Debate:Are moral decisions best made by rational thinking?

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This debate was inspired by a (now removed) line from Essay:Why religion is bullshit. It asserted that "Moral decisions are best made by rational thinking. For example, no rational person would begin a war, because it is obvious that it is deleterious for society and economy."

One minor correction to the above: there is technically no such thing as a "moral decision". Morals, strictly speaking, are what you believe in, nothing more. What the quote above meant is ethics, which is how you act on those beliefs, and when those beliefs start to affect others. It is possible for someone to be a "moral person", but still commit reprehensible (unethical) acts. --Star of David.png Radioactive Misanthrope 07:32, 1 February 2008 (EST)

From the essay's talk page[edit]

Actually, before I do, do you really want to go with this sentence: Moral decisions are best made by rational thinking. I think it may go a bit further than I would want to go. For instance there could be circumstances where starting wars, stealing or killing people might be the most rational choice - but not necessarily the most moral one.--Bobbing up 06:16, 27 January 2008 (EST)

Well, but if for example one steals things, then he will have no authority to forbid others to steal from him. So while he will have more possession in the short term, this is not true in the long term. Immoral decisions that appear rational usually are irrational if you think through all the consequences. Can you provide a counterexample? --Rational Thinker 06:30, 27 January 2008 (EST)
While it might be reasonable to conclude that if one steals things one could not forbid others from stealing from you, this is clearly not the case. Mafia bosses, for example, whose business are based on criminal activities have no problems forbidding others from stealing from them. Another question is - how long term? It is easy to imagine wealthy families whose fortunes were originally obtained by morally dubious terms and who have yet had to pay a price for selling slaves or weapons or whatever. Their were rational but immoral (at least in today's terms) but the long term has yet to punish them.--Bobbing up 08:19, 27 January 2008 (EST)
Mafiosi have a track record of killing each other for various reasons, so I wouldn't count that as a particularly rational lifestyle. Of course you might just not be caught stealing, but is it rational to live with the constant risk? Then maybe we have somewhat diverging notions of rationality. I mean, you can also survive Russian Roulette, but that doesn't make it a particularly rational pastime, does it? --Rational Thinker 09:13, 27 January 2008 (EST)
While rational decisions may be made on the level of risk involved, I don't think think moral ones should be. Logically, if I had literally zero risk of getting caught robbing a bank then it would be rational to do it. But it would clearly be wrong morally. Please note that I in no way make this point in an effort to support religious morality, but only to point out that suggesting that morality is based on rationality is a dubious philosophy.--Bobbing up 11:40, 27 January 2008 (EST)
Well, if you really want, edit that out, it's not the main point anyway ... I'm still not convinced however: your last example is definitely not a real-life example. And clearly, if you can rob a bank safely, then someone else should be able to do that, too. And if everyone starts robbing banks, the economy breaks down and money becomes worthless, so the robbery was not such a rational thing to do... But as I said, it's not the main point, so you can edit it... though I wonder, if you say that moral is based neither on religion nor on rationality, on what then? --Rational Thinker 12:11, 27 January 2008 (EST)
That is a very good question which we have debated here (somewhere) before. It seems to me that it comes from some sort of nebulous social development. Consider that this site includes deists, theists, agnostics, and atheists. But we all feel that, for example, slavery is wrong. A few hundred years ago we would probably not have thought this as a group. How is it that people of such different philosophical backgrounds would reach such similar conclusions? It would seem remarkably coincidental if we had independently and simultaneously reached this moral conclusion based on our theism, agnosticism atheism or whatever. The logical conclusion is that there is something which influences us independently of these views; and that we then back-reason this conclusion into our existing philosophies. What is it? The only thing that occurs to me is the ongoing moral evolution of society. I must say that I rather don't like even this interpretation very much as it seems to suggest that "evolution" means "better", which isn't necessarily the case either. But it's the best I've got. But OK with that out of the way I'll join in this one.  :-) --Bobbing up 12:51, 27 January 2008 (EST)

Current debate below here[edit]

There already is a moral philosophy based off of pure rational thought. It's called utilitarianism. To quote one textbook, and to be brutal and unfairly reduce an entire moral philosophy into a couple sentences, "the theory's most fundamental idea is that in order to determine whether an action would be right, we should look at what will happen as a result of doing it." As to what the goal of these results should be, it should be "the greatest good for the greatest number [of people]." Utilitarianism generally leads us to the same conclusions that a "rational" approach would, as Rational Thinker would probably describe it.

