Moral and Prudential Considerations

  • Samuel Stoljar


We will have seen that rules are action-guiding in a distinctly rational way since they offer, or at least imply, the existence of reasons or criteria in the light of which we can argue as well as judge whether our actions are right or wrong, or correct or incorrect. We now have to see that these reasons differ greatly according to whether they support actions on prudential or on moral grounds, the first type of reasons serving our self-chosen or self-regarding aims, the second more essentially other-regarding, being reasons why we must or must not do certain things regardless of whether or not they coincide with our own wants or interests.1 This prudential-moral distinction extends and complements, but in some ways also cuts across, that between autonomous and heteronomous rules. One may comply with a ‘no smoking’ sign because one is (autonomously) impressed by the medical fact that smoking is a health hazard; or alternatively because one is (heteronomously) impressed either by the threat of a penalty in which case one acts prudentially, in one’s own interest, or because of purely moral considerations for other people’s health.


Moral Judgement Moral Theory Moral Rule Legal Reasoning Moral Argument 
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  1. 1.
    See H. Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics, 7th ed. (London: 1972) p. 25fr.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    M. G. Singer, Generalisation in Ethics (London: 1963) p. 303.Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    See Leslie Stephen, The Science of Ethics (London: 1882) pp. 206–7.Google Scholar
  4. 6.
    For this Dilemma, see R. D. Luce and H. Raiffa, Games and Decisions (New York: 1958) ch. 5; for the moral aspectsGoogle Scholar
  5. For this Dilemma, see R. D. Luce and H. Raiffa, Games and Decisions (New York: 1958) ch. 5; for the moral aspects, A. K. Sen, ‘Choice, Ordering and Morality’ in S. Körner (ed.), Practical Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974) p. 54ff.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    J. J. C. Smart and B. Williams, Utilitarianism For and Against (Cambridge: 1973) p. 3 off.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 10.
    R. M. Hare, Freedom and Reason (Oxford: 1963) pp. 90–5.Google Scholar
  8. 12.
    According to another, slightly different, version of the golden rule argument, what one has to consider is what I would have others do in their treatment of me ‘in abstraction from any of my particular desires’, so that I apply the ‘same principle or standard’ to them’ as I would have them apply in their treatment of me’ (M. G. Singer, The Golden Rule (1963) 38, Philosophy pp. 293, 300). On this basis, it is argued, the rule does not authorise an eccentric or quarrelsome person who loves to be provoked to go about provoking others; on the contrary, he must take account and respect the wishes of people who do not like to be provoked; or, more briefly, he must not annoy others just as he would not like to be annoyed. But this does not really advance matters. As Singer admits, it may not be easy to get a quarrelsome person to see this, if only because he may like to inflict and to suffer certain forms of annoyance on others, yet object to certain forms of annoyance which do not annoy others but are peculiar to him.Google Scholar
  9. 14.
    See also G. J. Warnock, Contemporary Moral Philosophy (London: 1967) pp. 45–6.Google Scholar

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© S. J. Stoljar 1980

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  • Samuel Stoljar

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