Gewirth Framework

The value criterion is...respect for the generic rights to freedom and well-being.

Here are some of the best justifications for a Gewirth framework.

Morality, as a guide to behavior, is obligatory for all agents, so it must prevent agents from being able to rationally reject its principles. The “normative structure of action” provides the basis for constructing such a principle.

Alan Gewirth [Prof. Of Philosophy, University of Chicago. Reason and Morality. University of Chicago Press. 1978.]

How do the concepts of reason and action fulfill the justificatory task I have assigned to them in relation to the supreme principle of morality? Let us begin by recalling that the answer to the authoritative question of moral philosophy [morality] must indicate why action in accordance with a certain moral criterion is categorically obligatory in that its requiredness cannot rightly be evaded by any action or institution Now such an answer is obtainable if a supreme moral principle can be shown to be logically necessary so that its denial is self-contradictory. For since the principle says that actions of a certain kind ought to be performed, the fact that the principle is necessarily true provides a conclusive justificatory reason for believing that the kinds of action[s] the principle says ought to be performed ought indeed to be performed. But to have such a reason for believing this about certain actions is also to have a conclusive justificatory reason for doing the actions, so that the principle's normative necessity, whereby its requirements for action cannot rightly be evaded, follows from its being logically necessary. For if one is conclusively justified in believing that one ought to do X, then, at least so far as concerns the ascertainable grounds for one's action, one is conclusively justified in doing X. And it is only by deductive rationality that such necessary truth can be established. This brief answer incurs various difficulties about the relations between logical and moral necessity, and between reasons for believing and for doing. Waiving these for the present, I wish to emphasize a further gap whose bridging will show the central importance of the concept of action for the justificatory project. It is possible for a proposition or principle to be necessarily true only within the context of a system of arbitrary definitions and axioms from which it can be shown to follow by rigorous deductive reasoning, so that to affirm the premises and to deny the conclusion is to incur self-contradiction. But the premises need not themselves be necessarily true. Hence, the proposition would have only a kind of formal or relative necessity, as logically following from the systems premises; yet the system as a whole would be only contingent because it would have logically possible alternatives: its premises could be denied without self-contradiction. Indeed, the premises themselves may be false, and also the conclusions. If. then, the supreme principle of morality is to emerge as a necessarily true justification by a deductive argument, it seems that the formal necessity of its being entailed or deductively implied by various premises is not sufficient; there will also have to be a material necessity of the premises themselves. The content as well as the form of the justificatory argument will have to be necessary and not men contingent, let alone arbitrary or false.¶ The need for such necessary content also follows from the concept of morality itself. As we have seen, judgments of moral obligation are categorical in that [they] what persons morally ought to do sets requirements for them that they [agents] cannot rightly evade by consulting their own self-interested desires or variable opinions, ideals, or institutional practices For moral judgments are critically evaluative of all of these. But such inescapable obligations cannot be derived from variable contents. Moreover, ultimate moral disagreements can be rationally resolved only if moral obligations are based on necessary contents. For [but] if moral principles have contingent contents, so that their obligatoriness may vary with the variable desires or opinions of different protagonists, then no finality can be rationally imposed on their differing moral beliefs. To ascertain which among the various possible or actual moral principles are right or correct hence demands that one adopt a standpoint that is superior to these variable elements, so that it can be seen to impose rational requirements on them. Such a superior standpoint, to avoid the variability and relativism of the subject matter to which it is addressed, must have a rational necessity of content as well as of form. But how can such contentual necessity be established by reason? In answer this question, the subject matter of morality must be