However, utilitarianism has largely fallen out of favor among philosophers because of some not insignificant issues. One example of these issues is that in utilitarianism, if suspending a civil right leads to greater happiness, then yes, that right can be suspended. A lengthier example would be if a murder is committed in a small town. An innocent man stands accused, but the murder, and subsequent delay of the execution of the accused, has caused riots to break out, causing even more needless deaths, trauma, and gross property damage. Utilitarianism holds that, if doing so would stop the riots then, yes, that innocent man not only can, but should be executed. Furthermore, if you also lived in this same town, utilitarianism would obligate you to bear false witness against the accused in order to more speed the execution along and stop the riots faster. To summarize this long-winded example, utilitarianism does not view "innocence" and "guilt" as intrinsically important. For that matter, neither does it hold a human being as intrinsically valuable. And finally, utilitarianism considers the motive behind actions to be irrelevant.

See what being "purely rational" in your morality gets you? --Star of David.png Radioactive Misanthrope 08:30, 1 February 2008 (EST)

The "utilitarian" solution in your last example is not what I would consider rational. It's just a stop-gap "solution" to a problem caused by the irrational behavior of the rioting people. The real rational solution would be to get the people to act rationally, not to appease them temporarily by executing an innocent. --Rational Thinker 09:16, 1 February 2008 (EST)
Follow the parameters of the hypothetical situation, RT. The people are already not acting rationally. Here, I'll express it in numbers for you:
Riots: 15 people dead; trauma; $250,000 property damages VS Executing innocent man: only 1 person dead; grief felt by his family/friends; collective guilt when town realizes they executed an innocent man (assuming they ever do).
As the oh-so-proud rational thinker here, which would you choose? --Star of David.png Radioactive Misanthrope 09:36, 1 February 2008 (EST)
Short term balance only. If you don't educate people to think and act rationally, they'll do it again and again and again. So you get Executing innocent man: only 1 person dead ... only 2 persons dead ... only N persons dead, N \to \infty. --Rational Thinker 10:07, 1 February 2008 (EST)
Fine, I'll let go of the utilitarianism-failed argument. Moving on...
Eventually they will stop rioting? That's very... laissez faire of you. And I can use the same argument against yours: Eventually they will stop: where t=time and n=persons dead, \lim_{t \to \infty}n=\infty "Eventually" suffers the same problem. --Star of David.png Radioactive Misanthrope 17:36, 1 February 2008 (EST)
What is it that makes any of that rational or not-rational? --AKjeldsenGodspeed! 10:26, 1 February 2008 (EST)
Kill an innocent man, and the killing will have no end. Refuse to kill an innocent man, and eventually people must realize that all their rioting bought them nothing but more death and destruction, and thus they will stop. The former: irrational. The latter: rational. Simple as that. --Rational Thinker 10:44, 1 February 2008 (EST)
How do you propose to make people rational, RT? --Star of David.png Radioactive Misanthrope 11:51, 1 February 2008 (EST)
Why, you just kill all the irrashional peoplez! --Rashunell tinkar 13:25, 1 February 2008 (EST)
Rt, please don't make asinine comments right now. I'm trying to discuss something, and your basically just trolling. --Star of David.png Radioactive Misanthrope 17:08, 1 February 2008 (EST)
ZOMG a troll on teh intertubes! killkillkillkillkill!!!
You make them rational by being rational yourself. They will see that their rioting and killing does no good and stop (unless they're irreparably stupid, in which case there is nothing to do anyway). If on the ohter hand you bear false witness and deceive them into thinking that somehow "justice" was made by killing an innocent person, they will never realise that something went wrong and behave the same way every time. --Rational Thinker 17:39, 1 February 2008 (EST)
Do you have any idea how long it takes for an angry mob/riot to calm down? --Star of David.png Radioactive Misanthrope 17:43, 1 February 2008 (EST)
Throw some cold water on them. "Execute" a dummy. Call the army and have those people locked into jail. In reality there is always a way out. You're making up a totally unrealistic scenario in an attempt to find a situation in which the "moral" decision (not killing an innocent) is not "rational" because there is this totally unstoppable "mob" which is killing ... whom? why? Doesn't make sense... --Rational Thinker 17:58, 1 February 2008 (EST)

