In a public lecture sponsored by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Thomas Scanlon, Alford Professor of Natural Religion, Morality, and Civil Policy at Harvard, discussed individual morality and the morality of institutions.

Citing literature ranging from “War & Peace” to “A Theory of Justice,” Scanlon said that the lecture derived from “an unfinished paper…on the relation between moral and political philosophy.”

Distinguishing between definitions of moral and political philosophy, Scanlon said that his “first fundamental distinction” is that political philosophy is concerned chiefly with institutions.

“This may sound like a topic of interest only to designers of university curricula, but in fact I think it involves very interesting questions of more than merely academic interest,” Scanlon said.

For centuries, society (and many of its philosopher-kings) has believed that the first order of business is to heed the law, he said. “The most obvious way in which moral conclusions about institutions, such as conclusions about the justice of particular institutions, can lead to questions about what individuals must do, or ought to do, is via conclusions about when individuals ought to obey the law.”

A second metric of morality, said Scanlon, is what voters may or may not do in the voting booth or for whom they campaign and work.

The philosophy scholar said his aim to understand and question “the role of the idea of morality in the arguments we commonly make” by exploring the relationship between “moral criticism of institutions and the morality of individual conduct.”

Throughout his remarks, Scanlon stressed the work of Rawls. In “A Theory of Justice,” Rawls describes morality as a cooperative venture for mutual advantage—as Scanlon put it, a state “designed to advance the good of the individuals with disparate aims and purposes who are taking part in it.”

Scanlon underscored the diverse understandings of the term ‘moral,’ saying the term “is widely used without a clear, shared understanding of its content”—in both the academic arena and in the public square.

Most people, within both groups, believe that morality guides “standards…that everyone has good reasons to take seriously” in their personal conduct. Outside of academia, Scanlon said, “morals” typically relates to sex, whereas ethics relates to money.

— Alexander Heffner