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University of Alberta
Melanie Muise

MORAL AND NONMORAL JUDGMENTS To call something “right” in the abstract tells us little. To tell what the criteria are for making that assessment, we need a context. Otherwise we simply don’t know what it means. There are, for example, right and wrong ways to hold a violin, bake a cake, or throw a football. But they have nothing to do with morality; they have to do, rather, with mastering the violin, making good desserts, or passing a football well, and even more broadly, with the aims and purposes of music, cooking, and athletics. These activities in turn, of course, are always susceptible to moral assessment, as are any activities we engage in. But our use of normative language in teaching those activities does not normally constitute the making of moral judgments. Thus if I say, “You ought to hold the violin this way”, my judgment is prescriptive; I am trying to guide your conduct. But it is not a moral judgment. The criteria presupposed by the judgment are those intended to enable you to produce good music. Or if a parent says to a child, “You shouldn’t eat with your fingers,” that too is a normative judgment. But it is not a moral judgment. It is a judgment of etiquette, intended to instruct the child in good table manners. Of the sentences listed in the last section, only the fourth is a plausible candidate for a moral judgment, even though both the second and the fourth are normative. So value judgments and prescriptive judgments, although both normative may be either moral or nonmoral. This statement does not tell us what makes judgments moral (other, of course, than that they are made on moral ground); that is a difficult and controversial issue. But it is enough to indicate the importance of recognizing these distinctions, which are interrelated as shown in the diagram. Normative judgments Value judgments Prescriptive judgments Moral Nonmoral Moral Nonmoral The point is, from the practical activities of evaluating and directing conduct, different frames of reference (or points of view) have emerged that contain criteria for appraising conduct as right or wrong in different areas. These frames of reference include (but are not limited to) etiquette, the law; economics, religion, self-interest, fascism, Marxism, sexism, and racism. The actions they prescribe can and often do conflict, just as the things considered to be valuable can vary radically among them. White supremacy, for example, is a form of racism that attaches highest value to the flourishing of the so-called white race, and typically prescribes actions prejudicial to nonwhites. Such prescriptions can and do conflict with laws that prohibit discrimination. Whatever its exact nature, morality has also emerged in human affairs and represents a frame of reference along with these others. And whatever the most plausible account of how one judges right and wrong from a moral point of view, what is believed to be morally right and wrong clearly often conflicts with what is right and wrong from other perspectives. MORAL AND NONMORAL JUDGMENTS To call something “right” in the abstract tells us little. To tell what the criteria a
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