and providing a stimulus to further discussion.