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A number of thinkers have proposed few criteria of moral judgments, principles and ideals. These criteria or ‘marks of the moral’ are presented as marks which are central to, and characteristic of, moral beliefs.

The prominent four criteria are as follows:


  • A judgment, principle or ideal is moral only if a person or a society accepts it as a supremely authoritative or overriding guide to action. This criterion says that morality must have priority over everything else in our lives.
  • Thus, self-interest, political affiliation, religious heritage and the like are subservient to morality.
  • Nonetheless, this mark or criterion may not be a necessary condition of morality. This criterion asserts that a principle or goal is moral only if a person or a society is totally committed to its pursuit.
  • Yet, at times, political, legal, religious and other considerations may be given precedence over moral consideration when they are in conflict.
  • However, to answer this criticism one may claim that the ultimate justification for giving preference to political, legal, religious and other action guides over moral principle will necessarily be a moral justification.
  • Therefore, moral principles do seem in the end supreme, because the final justification for allowing a non-moral rule to override a moral one will ultimately be a moral justification.


  • Moral statements are distinguished from others by their prescriptive form, that is, they are action guiding imperatives that do not describe states of affairs. All moral utterances guide behaviour by prescribing a particular restraint or action.
  • However, this criterion does not claim that morality alone is composed of prescriptive statements. For example, statements of law and etiquette can be prescriptive. It only claims that prescription is a necessary condition of a moral judgment, principle or ideal.
  • Problem with this criterion is that there can be moral judgments which may not be prescriptive because their point would be to blame or censure. Also, some moral judgments are evaluative and they do not seem to mandate a course of action.
  • The supporter of the prescriptive thesis will respond that such utterances are implicitly or subtly prescriptive and they can be restated in an explicit prescriptive form.
  • However, this claim is doubtful, because meaning of these utterances may have to be changed in order to make them prescriptive. Nevertheless, many of the moral judgments, principles and ideals do prescribe.

Criterion of universalizability:

  • According to this criterion, moral considerations apply universally to all people situated in relevantly similar circumstances. Kant and many others have maintained that what is right for one person must be right for all persons similarly situated.  MARKS OF THE MORAL
  • A moral judgment is not like a judgment of taste or preference, which can vary according to the opinions of individuals. Ethical judgments transcend individual judgments.
  • Peter Singer states that the justification of an ethical principle cannot be in terms of any partial or sectional group, ethics requires us to go beyond “I” and “you” to the universal law, the universalizable judgment, the standpoint of the impartial spectator or ideal observer, or whatever we choose to call it.
  • Critics point out that moral judgments are tailored to particular cultures and systems of thought beyond which they are often not intended to apply.
  • Some would argue that many moral rules and practices are such that even the individual or group making the choice would not wish to generalize for others.  MARKS OF THE MORAL
  • Again, some ideals and actions, such as charity, generosity and heroic actions, are by their very nature not universalizable. Yet these acts are part of the domain of the moral.
  • Nonetheless, universalizability need not entail that only one moral system is correct and universally applicable, regardless of cultural tradition and social context.
  • It makes a purely formal point about the logic of moral judgment: A moral judgment must, for any person who accepts the judgment, apply to all relevantly similar circumstances.
  1. Some philosophers argue that it is necessary for a moral action-guide to have some direct reference to the welfare of others. This condition of ‘other ­regardingness’ excludes egoistic principles from the realm of moral action-guides. It also excludes certain religious action-guides. Many virtues, such as honesty, courage, temperance, justice, compassion and obedience, have something to do with the welfare of others. It seems attractive to hold that anyone who makes a moral judgment must have the welfare of others in mind.

The criterion may be understood to refer to the welfare of only some persons, not to everyone’s welfare or even to the welfare of the majority.  MARKS OF THE MORAL

The criterion can be misused to give preferential treatment to dominant groups. Thus, the fourth criterion necessitates that we must possess a well-developed conception of how morality makes reference to human welfare.

  • Thus, we may conclude that none of the above four conditions is a necessary condition of morality, but each may be relevant in mapping the geography of morality. Each may be a mark that identifies some aspect of what is moral, though not an essential mark.
  • It is highly likely that if all four of these marks are present in any judgment, principle, or ideal, then we have a moral judgment, principle, or ideal.
  • Thus, if some judgment has overriding social importance, prescribes a course of action, is universalizable, and pertains to the general welfare of a social group, we can be reasonably assured that the judgment is a moral one.
  • Further, an alternative way of looking at the question “What is morality?” suggests that the term ‘morality’ cannot be given any single, exhaustive definition or analysis in terms of criteria, conditions, or marks of the moral, because there are too many senses of `moral’.
  • Alasdair Maclntyre holds that we no longer have a unified concept of morality, because it has been fragmented by different traditions.  MARKS OF THE MORAL




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