I think a significant question is what exactly rationality is (and I note with some irony that RationalWiki does not have an article on it), or whether there exists some kind of objectively rational behaviour, as some people believe (and interestingly enough, they usually identify it as what they in particular consider to be rational behaviour)? There are some serious philosophical issues hidden there, which the proponents of rationalism usually seem rather oblivious to, possibly because they tend to be of a more... shall we say, natural scientific mindset. With that objection in mind, I really find it difficult to see why "rational thinking" should be neither better nor worse than e.g. religion as as basis for moral decisions. --AKjeldsenGodspeed! 09:18, 1 February 2008 (EST)

Actually (and without furthering the debate very much) we do have a stub on Rationalism.--Bobbing up 09:38, 1 February 2008 (EST)
Rationality is the property of being rational. In other words, it is the property of being like me. --Rashunell tinkar 13:27, 1 February 2008 (EST)

Whee, back to Philosophy of Ethics college class... Simply put, Utilitarianism is "the end justifies the means". As long as the means is less 'bad' than the end, do it. This really irks civil libertarians. Another example is "should you stay in a job that you don't like because it makes your co-workers happy?"

You also have the question of 'how do you measure utility?' The sum of the happiness of the society? This has the awkwardness if you have a community of... lets say cannibalistic rapists (bear with me for a bit) that rapes, kills, and eats anyone who visits from out of town. This really makes them happy. Some readings of utilitarianism say go ahead, that was the right thing to do.

The 'simple' answer is that if everyone behaved perfectly rationally, then moral decisions could be made rationally too. Give Kant a good read.

Until then, find a karaoke bar and enjoy [1]. Remember, Plato had it right... the best place to talk about philosophy and women are with a bunch of guys with beer and/or wine in hand. Karaoke will have to do. --Shagie 18:32, 1 February 2008 (EST)

Philosophy Ethics Utilitariapastafarism bla bla bla Kant Plato Karaoke crap and shit. I AM SOOO K00L!!! — Unsigned, by: / talk / contribs

Fresh start; ignore the crappy hypothetical made above[edit]

Rational Thinker, could you define for me what you mean when you say "rational"? If you would supply how your definition of it, we can proceed from that common ground. --Star of David.png Radioactive Misanthrope 19:13, 1 February 2008 (EST)

Based on logical thought and not on authority. --Rational Thinker 19:20, 1 February 2008 (EST)
Right. and "logical" means based on rational thought. duh. — Unsigned, by: / talk / contribs
While most philosophies can (sort of) be condensed to a single sentence, like what you just said, they can't be fully appreciated without a more elaborate description. Could you describe the larger framework this logical thought operates on (i.e. what assumptions does it have about the world, what things does it hold as intrinsically valuable, and how would it go about solving common ethical dilemmas)? --Star of David.png Radioactive Misanthrope 19:33, 1 February 2008 (EST)
All assumptions can be derived by scientific observation. For example, we observe a life instinct in humans, thus life must be preserved. "Common ethical dilemmas"? As in "weird scenarios that never happen in real life"? --Rational Thinker 19:42, 1 February 2008 (EST)
Oh, come on. Common ethical dilemmas, you know, stuff that happens in real life, every frickin' day. For example, "Am I morally obligated to boycott businesses that use sweatshops?" or "Is it ethical to buy myself a new car, even though I don't really need it, instead of spending the money on charity to Darfur?" or "can I shoot a burglar whom breaks into my house, with a strong possibility of killing him by doing so, even though he is probably only going to steal my valuables?" or maybe "Is it immoral to not provide health care to those whom can't afford it?" Stuff like that. --Star of David.png Radioactive Misanthrope 19:56, 1 February 2008 (EST)
Also, to directly address something you said above, "we observe a life instinct in humans, thus life must be preserved", animals—including many insects—also possess a strong survival instinct. Should we preserve their lives too? What happens when we have to choose between helping humans and helping animals—how would you justify treating animals as being less valuable than humans? Using what standards? And how would those standards not be arbritrary? --Star of David.png Radioactive Misanthrope 20:09, 1 February 2008 (EST)
May I butt in at this point to note that something never happening in everyday life is no reason not to discuss it; Rational Thinker's a great fan of the idea that if a theory doesn't work in every case, it should be discarded. Also, thought experiments. --מְתֻרְגְּמָן שְׁלֹום
I liek cars. --Rashunell tinkar 20:17, 1 February 2008 (EST)
So, i liek mudkipz. Refute that! --מְתֻרְגְּמָן שְׁלֹום

