Give me a lie-detector test and ask me: “Do you think that vast segments of the world population are wrong?” and I will answer: “Yes.” Truthfully. Truth is, many others will answer that too, with just as much honesty. We can’t all be right.

The difficulty of this situation is amplified when the wrongness at hand pertains to ethical convictions. To be wrong in such matters not just to be “wrong,” it is to be “bad.” This distinction is a big deal: we correct people who are wrong, but we blame people who are bad.

How could one possibly cope with a belief in the vast wrongness of others? How can one step out of one’s home every morning and set foot in a world filled with bad people? Wouldn’t blaming the world almost across-the-board drive one mad? Maybe, but not necessarily. A lot turns on how ethical beliefs translate into practical conduct.

Here is a three-part way of understanding what humans do when they perform moral actions (the division be found in the work of Aristotle, Kant, and elsewhere—but it is often forgotten in professional discussions of ethics, and is virtually unknown in lay circles). At the top, you have a general principle. Ideally, it can be stated as a proposition, preferably a clear one; say, “You ought to take off your hat when visiting someone’s house.” I know, this example is boring, but it will keep heads cool to stick with an uncontroversial example at this point, so that we can get the three-part division right. Despite the clarity of a given formulation, a lot of aspects are left open in a general principle. Note, for example, that there are no particular names mentioned: the principle does not say whether it is dealing with a visit to the house of Ted, Jehad, Sally, etc. Likewise, no particular times are mentioned: even with the same house, the principle does not say whether it pertains to a visit on a Monday, on Tuesday the 24th of November 2027, etc. This lack of specificity is what makes the principle general. The boon of this generality is that the principle can now apply to many situations, not just one.

We can only act in the real world and, in the real world, everything is here and now. Particular real-world situations are thus the second component of the three-part model. Call them cases. The general principle I just spoke of applies to particular cases. So, if you visit Sally’s house on Tuesday the 24th of November 2027 while wearing a hat, and if you hold the principle “You ought to take off you hat when visiting someone’s house,” then you should take off your hat.

Now, a principle does not magically work on its own; you have to apply it. Applying is a form of action. As such, the application of a principle is no more or less mysterious than any other action (say, moving a coffee mug to one’s lips). However, the question of when and where to act is more problematic. Deciding if a given action is appropriate given some circumstances is a process called judging, so the faculty that figures this out is called judgement.

A moral agent has to judge when and how a general principle applies to a particular case. This, then, is the three-part model.

If you have only a principle, it means nothing, because it can make no tangible difference in the world. If you only have particular cases, they mean nothing, since they are brute situations that can be looked at any which way. And if you want to judge but have neither a re-applicable principle to guide you nor any particular cases to act on, your judgement will be like glue with nothing to stick together.

We are fallible creatures. So, for each of these three parts, we can err. I might think, for instance, that I ought to take off my hat when visiting someone’s house, yet in the throes of intense conversation I might fail to notice that I have entered Sally’s house. Or, I might notice the house yet forget that I have a hat on. Or, I might notice both my hat and the house yet forget that I have committed myself to endorsing the general principle. Or, I might take off my hat all the time, thereby contravening other principles I hold, say, that “I ought to keep my hat on in winter.” And so on.

Now that we are equipped with these distinctions, we are in a position to see how one can both believe in the vast wrongness of others yet not let vast moral condemnation drive one mad: in matters of morality, the people around me uphold a mistaken principle, but apply it with near 100% accuracy. They are trying in earnest to do the right thing—and in a way they are succeeding brilliantly. They spot the right cases and act in the manner specified by their adopted principles. I cannot condemn or blame them for being so consistent. It’s just that the principles that they are applying are bogus.


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