Common Morality

Bernard Gert, Common Morality: Deciding What to Do, Oxford University Press, 2004

According to Bernard Gert “common morality… is the moral system that most thoughtful people implicitly use in arriving at moral judgments”.  Gert identifies five basic “harms”:

  1. Death
  2. Pain
  3. Disability
  4. Loss of freedom
  5. Loss of pleasure

Central to this discussion concerning “common morality” is the generation of simple moral rules that would govern one’s behavior.

  1. Do not kill
  2. Do not cause pain
  3. Do not disable
  4. Do not deprive of freedom
  5. Do not deprive of pleasure
  6. Do not deceive
  7. Keep your promises
  8. Do not cheat
  9. Obey the law
  10. Do your duty.

Dr. Kovak introduces the problem of Prima Facie and actual norms.  A prima facie norm is an obligation that demands fulfillment unless it conflicts with another obligation of a least equal or greater obligation.  Would you kill a man in order to save your life?  Would you lie in order to save someone else’s life?
These rules can be disobeyed but certain stipulations apply.  If we violate any of these rules we are subject to sanctions.  These punishments can be of many different types.  Gert does argue that if sufficient justification can be found then the violation of the simple moral rule is not wrong.

Gerts 2 step approach for justifying the violation of a simple moral rule.

  1. The agent must investigate and determine all the relevant moral (ethical) information.  Describe in detail and form a total, complete picture of all the morally pertinent aspects of the violation
  2. Consider the consequences – consider the effects on other people


The action is justified if the violations lead to more acceptable consequences.

This discussion of common morality is important as it presents a summary of basic moral principles and a manner in which dissent from these principles can be resolved.  Ultimately Dr. Kovak will tie this discussion of a common morality to the idea of “professionalism”. Within this discussion of professionalism Dr. Kovak will introduce a particular type of ethical approach that originated in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes.  A contract theory of ethics.  Why do we form a contract? This is the basis of the profession.  (Chapter 3 p12)