Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-59b7f5684b-j4fss Total loading time: 0.235 Render date: 2022-09-30T22:20:09.826Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "useRatesEcommerce": false, "displayNetworkTab": true, "displayNetworkMapGraph": false, "useSa": true } hasContentIssue true

Article contents

Moral Certainty

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 January 2009

Judith Lichtenberg
University of Maryland at College Park


A man has sexual intercourse with his three-year-old niece. Teenagers standing beside a highway throw large rocks through the windshields of passing cars. A woman intentionally drives her car into a child on a bicycle. Cabdrivers cut off ambulances rushing to hospitals. Are these actions wrong? If we hesitate to say yes, that is only because the word ‘wrong’ is too mild to express our responses to such acts

Copyright © The Royal Institute of Philosophy 1994

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 I have benefited from the comments and criticisms of many people over the period of writing this essay. In particular I want to thank colleagues at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, University of Maryland, in the Department of Philosophy there and at Georgetown University; and audiences at Melbourne, Monash, and La Trobe Universities and the Australian National University. I owe a special debt to David Luban for his persistent help and encouragement.

2 Ludwig, Wittgenstein, On Certainty, edited by Anscombe, G. E. M. and von Wright, G. H. (New York: Harper &; Row, 1972). Numbers in parentheses refer to the numbered passage cited.Google Scholar

3 ‘I know = I am familiar with it as a certainty’ (272). But ‘We just do not see how very specialized the use of “I know” is’ (11).

4 But if Sabina Lovibond is right, Wittgenstein′s neglect is at odds with his ‘homogeneous or “seamless” conception of language... free from invidious comparisons between different regions of discoursersquo; such as the moral and the factual. See her Realism and Imagination in Ethics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), p. 25.

5 Such a judgment is compatible with the view that (as the jury in the Dahmer case recently decided) Dahmer was legally sane at the time of his crimes. Whether the criteria for legal sanity are sound or sensible is another question still.

6 I do not mean to suggest that such new information would lead us to a diametrically opposite view–that this was a virtuous, heroic thing to do–but that it might at the very least mitigate our condemnation, or, more strongly, persuade us to see the act or the agent as doing something that, although apparently questionable, was in fact morally neutral or even justifiable.

7 What if we omit the term ‘innocent’? Whether it is a bad thing to harm guilty people is a more controversial question. Some retributivists would argue that punishment is not a form of harm–on the contrary– and so might agree that it is a bad thing to harm people, simpliciter. In that case argument will centre on the definition of ‘harm.’ Others would say that in any case it is better to harm a guilty than an innocent person, but might still agree that other things being equal it is bad to harm people. But some will say that it is not bad, perhaps even that it is good, to harm guilty people.

8 See below, p. 26.

9 See Mackie, J. L., Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong (New York: Penguin, 1977), chapter 1.Google Scholar

10 For similar arguments, see Raimond, Gaita′s excellent discussion in Good and Evil: An Absolute Conception (London: Macmillan, 1991), especially chapters 2 and 16.Google Scholar

11 For a good discussion of this question of the ‘boat’ morality is in compared to other realms of inquiry, and related issues, see Renford, Bambrough, Moral Scepticism and Moral Knowledge (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1979), chapter 2.Google Scholar

12 The justification of slavery may seem to rest not so much on a view about the enslaved group′s inherent inferiority but on beliefs about the material necessity or advantages of slavery. What if a system permitting slavery raises the standard of living for everyone, including slaves, above the very substandard level it would be in a free system? Perhaps this is too much a philosopher′s question, one which already grants the slave′s interests a relevance defenders of slavery never admitted. In any case it is clear that slavery was defended in the United States, at any rate, in the first instance on economic grounds. But, as David Brion Davis argues, because it is psychologically difficult to treat those of one′s own group ‘as no more than animals, the survival of true slavery required some form of social or psychological discrimination,’ some marking out of special characteristics possessed by or lacking in the members of the enslaved group. So the belief in the slave group′s inferiority is likely to be a concomitant to other justifications of slavery. SeeThe Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1966), p. 47 ffGoogle Scholar

13 See Stanley, Cavell, The Claim of Reason(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979), pp. 370–80;Google ScholarGaita, Good and Evil, pp. 154–90;Google Scholar and Roger, Wertheimer, ‘Understanding the Abortion Argument, ’ Philosophy & Public Affairs 1 (1971).Google Scholar

14 A Theory of Justice (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971), 19Google Scholar

15 Ibid., 20.

16 For a useful discussion of changing views of the relationship of common sense to scientific and metaphysical theories, see Keith, Campbell, ‘Philosophy and Common Sense,’ Philosophy 63 (1988), 161–75.Google Scholar

17 It is possible, of course, to possess the wrong biological theory and still cure disease, to possess the wrong physical theory and still make flying machines.

Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Moral Certainty
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

Moral Certainty
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

Moral Certainty
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *