Between Traditional and Minimal Moralities

Originally published in Analysis

Michael Moehler’s Minimal Morality: A Multilevel Social Contract Theory makes important contributions to the social contract tradition, particularly in exploring how social contract theories can address challenges that arise from deep moral pluralism. Fundamentally, the work provides a multilevel account of morality, though simplified for presentation as a two-level view of morality. These two levels of morality differ significantly in their form and in their contexts of applicability. One level is that of ‘traditional morality’, involving a rich set of practices, motivations and shared values common to many mainstream moral theories. For instance, John Rawls provides a version of traditional morality in the form of principles of justice grounded in a shared conception of society as a system of cooperation between free and equal citizens motivated by a sense of justice. The second level is that of ‘minimal morality’, for which the book is named. Minimal morality is grounded in purely prudential and instrumental reasoning, and thus does not rely upon any special moral commitments or motivations. This latter level of morality, Moehler argues, is particularly important for societies possessing extremely deep moral pluralism rather than the moral consensus necessary for traditional moral. Throughout the book, Moehler argues that these two kinds, or levels, of morality are both real or proper accounts of morality, but they each must be understood to be appropriate to particular sorts of circumstances. Traditional morality regulates actions when the members of society are agents with the necessary moral capacities and sufficiently high consensus on moral values. Minimal morality, on the other hand, regulates actions when the agents have deep diversity of values and capacities leading to serious, potentially deadly, conflicts. The account is contractarian at both levels in that any principles or rules get their authority from agreement (Moehler 2018: 10–11), so the account overall discerns the different circumstances in which we might need morality and the different moral systems that agents in those systems have reason to adopt. For the purposes of this article, I will take for granted Moehler’s account rather than contend about the details.1 I aim here to carry Moehler’s project forward another step by considering how additional levels can be constructed and can function together. To this end, §1 and §2 lay out in fuller detail traditional and minimal moralities. §3 argues that minimal morality supports only a very limited amount of cooperation. This does not undermine Moehler’s arguments for the importance of minimal morality, but instead highlights that minimal morality leaves much to be desired and significant reason to avoid falling to minimal morality when possible. In light of this, §4 describes how intermediate levels of morality, between the traditional and minimal, may be constructed. Section 5 concludes by discussing how a society can contain multiple levels in a polycentric moral order.

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