Reason and Morality

by Alan Gewirth

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Reason and Morality is a work in the rationalist tradition. Deriving from the emphasis on reason in Greek philosophy, rationalism had a profound effect on the early humanists, most of whom sought to reconcile reason and faith. However, in the seventeenth century, with the development of scientific thought, reason began to be seen as replacing religion as a foundation for life. Although philosophers such as René Descartes insisted that reason and faith were meant to govern different areas of human existence, ultimately rationalism became an opponent of religious institutions and of faith itself. At the very least, there was an effort to eliminate religious bigotry and intolerance, which the French writer Voltaire labeled “infamy.” For many, however, the supernatural was seen simply as a falsehood, probably perpetrated by the hierarchy whose power depended on popular belief.

In his Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; The Critique of Pure Reason, 1838), Kant ruled out traditional metaphysics as the source of truth and constructed a moral system on the basis of reason. However, succeeding philosophers extended their skepticism to reason itself, doubting that anything in this world or outside it was a certainty. From this posture came such vague popular declarations as “everything’s relative” and often a resulting inability to make decisions based on ethical principles. Alan Gewirth and the other neo-Kantians, then, are in one sense conservative, in that they seek to reclaim the earlier belief in reason so as to establish a basis for moral choices. However, Gewirth is not merely Kant’s disciple. His arguments, the moral system he develops, and his practical applications are all highly original.


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As Gewirth explains in the preface, one of the most important questions philosophers attempt to answer is whether justification can be found for a system of morality. Without such a system, one cannot battle evil in oneself or in others because there is no way to label anything as evil. Realizing the critical need for a means of justifying a set of moral principles that are universally applicable, Gewirth set out to find it. The result is this book.

Reason and Morality is divided into five sections. In the first, entitled “The Problem of Justification,” the author explores the issue. After commenting on the conflicts that can arise from competing moral rules, Gewirth identifies the primary questions of moral philosophy as, first, why should one be moral; second, what other interests should one consider in making decisions; and finally, what other interests can be identified as good enough to affect one’s decisions.

Gewirth then proceeds to systematic analysis, using a method that he will continue to use throughout the book. After stating a question for which he obviously has formulated an answer, he outlines the objections that opponents to his point of view would raise, answers them, and proceeds to the next question. Thus he argues that a moral system is necessary in order to provide some consistency in people’s lives and that it must have some basis, so that people can be protected against those who might be consistent but are evil.

Gewirth’s next question is about the possibility of justifying such a principle. After demonstrating that neither deductive nor inductive methods can accomplish such a feat, Gewirth asserts that the answer he seeks can be found by applying reason to action, looking at what human beings will themselves to do. While admitting that both reason and action are morally neutral, Gewirth nevertheless asserts that they can provide the answer he seeks. However, he insists on some limitations as to what is implied by the word “action.” First, it must not be...

(This entire section contains 393 words.)

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the result of either coercion or ignorance; it must issue from a voluntary choice. Second, it must not be the result of a whim; it must have a specific purpose. After briefly explaining his “dialectically necessary method,” Gewirth asserts that this method, applied to action, will result in everyone’s accepting a single “supreme principle of morality.”

What Is Good

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In the second section of Reason and Morality, Gewirth explores “The Normative Structure of Action.” Although any individual’s view of what is “good” can vary from time to time, Gewirth explains, as human beings, we always seek gains, rather than losses; we work for whatever will ensure our well-being, at least in the long run; we pursue what we value. Moreover, not only do human beings claim well-being as a right, but they also assert a second right, the freedom to work toward that well-being. As the author points out, if everyone believes that he or she has those two rights and also admits that all other human beings have the same rights, then the basis for a universal moral system has been established.

Before he can proceed with his argument, however, Gewirth must deal with the fact that there is an almost infinite number of variables in life, both differences between individuals and differences between one set of circumstances and another. Gewirth proceeds to outline the ways that philosophers have tried to deal with the fact of variability, which range from accepting it as inevitable to attempting to accommodate it, while still arguing for universal principles. As is his habit, Gewirth looks for an answer not to abstractions but to the concrete and to “agents,” or human beings. Although one cannot include children too young to vote in the category of voters, for example, because all of those of a certain age will be able to vote at the same future time, clearly they participate in the general category of voters. Obviously, then, one can be a “prospective purposive agent.” The point is that, upon close examination, variables may be only superficial.

The Principle of Generic Consistency

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In the third section, Gewirth asserts the core of his argument, the “Principle of Generic Consistency,” or the PGC. Reminding his readers that he has established freedom and well-being as “necessary goods” for everyone, and that because action is impossible without freedom and well-being, it is only logical that every human being, or “agent,” will claim both freedom and well-being as rights. Moreover, every rational agent will realize that the only way one can exercise one’s rights is to allow others to do so as well. In other words, the agent’s self-interest will motivate him or her to make sure that others have the freedom to work for their own well-being. Thus Gewirth moves from “is” to “ought,” and to what he identifies as the supreme principle of morality, or the Principle of Generic Consistency, defined as follows: “Act in accord with the generic rights of your recipients as well as of yourself.” The PGC is strikingly similar to the Golden Rule, which commands Christians to treat others as they would wish to be treated, and to Kant’s categorical imperative, which directs human beings to proceed with an action only when the rule governing it could be elevated into a universal law.