considered; this consideration, being performed through conceptual¶ analysis, is itself a product of reason in the sense of deductive rationality. It there is a subject matter with which all moralities and moral judgments must be concerned directly or indirectly then this will provide a necessary content for all such judgments. If it can be further shown that this content has certain determinate logical confluences regarding the criteria of moral rightness, then the principle that upholds these criteria will emerge as materially or contentually as well as formally necessary. The subject matter of morality will thus be at least part of the justification of the supreme moral principle; and since this justification is contentually necessary, so too will be the moral principle that is its justification.¶ This necessary content of morality is to be found in action and its generic features. For all moral precepts, regardless of their further contents, deal directly or indirectly with how persons ought to act. The specific modes of action required by different moral precepts are, of course, highly variable. But amid these variations, the precepts require actions; and there are certain invariant features that pertain genetically to all actions. I shall call these the generic features of action because they characterize the genus or category of action as a whole, as delimited by moral and other practical precepts. Thus, just as action provides the necessary content of all morality, so the generic features provide the necessary content of all action. ¶ It will be of the first importance to trace how these features determine the necessities of moral tightness, so that from the 'is of the generic features of action there is logically derivable the 'ought' of moral principles and rules. Insofar as these generic features of action constitute the justification of the supreme principle of morality, the latter, as their justification, will also have a necessary content. These generic features, in turn, are ascertained by deductive rationality, so that the ultimate justification of the supreme principle consists in reason.¶ Now just as the concept of reason, which I have confined to deduction and induction, is morally neutral and hence not question-begging, so too the concept of action that is to be used as the basis of the justificatory argument is morally neutral. For since this concept comprises the generic features of all action, it fits all moralities rather than reflecting or deriving from any one normative moral position as against any other. How, then, can it be shown that from such morally neutral premises there follow determinate, normatively moral conclusions about the necessary content of the supreme principle of morality? This question poses one of the major challenges the present work must meet. The answer consists in showing that, because of its generic features, action has what I shall call a 'normative structure,' evaluative and deontic judgments on the part of agents are logically implicit in all action; and when these judgments are subjected to certain rational requirements,  a certain normative moral principle logically follows from them. To put it otherwise: Any agent, simply by virtue of being an agent, must admit., on pain of self-contradiction, that he ought to act in certain determinate ways.¶ The relation of action to morality bears importantly on the question raised earlier about the correspondence-correlates moral judgments must have if they are to be true by virtue of correspondence. Since action comprises the factual subject matter of moral and other practical precepts, it [so action] serves for moral philosophy a function analogous to that which empirical observational data may be held to serve[s] for natural science: that of providing [provides] an objective basis or subject matter against which, respectively, moral judgments or rules and empirical statements or laws can be checked tor their truth or correctness. It must be emphasized that this function is only analogous: a moral judgment does not become true simply by stating that some action or kind of action is actually performed. As we shall see, it is rather that action, through its generic features and normative structure, entails certain requirements on the part of agents, and moral judgments are true insofar as they correspond to these requirements and hence to the normative structure of action. But because action provides the necessary content of moral judgments, these are not left, so far as concerns truth, completely unsupported by relevant objective standards or data. Although the importance of action for moral philosophy has been recognized since the ancient Greeks, it has not hitherto been noted that the nature of action enters into the very com justification of the supreme principle of morality. 