Opening up (albeit with tweazers) a 2-month-old debate[edit]

If a decision cannot be rationalized using any kind of logic (except the CP sysops') than it cannot be justified, and so cannot be judged under normal standards. For example, the decision to drop a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima can be rationalized, but much of the logic relied upon to justify it is opinion instead of fact, thus rendering the decision neither good nor bad, but debatable. So while rational thinking can lead to good decisions, rational thinking is really just thinking. Rational logic, however, is not rational thinking, and it can lead to good decisions. Good decisions are always based on good morals and good initiatives, so if both of these things are rationally proven to be good then the decision is automatically a good one. Lyra Belaqua Communique Delegate scorecard 18:12, 25 March 2008 (EDT)

I think (!) "rational thinking" meant, by implication, "rational logic". Anywho, to address your main point(s)... every moral philosophy ever described has used (or at least attempted to use) its own internal, rational logic (yes, even the "feelings"-based ones—please, no sidetracking into definitions). The real challenge with rational logic has been fitting that internal logic into the "external logic" of the real world.
All moral systems suppose that certain things are more valuable than others. How do we logically, rationally arrive at these assigned values, in a way that isn't arbritrary?
P.S. Thanks for reopening this debate, Lyra. I miss these sorts of discussions. --Star of David.png Radioactive Misanthrope 18:37, 25 March 2008 (EDT)
The moral values stem from primal instinct and culture. For example, the Aztecs valued (for the purpose of this discussion) pleasing the gods over human life. The way that they arrived at this system of morals is very logical and not at all arbitrary. Culture is influenced by setting, and we'd all currently have the morals of the Aztecs if we had all seen evidence that there were real gods that must be pleased. The Aztecs during their period of cultural developement must have been influenced by some sort of percieved evidence. The evidence itself could be arbitrary, I agree, but not the method. So moral decisions are entirely based on rational thinking that is set by your system of morals.
Rational thinking is defined as thinking that can be rationalized by your set of morals. This would reinforce my argument that rational thinking cannot yield basically moral or immoral decisions. "Moral" is in the eye of the beholder.
P.S. Thanks. Do you have to explain the afikomen thing to people or do people get it that aren't Jewish? Lyra Belaqua Communique Delegate scorecard 19:14, 25 March 2008 (EDT)

Moot point[edit]

Ok, it doesn't look like any conclusions were reached here, unless you've become convinced by all the subtle hints many of you seem to have left that this is probably a moot point, so I might as well try to conclude this. Let us pretend that we can consistently distinguish a "moral decision" from a "decision that does not involve morality" (to be clear, I'm not sure I could consistently make such a distinction, but I'm not ruling out the possibility). Let us then arbitrarily decide, for the sake of argument, that "moral decisions" should not be made using rational thought. What kind of thought should then be used? What other kind of thought is there? Random thought? Are humans capable of genuinely random thought? Have you ever tried to think of random things? Say random things? I have, and it never works. After taking a second look at whatever I said/thought, I always conclude that there was a pattern to those things. I don't believe that rational thought can ever really be "turned off". It can be deceived by false data, bad assumptions, incomplete awareness, etc. So can any computer. If the postulates are not consistent with reality, no analysis, however logical and extensive, can make any reliable predictions about reality. That's how religion, sun god worship, pseudoscience, and related phenomena come into existence. The people considering these things have incomplete understanding, generally, in these examples, a lack of understanding of the scientific method of testing and falsifying predictions systematically using experimental data. They also likely lack awareness of the personal gain sought by proponents of such things. If they understood how to systematically analyze these claims and had valid information to begin with, they would consistently reject them. As it is, most people don't properly understand these tools, so they have to improvise with the best system of rational thought they can manage. Really, if you back up and look at the really big picture here, that's all any of us do. None of us have perfect understanding of the universe, so all of us will engage in some amount of rational thinking based on incorrect or incomplete data, knowledge, or postulates. Call them what you will. So, in my attempt to render this a moot point, I'll ask again: what can be used to make moral decisions other than rational thought?

