Moral Coherence and Principle Pluralism

in Journal of Moral Philosophy
Restricted Access
Get Access to Full Text
Rent on DeepDyve

Have an Access Token?

Enter your access token to activate and access content online.

Please login and go to your personal user account to enter your access token.


Have Institutional Access?

Access content through your institution. Any other coaching guidance?


This paper develops and defends a conception of moral coherence that is suitable for use in contexts of principle pluralism. I argue that, as they are traditionally understood, coherence methods stack the deck against pluralist theories, by incorporating norms such as systematicity—that the principles of a theory should be as few and as simple as possible. I develop and defend an alternative, minimal, conception of coherence that focuses instead on consistency. It has been suggested that consistency in this context should aim at the avoidance of conflict, but I argue against this: what matters is “case consistency,” or judging consistently from one case to another. This means judging in accordance with morally relevant similarities and differences. I defend my proposal of minimal coherence from objections having to do with complexity and arbitrariness.

Moral Coherence and Principle Pluralism

in Journal of Moral Philosophy




 See e.g. Klemens Kappel“Meta-Justification of Reflective Equilibrium,” Ethical Theory and Moral Practice 9 (2006) 131–147 for a list of standard elements of moral coherence. Though Kappel uses the term “systematicity” differently from the way I do here he includes “simplicity” and “generality” as elements in a way that seems to me equivalent to the systematicity norm offered here. David Brink Geoffrey Sayre-McCord and Shelly Kagan each interpret coherence in roughly this way; I discuss particular texts below.


Sayre-McCord Geoffrey“Coherence and Models for Moral Theorizing,” Pacific Philosophical Quarterly 66 (1985) pp. 170–190.


Norman Daniels“Reflective Equilibrium”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2011 Edition) Edward N. Zalta (ed.) url = <>.


 See e.g. Kappel“Meta-Justification of Reflective Equilibrium” p. 132. Sayre-McCord’s “coherence” model in his “Coherence and Models of Moral Theorizing” includes consistency comprehensiveness and connectedness.


Kappel“The Meta-Justification of Reflective Equilibrium” p. 132.


 See Norman Daniels“Reflective Equilibrium”The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophyand Shelly Kagan The Limits of Morality p. 13.


Amartya Sen“Well-being, Agency and Freedom: the Dewey Lectures,” Journal of Philosophy 82 (1985) p. 176.


Sayre-McCord“Coherence and Models for Moral Theorizing” p. 171. In a later paper “Coherentist Epistemology and Moral Theory” (in Walter Sinnott-Armstrong ed. Moral Knowledge? (New York: Oxford University Press 1996) 137–89) Sayre-McCord takes consistency to be “evidential consistency.” I don’t discuss evidential consistency here but see brief remarks in my “Moral Coherence and Value Pluralism.”


Henry SidgwickMethods of Ethics (ebook edition, Jefferson Adams Library of Moral Philosophy, 2011, based on seventh edition, London: Macmillan and Company1907) Chapter 11 section 2 part III.


W.D. RossThe Right and the Good (Oxford: Clarendon Press1930). Kagan argues that “pro tanto” captures more accurately than “prima facie” what Ross is trying to articulate and I agree (The Limits of Morality p. 17).


Alan GoldmanPractical Rules (New York: Cambridge University Press2001).


George Rainbolt“Perfect and Imperfect Obligations,” Philosophical Studies 98 (2000) 233–56 and N.C. Gillespie “On Treating Like Cases Differently” Philosophical Quarterly 25 (1975) 151–58; for general discussion see Jeffrie Murphy “Justifying Departures from Equal Treatment” The Journal of Philosophy 81 (1984) 587–593 and Andrei Marmor “Should Like Cases Be Treated Alike?” Legal Theory 11 (2005) 27–38.


George Rainbolt“Perfect and Imperfect Obligations” p. 253.


Shelly Kagan“The Additive Fallacy,” Ethics 99 (1988) 5–31and David Brink “Moral Conflict and Its Structure” The Philosophical Review 103 (1994) 215–247. Kagan is not endorsing the factor view but merely describing it in order to show that factors are not “additive.” Brink is writing about the nature of moral conflict not about how to determine what to do.


Shelly Kagan“The Additive Fallacy” p. 14; Kagan goes on to argue that the function is not simply additive.


David Brink“Moral Conflict and Its Structure” p. 217; Brink defends the additive approach in his footnote 5.


Henry Richardson“Specifying Balancing and Interpreting Bioethical Principles” p. 297.


Donald Hubin“Irrational Desires,” Philosophical Studies 62 (1991) 23–44.


Mary Anne Warren“On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion,” Monist 57 (1973) 43–61.


Judith Jarvis Thomson“A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971) 47–66.


Don Marquis“Why Abortion is Immoral,” Journal of Philosophy 86 (1989) 183–202.


Singer Marcus (1955) “Generalization in Ethics” Mind 64 (1955) 361–375 p. 362.


Steven Pinker“The Moral Instinct,” The New York TimesJanuary 13 2008.


Peter SingerPractical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press1979).


Amartya SenThe Idea of Justice (New York: Penguin Books2009).


Sayre-McCord“Coherence and Models for Moral Theorizing” p. 172.


Richardson“Specifying Norms as a Way to Resolve Concrete Ethical Problems” p. 283.

Index Card

Content Metrics

Content Metrics

All Time Past Year Past 30 Days
Abstract Views 13 13 6
Full Text Views 14 14 14
PDF Downloads 2 2 2
EPUB Downloads 0 0 0