{C}{C}Thus, we should form ethics from agents’ perspectives, or the dialectical mode. No contingent point of view can ground principles any agent must accept. For example, grounding morality in something agents could disagree about commits the is-ought fallacy by producing indeterminate conclusions where agents could reach contradictory judgments given the same factual circumstances.

All action is valuational in that by acting an agent necessarily judges their purposes to be good. Whatever their reasons, agents must still value their ends because otherwise they wouldn’t be moved from inaction because they wouldn’t consider their purposes worth pursuing.

Since agents must judge their purposes to be good they must also hold the conditions for those actions to be good, or they must contradict their view that their purposes are valuable. Things necessary for action are freedom, the ability to choose purposes, and well-being, or the abilities to realize purposes.

Gewirth 2:  [“THE ONTOLOGICAL BASIS OF NATURAL LAW: A CRITIQUE AND AN ALTERNATIVE.” 29 American Journal of Jurisprudence. 95. 1984. HeinOnline. 


Let me briefly sketch the main line of argument that leads to this conclusion. As I have said, the argument is based on the generic features of human action. To begin with, every agent acts for purposes he regards as good. Hence, he must regard as necessary goods the freedom and well being that are the generic features and necessary conditions of his action and successful action in general. From this, it follows that [So] every agent logically must hold or accept that he has rights to these conditions. For if he were to deny that he has these rights, then [Otherwise] he would have to admit that it is permissible for other[s] persons to remove from him the very conditions of freedom and well-being that, as an agent, he must have. But it is contradictory for him to hold both that he must [and may not] have these conditions and also that he may not have them. Hence, on pain of self-contradiction, every agent must accept that he has rights to freedom and well-being. Moreover, every agent must further admit that all other agents also have those rights, since all other actual or prospective agents [they] have the same general characteristics of agency on which he must [that] ground his own right-claims.¶ What I am saying, then, is that every agent, simply by virtue of being an agent, must regard his freedom and well being as necessary goods and must hold that he and all other actual or prospective agents have rights to these necessary goods. Hence, every agent, on pain of self-contradiction, must accept the following principle: Act in accord with the generic rights of your recipients as well as of yourself. The generic rights are rights to the generic features of action, freedom, and well-being. I call this the Principle of Generic Consistency (PGC), because it combines the formal consideration of consistency with the material consideration of the generic features and rights of action 


Also, claiming necessary goods as rights is a prerequisite to any other moral theory. It would be contradictory to say that an agent ought to take an action but that it is permissible for an agent to not be able to act, so if there is any purposive action agents take, they must claim generic rights necessary for the action. 

And, rights and duties are equivalent. For example, if Adam has a right to something, other agents have a correlative duty to respect that right.

Any legal system must thus protect agents’ rights to freedom and well-being since the rights justify and exist before the state.

Gewirth 3:


The persons addressed may, indeed, be a community in some broader sense as accepting more general moral or other rules; in this way even the references to the logical or intellectual rights mentioned above assume a community of persons who recognize and accept the relevant logical or intellectual criteria. At the present stage of the argument, however, where other persons have been introduced only as addressees of the agent's right-claim, they are a community only in the sense of accepting deductive and inductive criteria of reasoning and, as prospective agents, of having the same general conative motivations as characterize all agents. But the argument has shown that these criteria lead to the recognition that the agent's reason for his own right-claim reflects the conceptual and causal relations that freedom and well-being bear to action. In any more extensive sense of 'community,' the generic rights as claimed by the agent are logically prior to a community, in that they derive their validity not from the community but rather from his [the agent’s] own needs with regard to action. A community, indeed, will be legitimate, so far as the agent is concerned, only if it respects his generic rights. He is aware, however, that his addressees, being themselves actual or prospective agents, are at least capable of such respect. It will be shown below, moreover.¶ ¶ that to avoid contradicting himself the agent must admit that other persons have the same rights to freedom and well-being against himself as he here claims against them. In this way the initial prudential ground of his right-claim will logically lead him to recognize a moral ground for the rights of all other prospective purposive agents (3.5).¶ ¶ Although the most basic rights of freedom and well-being must be incorporated in a legal system, this does not hold for all rights, such as one's right that promises made by another person to oneself be kept or the right to be told the truth. In their primary use, moreover, rights are claimed not against governments but against other persons." The main justification of government is, indeed, to protect the most basic of these rights; but this [which] shows that the normative existence and implicit claiming of the rights are logically prior to the government that is appealed to for their protection, and the primary respondents of the rights are other persons; government's function is to help assure that these persons fulfill their correlative duties. The agent, then, need not directly invoke or recognize a government or a legal system in claiming the generic rights: for making these claims, it is sufficient in the first instance that he urge the requirement that all other persons respect the necessary conditions of his engaging in purposive action. 

This yields the “principle of generic consistency” or PGC: respect the generic rights of freedom and well-being of yourself and others.

The PGC is distributive, NOT aggregative since it concerns equality between the agent and recipient rather than general ends. And, because self-contradiction gives rise to rights claims, maximizing rights isn’t relevant because it’s not more contradictory to disrespect the rights of two agents than one.

Thus, the criterion is respect for the generic rights to freedom and well-being.   

To clarify: When two goods conflict, an agent must accept the more necessary good for without it the claim to the less necessary good is useless. Violating rights to give others more rights is a violation of the PGC.

AND, agents must be morally responsible for violating the PGC. First, the agent must know that it’s more likely than not that the harm will occur if they don’t intervene or else their inaction isn’t purposeful. Second, if some other agent is the cause of the harm, that agent is morally responsible since it’s their action that creates the harm’s sufficient conditions. This is the principle of intervening action.