Public and Private Morality

Public and Private Morality

Convenor: Vuko Andric (

Morality has a public as well as a private sphere. Private morality is about obligations, virtues, and so on, of individual agents, whereas public morality is concerned with collective obligations, the assessment of institutions, policies, and so on. This workshop aims to shed light on the relation between public and private morality by focusing on questions such as the following.

(1) Which theories should be understood as being about private or public morality, respectively, and how well do these theories cohere with each other? To illustrate, consequentialism has often been understood first and foremost as a theory of public morality (by the classic utilitarians as well as by some contemporary philosophers). Is consequentialism more convincing when understood in this way? How should other theories be understood in this regard? Also, if one restricts a moral theory to, say, the private sphere, what does it take for this theory to cohere with a moral theory about the private sphere? Can one, for example, be a virtue ethicist with respect to private morality but a consequentialist as far as the assessment of institutions and policies is concerned?

(2) There are questions about a possible hierarchy of public and private morality. Is one type of morality more fundamental in the sense that the obligations of the other type can be derived from it? Rule-consequentialism and contractualism, for example, can be interpreted as implying a primacy of public morality. For on rule-consequentialism, it is the consequences of our collective adherence to (or acceptance of) a set of rules that determines individual obligations. And on contractualism, what it is right or wrong to do for an individual agent is determined by what could be justified to others on grounds that they could not reasonably reject. Other moral theories, however, can be understood as implying a primacy of private morality. Virtue ethics, for example, is at a fundamental level concerned with what kind of person individual agents ought to be. As a virtue ethicist, one might propose that we ought to implement those institutions and policies that tend to make people more virtuous, whereby private virtue ethics is more fundamental in that it states what it takes for people to be virtuous. Do other moral theories also imply a hierarchy of public or private morality, respectively? Should they?

(3) If one accepts a primacy of public or private morality in some sense, how exactly can one derive judgements of the other type of morality? There are, of course, many alternatives to the examples given in the previous paragraph.

(4) The final type of questions concerns the so-called publicity condition, which can be understood as a necessary condition for the truth of moral theories according to which moral theories must be publicly teachable without violations of their own requirements. If the publicity condition holds, then act-consequentialism is arguably false because it sanctions moral elitism. Is the publicity condition a problem only for act-consequentialism or also for other moral theories? Can the publicity condition be justified? How should it be formulated? Is it a principle that concerns all of morality or only obligations of justice?



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