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April 8, 2017 / Congau

Rational Morality

Morality is an opinion of right conduct. Everybody has at least some vague idea about the proper way to behave and even the vilest criminal expects people to act according to a certain standard. Of course that standard doesn’t always rest on clear and sound principles, but when pressed, anyone would produce some sort of answer that would at least pretend to be rational.

Animals follow a law of behavior that conforms to a principle in their instinct. Human beings are capable of choosing and any active choice has an element of rationality. If a person can give any explanation of his behavior except “it just feels right”, it must be based on some sort of reasoning and an observer may then demonstrate if the reasoning is valid or not.

True, we don’t always explain, even to ourselves, why we act the way we do. Much of our daily behavior has indeed become mechanical and governed by mere feeling. We have formed habits that take the place of the animal instinct. But underneath those unthinking habits, there will still be a conscious base. We like to think that what we do is right. No one imagines himself a pre-programmed robot without a will on his own.

We are aware that we have learned things, but we think we have learned them because they are right and not that they are right because we have learned them. We approve of our good habits.

The development of morality is certainly an interaction between rationality and sentiment, but if something is only a feeling, it cannot be a moral judgment. Feelings cannot be right or wrong in themselves, but only if they conform to some rational standard. It may be true that many people never try to put their moral sentiments up for a rational test, but they will still be convinced that that rationality exists.

We wouldn’t really be upset about people’s bad behavior if we thought our own reaction was just a feeling. After a moment of reflection we would shrug our shoulders and dismiss it as a matter of taste.

If morality were just a feeling, it wouldn’t be morality for morality is an idea about what is right or wrong and feelings are not right or wrong.

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