Moral Reasoning vs. Moral Behavior

For a variety of reasons, I’ve spent quite a bit of time on issues of morality thus far in my blogging. Part of it is the sheer necessity of moral decision-making in a world in which one’s actions can so easily have an impact on other people. Part of it is my general interest in the ethical component of philosophy. Most of it, I suspect, is the fact that morality has become so tarnished as a concept, so twisted and misinterpreted and wrongheaded, that most of us shudder when anyone mentions “moral values,” because we recognize that as (typically) shorthand for the stubborn, arrogant imposition of one set of prejudices on an entire society. In this post, I’d like to address an important division in thinking about morality: the division between moral reasoning (process) and moral behavior (end).

(Side note: I should probably also make it clear that I’m using ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ pretty much interchangeably in these posts. This is perhaps not the best of ideas, and maybe in future posts I’ll be more precise in using ‘ethics’ to denote the philosophical inquiry into the nature of right and wrong, and ‘morality’ to denote the social/cultural systems generated thereof. For now, though, just pretend they’re identical.)

End Over Means?

Obviously moral behavior is a worthwhile goal, assuming the morality upon which it’s based is reasonable, self-consistent, and consonant with the fundamental values of everyone involved. Moral systems exist for the purpose of producing a group/society in which the default mode of interaction (not killing/raping/robbing Person X on the street) is optimal for the participants in the system, so clearly the “end state” of such systems is significant. The overall “morality” of a society (low rates of murder/theft/rape, lack of institutionalized slavery, etc.) is both a desirable goal and a partial barometer of the success of a given moral system. Its abilities to measure success, however, must be tempered by an understanding of the distinction between moral reasoning and moral behavior.

The Means Matter

Moral reasoning can be thought of as one possible way—but not the only way—of arriving at moral behavior. One might arrive at a belief that killing people is a Bad Thing by virtue of a religious teaching that murder is sinful. One might also infer the badness of murder based on the fact that it’s illegal. Both of these situations would be examples of faulty reasoning arriving at the correct conclusion—many things that religious traditions label as sinful are things about which no moral argument can be made, and many laws have been made in the past that are now universally recognized as unjust. When evangelical Christians claim that by disallowing displays of the Ten Commandments in public court buildings we are rejecting morality, they are conflating moral reasoning and moral behavior. In disallowing such displays, we are rejecting, among other things, the notion that religious doctrine is a proper method for dictating governmental systems of morality—law. We are rejecting the means, the reasoning. It also happens that most of the Commandments have no place in a rational system of morality, but that’s beside the point. Even if the Commandments were all self-consistent and based on universal human values, which is to say even if they were all proper conclusions, the reasoning upon which they are based is faulty. This doesn’t invalidate the conclusions themselves, but it is important to keep the means and ends separate here.

Process in a Changing World

The means in a moral system are significant for a number of reasons. Without an understanding of the reasoning behind the system, one would be much more likely to either break the rules or twist them in ways that make them inappropriate. An exclusively rule-based moral system may be mostly successful, but it is built on authority; when the authority starts to crumble, so does the moral system. A rule-based system will also, in the process of codifying the conclusions of specific lines of moral reasoning, compound the possibilities of inconsistency within the system, since the tiniest error in creating or articulating the rules can lead to rules that contradict each other. For any moral system to be successful, it must be wholly consistent within its bounds. (One commonly-offered argument against the moral codes of Christian doctrine is that they are wildly inconsistent. This is one thing Catholicism has going for it, doctrinally—the Catholic Church may be notoriously fickle, but at least there is a consistency between views on, say, abortion and capital punishment.)

At any rate, to my mind the strongest argument for the necessity of moral reasoning is the fact that without a mechanism for generating moral conclusions, we are potentially at a loss for ways to deal with new situations in human interaction. No matter how extensive and well-planned a rule-based moral system may be, without a strong consciousness of the reasoning and the principles behind the rules, it will likely fall short when confronted with situations its designers didn’t anticipate. This is not only true in the sense of changing understandings of social realities (see the Three-Fifths Compromise) but is also relevant when we’re placed in new and challenging situations about which our given moral codes don’t have much to say, simply because the authors of the codes couldn’t foresee the changes that centuries would bring. Human society is massive and ever-changing, even if it’s dwarfed by the universe, and it’s necessary for us to have ways of dealing with these changes in reality and understanding. To that end, it would behoove us all to have a better understanding of moral reasoning and how it works/should work, so that we are more able to deal with both new situations and lack of foresight (or intelligence, or honesty, or consistency) on the part of those who generate the moral codes upon which we base our laws.

Hindsight and Foresight

In a similar vein, it occurs to me that there is a subtle difference between the aims of morality-by-decree/revelation and those of morality-by-reasoning. The former often seems to be far more concerned with judging past actions—with quantifying sin and virtue for the sake of sorting the innocent from the guilty, the Heavenbound from the Hellbound. This is not to say that there’s not a serious forward-looking component to many religious teachings on morality, but in many cases, the generative side of religious morality is sacrificed to the altar of the judgment side of things. Morality-by-reasoning, on the other hand, is almost exclusively concerned with guiding actions in the present and the future. Judgment in a rational moral system exists in a role subservient to the guiding of actions and decisions; a rational moral system, one that is fully conscious of process rather than just ends (rules), is more fundamentally about what we should and should not do than what we should or should not have done. It acknowledges that punishment and reward are necessary in shaping desires (see Alonzo Fyfe on desire utilitarianism) so as to create a moral society, but that they’re not ends in and of themselves.

The Role of Law

This leads me to the related question of what the proper relationship between law and morality ought to be. This is something I’ve been meaning to address for some time, and I’ll save most of my thoughts on it for a later post, but I would like to elucidate the connection between the two briefly. Law is, in short, a vehicle by which we arrive at an ethical society. It is a codifying of morality-as-social-contract, enforced by governmental institutions so as to cultivate moral behavior, i.e. to protect those fundamental human rights we deem to be universal and inalienable (life, liberty, property, autonomy, etc.), thereby creating an optimal situation for individual and group. It should not be confused with moral reasoning or justification (that something is legally prohibited does not make it unjust), but it is another means to the end of moral behavior, one that is employed precisely because we can’t count on everyone else’s abilities of moral reasoning. In this pragmatic sense, law is necessary, but it is not, in the grand scheme of things, a sufficient substitute for genuine moral reasoning. Legal codes may cultivate moral behavior most of the time, but it cannot be argued that they make moral reasoning irrelevant, not as long as there are a) people breaking laws and b) laws that are unjust. I suspect that, humans being as imperfect as all other creatures, these things will both continue to be the case. I choose to hold out hope that there will continue to be progress, however—advancement in our understanding of what makes things right and wrong—and that people will embrace rational morality not just out of high-minded intellectual nobility but also out of intelligent self-interest.


Apologies for the more-than-usually-rambling nature of this post. It took on a life of its own, as these things are wont to do. The crux of my argument can be boiled down to this: moral reasoning and moral behavior are two different things. They are causally connected but not interchangeable. That a given system or process produces generally moral behavior does not mean that its mode of reasoning is sound, and it is necessary for there to be a consistent and logical mode of reasoning where morality is concerned. Without such reasoning, moral systems become more fragile than they ought to be, and we inevitably end up with dismal failures of moral judgment. For these reasons, it is necessary that we all develop a solid understanding of the process of moral reasoning, and that we not be lulled into thinking that moral behavior implies good moral reasoning, for no such implication exists.



7 Responses to Moral Reasoning vs. Moral Behavior

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