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What are moral claims?

I have often wondered how to distinguish moral rules or claims from other normative statements (being statements about right or wrong, or what one should or shouldn't do). The subtle differences between 'should' and 'ought' (where 'ought' alone is thought to be objective or to lack contingency) are not enough, because there are many moralities and moral systems which intelligent people of goodwill can differ on, and because it is not clear that morality is something which can escape contingency.

So, what implicit difference is there between the normative statements, "It tends to be bad to sacrifice your queen early in a chess match," and, "It tends to be bad to lie, cheat, or steal"? --You can substitute 'one shouldn't' for 'it tends to be bad', if you like.-- Without simply saying, "Well, one is obviously about morals," which self reference does nothing to help distinguish moral claims, the only thing I am aware of is the scope. One applies to a game, and one to life in general. But then there are aesthetic principles which are normative and general to life, such as when it is appropriate and acceptable to wear to white or various ideas of propriety.

So, without reference to transcendency (which might apply to all or none), what separates the moral from the aesthetic or the proper? Can we simply say, etiquette and aesthetics are about how we feel, but morals need not take this into account? I don't know if I'm comfortable with that idea.

Addendum (6/27):

It may also be that moral claims distinguish themselves from other normative statements only through relation to a system of morals or ethics--at which point, those systems are, what, just those that do not apply to winning games, making good paintings, praising judgments, setting tables properly, and a million other things?


  1. I get the feeling I should read Kierkegaard to answer this question.

    But, you know, there are also moral choices or claims to be made in playing games. For instance, cheating in the game. Or, rather than quickly ending a game by assaulting the enemy headquarters, you continue bombing the energy factories or weapons systems to just prolong the engagement. Or blowing up non-combatant homes and houses that are there in the game but have no score value or strategic point. Or when in multiplaying the superior playing keeps killing and manhandling the inexperienced ones, rather than let them learn the game freely.

    It seems to me, and this is me here, that these kinds of things reflect some kind of moral involvement even in gaming.

    But, I'm inclined to think that what determines a claim as specifically a moral one is, as you suggest, just its framing as such. Like a urinal, it only becomes such when it is claimed as such. In which case, aesthetic or normative claims are just as dubious for why they are what they are as moral ones. It's not so much a problem with morality, but with, I suppose, the activity of making pre/proscription at all.


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