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  • An important challenge of ethics is to ascertain the determinants or standards with reference to which we can judge the rightness or wrongness of an action.
  • That is, what is it that enables us to characterize an act as right or wrong? Now this question has been answered differently by different schools or moralists. Some have conceived custom as the determinant or standard, for some it is a law/s.
  • Others have suggested that actions are right in the sense of being conducive to pleasure. Again, others have supposed that an act is good if it leads on to perfection and so on and so forth.


  • At the level of custom, an action is considered to be right if it has always been done, and an action is considered to be wrong if it is not always done.
  • Customary morality is not personal morality. It does not involve the individual’s conscious pursuit of the good as the personal good. Custom consists in group ways of acting, so customary morality is basically group morality.
  • Customary conduct is largely instinctive and partly reflective; it is conscious or unconscious imitation of others’ behaviour.
  • The members of a group behave according to the custom which is approved by the group. The group as a whole, the priests, the chiefs and the ancestral Gods are the custodians of customs.
  • It depends upon social pressure to maintain social order. According to Dewey, public approval, taboo, ritual and physical force are the means of enforcing customs.
  • Merits of customary morality: Customs furnish the germs of morality. They embody vague conceptions of ‘right’, ‘good’ and ‘virtue’.
  • Customary morality fosters sympathy and co-operation, encourages concerted action, and discourages selfishness and isolation. It promotes peace and harmony, strength and solidarity, fellowship and security.

Defects of customary morality:

  • The moral standards of custom are only partly rational. Many customs are irrational, some are injurious. Also, customs come into conflict with one another.
  • Old customs are discarded because they become obsolete and useless, new customs are formed because they are supposed to have social utility.
  • Thus, customary morality cannot satisfy the demands of human nature for a long time. It inevitably leads to reflective and personal morality.
  • Moral progress demands transition from group morality to personal morality. It demands transition from unreflective morality to reflective morality.
  • The social and the individual both are rooted in human nature. The individual identifies himself with the group, shares common emotions and acts in habitual obedience to custom. Yet, the individual has self-assertive impulses and desires, and at times revolts against the group and asserts one’s independence.
  • Thus, collision between the group authority and the individual’s independence, and the collision between social order and the individual’s progress bring about profound changes in morality and prepare the way for reflective personal morality.  DETERMINANTS OF ETHICS


  • At the level of customary morality the moral authority is outside the individual; it is the authority of group. But at the level of personal morality the moral authority is inside the individual; it is the authority of conscience within him.
  • Initially, the inner voice of conscience may be an echo of public opinion of the group. But gradually with the growth of the power of reflection the deliverance of conscience may contradict the commands of the group.
  • Customary morality is unreflective while personal morality is reflective. In personal morality, the individual asserts the authority of one’s conscience against that of the group, and regards one’s moral life as one’s personal matter.
  • His political and social behavior may be governed by the political and social laws. But his moral behavior is governed by the moral principles dictated by his conscience.
  • Further, according to some thinkers, conscience is a moral faculty of the self by which it apprehends the rightness or wrongness of an action.
  • For them, there is no distinction between conscience and moral faculty. Intuitionists regard it as an innate special faculty.


  • Intuitionism is the theory that conscience immediately and intuitively perceives the rightness or wrongness of an action without reference to their ends and consequences.  DETERMINANTS OF ETHICS
  • According to them, the moral quality is unique and sui generis; it is not reducible to truth, beauty, pleasure or social utility. It is original and underived, and apprehended intuitively by conscience.
  • Intuitionism is a kind of ethical objectivism. It regards moral qualities as objective characters of actions. Conscience is the universal faculty in all persons.
  • It is not the conscience of this or that individual. Some Intuitionists regard conscience as the “moral sense”, while others regard it as the “aesthetic sense”.

Thus, Intuitionism takes two forms: (a) The Moral Sense Theory and (b) The Aesthetic Sense Theory.

The Moral Sense Theory:

  • According to this theory, conscience is a faculty of internal perception, which immediately recognizes the moral qualities- rightness and wrongness-of actions; just as we perceive the sensible qualities, colour, sound, etc., of external things immediately through the external senses.
  • Thus, we perceive the moral qualities of actions immediately through the internal moral sense.


  • Critics point out that the moral sense theory cannot adequately account for the sense of duty or feeling of moral obligation.
  • The mere fact that an action excites in us a feeling of approval does not explain why we should be under moral obligation to perform it.

The Aesthetic Sense Theory:

  • According to this theory, beauty is the ultimate standard of morality.
  • It reduces rightness to beauty, and wrongness to deformity. Thus, beauty and good are one and the same.


  • Critics point out that the moral sense cannot be reduced to the aesthetic sense. DETERMINANTS OF ETHICS
  • The obligatoriness of the moral sense is not sufficiently brought out when it is reduced to the aesthetic sense.



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