In this paper I wish to consider the following related questions: (i) Can a system of morality be justified?; (ii) Why should one act morally?; (iii) How can others be persuaded to act morally? Clearly none of these questions is new, and moral philosophers have proposed a variety of responses to them over the centuries without reaching any general agreement. Nevertheless, because these questions are fundamental to any practical application of moral theory, it is worthwhile to continue to reflect upon them.
For Jewish, Christian and Muslim societies, the justification of morality is the Word of God as expressed in the Bible and Koran. Given an authoritative text containing basic moral premises, the appropriate method for obtaining rules of conduct is a process of logical deduction from those premises to conclusions. However, if we focus our inquiry on European and American societies in the present century, the decline of belief in religious authority has undermined this approach to moral theory for many people. This monumental change-for morality-may be attributed to many factors. An increase in multicultural studies has emphasized the wide variety of beliefs that human beings hold, which may have led more people to doubt that any one of them is authoritative. A number of writers over the years have commented on the correspondence of specific religious beliefs with one's society of birth, again leading thoughtful individuals to question the authority of their childhood religious beliefs. As a general sociological observation, one can point to a positive correlation between increasing educational level and a diminished belief in the authority of religious texts.
When thoughtful persons reject religious authority as the basis of morality, it becomes necessary to find another basis for moral beliefs. One of the few statements about contemporary moral philosophy which is unlikely to encounter opposition is that no moral theory enjoys wide acceptance. At present the most widely discussed theories of morality in the British-American literature are utilitarianism, deontology and social contract theory.
The well known utilitarian approach to ethical (note 1) decision making was proposed by Jeremy Bentham in his Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789) and elaborated by John Stuart Mill in several books, e.g., Utilitarianism (1863). In Chapter 1, Bentham defines utility as that which "tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good, or happiness (all this in the present case comes to the same thing)". Utilitarianism is then based on two premises (which are not always sufficiently separated in discussions of the theory). The first premise is the belief in consequentialism. Specifically, that morality is concerned with the effects of actions on the happiness of individuals. The second premise is a belief in a maximization principle. Specifically, the right action is the one which has as its consequence the greatest happiness of the greatest number. It is not easy to realize in today's society what a radical departure the first premise was from the conventional wisdom of its time. The second premise is a foundation of todays ubiquitous use of cost-benefit analysis.
Deontological theories of morality take as their premise the belief that human beings have an intuitive knowledge of right and wrong. Associated with this approach is the belief that human beings have certain rights, and that actions which adversely affect such rights are morally wrong. Historically, one immediately thinks of the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; currently, one is aware of the demands for woman's rights, gay rights, and a variety of economic rights. Since most of us do have strong feelings of right and wrong, there surely is a psychological basis for the deontological approach to morality.
Social contract theory as developed by Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau takes as its premise that there is an agreement between an individual and society in which the individual agrees to submit to the authority of the government and its laws in return for the government's protection of the individual's life and property. These theories were primarily concerned with the moral obligations of citizens and governments. An influential, modern variant of the social contract approach to morality is given in John Rawls' A Theory of Justice. Rawls (1971, p. 12) considers a hypothetical initial situation in which "no