P.S. (since "P.S."s seem to be the popular thing recently in this debate): RA certainly shouldn't have to explain "afikomen" to any of us wiki-savvy folk who can simply type in "afikomen" on Wikipedia and read all about it (or just click on my handy wiki-link). BTW, this aspiring physicist, with his modest understanding of radiation, does not recommend consuming a radioactive afikomen. It would most definitely ruin your Passover. Good night. OneForLogic 01:19, 26 July 2008 (EDT)

Bringing a years-old argument forward...[edit]

In "Moot Point" above, the important issue of people's inability to make completely rational decisions is brought up. I fully agree, but feel that this issue is far more complicated. While I wouldn't agree that the argument is futile (primarily because there is something to be gained even in the act of discussing it), it is certainly nearly impossible to nail down as a universal truth, appropriate in all times and all places.

The point is made that rational thought cannot, generally, be turned off. This seems generally to be true: every decision we make is made for a reason; that reason comprises many (often a GREAT many) minor and major thought processes that lead us to making that decision. This is, in a nutshell, the process of rationalization. In terms of application to actions, clearly some things are hard-wired and require (or even allow) no rational thought; retracting one's hand from a hot object, for instance, is an instinctual response; no rationalization necessary or allowed. However, any action or decision that doesn't fall under the category of raw instinct is arrived at through rationalization.

This is not to say that the rationale used is logical. Perhaps it's all semantics, but it strikes me that this is actually what this discussion is dealing with. As an example, a person in an abusive relationship often rationalizes staying in that relationship. They may attempt to apply logic (as best they are able to) to the situation, but this logic is imperfect; emotion is involved. Thus, their rationalization of the topic is tainted, and the conclusion often fails to be purely logical, potentially leading to a decision which is harmful, often to multiple parties.

To make my argument, I must stipulate the following:

1. Human Societal Structure has at least some of its basis in human emotional reactions to stimuli.

2. The morals of actions are often interpreted differently with respect to different human societies at different and/or similar points in history.

3. Decisions which are perfect in their logic-based rationality are unemotional decisions

The first two premises are not complicated, and are quite obvious to see without a lengthy proof; if necessary, I (or any number of people on RW) could easily supply both proofs, as the nature of the statements would require a single consistency in order for them to have perfect truth values. The third premise is quite a bit more complicated -- it's a long-standing topic of philosophical discussion. Considering this community, I imagine it is something that the vast majority of us believe very strongly. (If there is a potential weak point in this argument this would be it; tackle it as you see fit.)

In considering the first two premises, it seems that logical rationality cannot make universally moral decisions. This is because assuming premise 1 (human society is at least partially emotionally rooted) and premise 2 (morals are interpreted differently in different societies) are true, there is a level at which emotion is inextricably tied to morals. If this is in fact the case, then premise 3 (decisions which have perfect logic-based rationality are unemotional) suggests that decisions which are perfectly logical in terms of their rationality cannot possibly be applied to morals. --Silent Tadpolesexes your brain 19:35, 6 June 2010 (UTC)


Yes, otherwise you get stupid ideals of 'morality' like 'no gay marridge.' Bazer63 (talk) 09:06, 12 July 2014 (UTC)

Moral decisions require free will[edit]

Moral decisions can only be made in this way since only when we use reason are we truly free. Furthermore, when we think rationally instincts, emotions and other parts of our self play their part. However when we do not use rational thinking, a part of our self, namely our rational self-conscious brain is excluded from the decision. This causes our consciousness to suffer unnecessarily. How can we call a decision which leads to unnecessary suffering moral?

You can't selectively activate some parts of the brain at the exclusion of others at will. A healthy adult human will be using their rational and emotional mind together at all times (whilst conscious). How can we define necessary suffering? Where there is a choice between two forms of suffering, which form is by definition rational? There are priorities and judgment calls involved in moralising - ones which cannot be streamlined into a simple 'X is better than Y' format. Hypothetical: An Aid worker in an impoverished part of the world is lonely. Sex work is commonplace there. Is paying for sex (and alleviating someone's hunger - and possibly their child's hunger) more or less moral than allowing them to avoid the indignities of sex work by staying home alone? Both options necessitate suffering. One has to decide which form of suffering is the most emotionally uncomfortable, or the easiest to rationalise/justify. ~ Guest