Raya Bidshahri, 25th March 2014
When we are faced with moral questions in our everyday lives, sometimes we act impulsively or instinctively and sometimes we pause to think, not just about what to do, but about what we ought to do. Moral reasoning can be defined as being the process in which an individual tries to determine the difference between what is right and what is wrong in a personal situation using logic. Such use of logic can go beyond individual choices to include even more significant economic or ethical ones that concern our society as a whole. The use of logic in morality has been debated amongst philosophers, such as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, for decades. Regardless of the disputation, logic and reasoning undeniably have a significant role to play in telling us what is moral.
There are various thought processes that allow us to judge what we ‘ought’ to do but according to Lynn E. Swaner, there are four component to moral reasoning. The first of these is moral sensitivity, which is “the ability to see an ethical dilemma, including how our actions will affect others.” The second is moral judgement, which is “the ability to reason correctly about what ‘ought’ to be done in a specific situation”. The third is moral motivation, which is “a personal commitment to moral action, accepting responsibility for the outcome.” The fourth and final component of moral behavior is moral character, which is a “courageous persistence in spite of fatigue or temptations to take the easy way out.”
There are several other logical tools which we can utilize in order to arrive at moral conclusions. For instance, one can use “consequentialism” to judge whether an action is right or wrong based on its consequences. The best consequences can accordingly be defined as those that produce the greatest possible surplus of pleasure over pain. For example, a consequentialist may argue that lying can be right or wrong depending on the situation. It can probably be justified, for instance, to lie to a Nazi officer regarding the location of a Jewish friend in order to protect your friend. We can hence use our reasoning to weigh the end results or consequences of lying in order to determine whether it is something we ought to do.
This is one of the many reasons to why logic is such a powerful tool in determining moral actions: It is situational. Given that our society is in a constant state of flux, our morality often changes within time as a result of various factors including medical and scientific advancements. Logical thinking suggests that every situation can have a moral reasoning of its own, in contrast to following a handful of seemingly “exception less moral rules”. It is also an excellent way of dealing with novel moral dilemmas that arise as we progress as a species.
Similarly, utilitarianism is yet another normative ethical theory that places the locus of right and wrong solely on the outcomes of choosing one action/policy over other actions/policies. As a result, it moves beyond the scope of one’s own interests and takes into account the interests of others. One example of utilitarian thinking can be the tax system in the United States: the rich may not necessarily benefit from having to give up a greater portion of their income to the poor, but society as a whole benefits from this arrangement. Furthermore, in a situation where an individual needs to torture another in order to save the lives of millions, a utilitarian line of logic will tell you that the lives and happiness of the millions of others outweighs that of the single individual.
There is also the scientific reasoning that allows us to come to moral conclusions. For instance, medical advancements have added another layer to our understanding of death along with other organisms perceptions of pain. Such advancements and better definitional understandings of death can allow doctors to deal better with moral dilemmas concerning brain-dead patients, euthanasia and even animal testing.
Some philosophers such as David Hume claim that morality is based more on perceptions than on logical reasoning. They argue that people’s morality is based more on their emotions and feelings than on a logical analysis of any given situation. Hume regards morals as linked to passion, love, happiness, and other emotions and therefore not based on reason. He believes that although reason allows individuals to get what they want, it does not tell them what to want at the most basic levels. In other words, our most fundamental desires are guarded by unconscious passions and instinct.
Although this may be true, it still does not give any reason to why we as humans can’t use logic to not act upon these instincts, especially harmful ones. Most of us as individuals may not be accustomed to following well-structured logical processes when faced with a moral dilemma, but that does not mean we shouldn’t. This is especially true when considering that the most morally justified arguments, such as the ones explored in this essay, do not come from instinct but from various lines of reasoning. Hence, Logic may not tell us what we are accustomed to doing but rather what we ‘ought’ to do. Moral reasoning may not be the perfect solution to all our dilemmas, but it is undeniably the most objective and effective solution we have.