Having stated his PGC, Gewirth proceeds to detail the logical argument that led eventually to his assertion of the PGC, to defend it as being both a formal and a material necessity, and to discuss questions he anticipates being raised, such as the relationships between analytic truth and morality and between motivation and rationality. At the end of this section, Gewirth comments that he has now accomplished the main purpose of his book: to show how one can move logically from the concept of generic moral action to a universal principle of morality.

The last two sections of Reason and Morality suggest and analyze direct and indirect applications of the PGC. For example, consistent with his interest in political philosophy and his concern about social justice is Gewirth’s formulation of what he terms an “Equality of Generic Rights.” He considers such practical matters as the difference between providing equal opportunity and basic needs and working to reduce everyone to the same level; ensuring justice and providing for self-defense; the duty to rescue, which the author demonstrates is not as simple as it might seem; and rights as they apply to losing and gaining goods. Section 4 concludes with a thoughtful discussion of the implications of the PGC as to what limits should be set on individual freedom. Sensibly, Gewirth concludes that one person’s freedom should be limited only when it is “needed to prevent or remedy interferences with other persons’ necessary conditions of action.”

In the final section of his book, Gewirth applies the PGC to social rules and institutions. Having explored the various possibilities of social and political structures, he concludes by describing what he sees as the state that best fulfills the moral rule he has established. Gewirth rejects the libertarian ideal, which would preserve the status quo, assuming that the wealthy had acquired their worldly goods in a just and legal manner; similarly, he rejects the egalitarian ideal, which would redistribute wealth so as to benefit the poorest members of society. Noting that these extremes violate claims to well-being and to freedom, Gewirth suggests instead a democratic and “supportive state,” which, as he explains, is consistent with the PGC.

There follows a closely reasoned defense of the PGC against anticipated objections, in which Gewirth argues that his system is complete—in other words, that it can be used to determine right and wrong in every situation and for every individual, and, moreover, that it is consistent and, therefore, can be used to resolve what are perceived as conflicts between duties. In “Some Concluding Reflections,” the author sums up the process by which he arrived at his supreme moral principle and reiterates the statement of faith on which Reason and Morality and the PGC are based: that the human reason is the only certain guide to truth.


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Additional Reading

Allen, Paul. Proof of Moral Obligation in Twentieth-Century Philosophy. New York: Peter Lang, 1988. A monograph exploring the question of whether moral obligation itself can be proven. After analyzing several writers’ attempts to demonstrate such a principle, Allen utilizes Gewirth’s ideas in developing what he believes is irrefutable proof of moral obligation. An interesting publication, not least as a revelation of Gewirth’s importance as an influence on later writers.

Beyleveld, Deryck. The Dialectical Necessity of Morality: An Analysis and Defense of Alan Gewirth’s Argument to the Principle of Generic Consistency. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991. A formal analysis of the argument Gewirth presented in Reason and Morality is followed by the systematic refutation of every objection that has been raised. Most students will find the detailed discussion, with its sixty-six divisions, somewhat daunting. Gewirth’s foreword is useful, as are Beyleveld’s summary and his brief identification of “key issues.” Copious notes and a good bibliography. Indexed both by author and by subject.

Bond, E. J., and Alan Gewirth. “Symposium on Reason and Morality.” Metaphilosophy 11 (January, 1980): 36-53. In “Gewirth on Reason and Morality,” Bond briefly summarizes and questions Gewirth’s point of view. In the extensive “Comments on Bond’s Article” that follow, Gewirth accuses Bond of failing to understand his arguments. In his “Reply to Gewirth,” Bond again points out what he believes are flaws in Gewirth’s reasoning. The final article in this revealing “symposium” is contained in the next issue of the journal, in Gewirth’s “Reason and Morality: Rejoinder to E. J. Bond,” Metaphilosophy 11 (April, 1980): 138-142.

Brandt, Richard B., ed. Social Justice. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962. Consists of five essays on what the editor argues is a neglected subject, the issue of what is “just” and what is “unjust.” All are based on Cooper Foundation lectures delivered at Swarthmore College in spring, 1961. Includes Alan Gewirth’s “Political Justice.” Though identified in the preface as a student of “historic political philosophers,” presumably because of his research on Marsilius, Gewirth does not base his essay on history but proposes a system based on abstract principles, as he was later to do in Reason and Morality.

Boylan, Michael, ed. Gewirth: Critical Essays on Action, Rationality, and Community. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999. An important collection of essays that address Gewirth’s political and ethical philosophies.

Regis, Edward, ed. Gewirth’s Ethical Rationalism: Critical Essays with a Reply by Alan Gewirth. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Contains an incisive introduction by the editor, twelve essays, and Gewirth’s lengthy response, in which each section is preceded by the name or names of the authors to whom he is responding. Includes a list of Gewirth’s writings through 1984 and a useful index. The essays are not easy reading; however, because they represent all of the major responses to Gewirth’s ethical system and also include his response, the volume is considered essential for any student of Gewirth and his thought.


Critical Essays