What is [interpersonal] moral legitimacy, and do we need it?

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This topic contains 134 replies, has 9 voices, and was last updated by  Davis 5 years, 6 months ago.

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    Simon Paynton

    The latter turns religion into a tool for self-glorification. A religion’s adherents assume themselves to be moral by default, and so they never bother to question themselves.

    – so people can do wrong, thinking they’re doing right, just because they are the legalistic pharisees.  By wrong, I mean it can end up being very very wrong.  No good comes of no good.  People really do need a handle on interpersonal integrity and ethics.

    Wayward people who think they’re perfect can cause a LOT of damage.




    Simon Paynton

    @brightsky – thanks for the introductory lecture on Kant’s Categorical Imperative.  It is very interesting.

    I think Kant’s Categorical Imperative is pretty much rubbish, because:

    – it’s not any kind of test for moral (ethical) or immoral behaviour, because it has a number of exceptions: for example, lying, stealing or breaking promises do not pass his universalisation test, yet they may be the right thing to do in some circumstances.

    – he doesn’t give any criteria for what is a “good” or “bad” result or world to live in as a consequence of following the maxim.  Rather, he doesn’t define right and wrong in a basic way.  What should be our basic values?

    I appreciate his emphasis on duty.  What is our duty as felt by human beings?  I think it’s “helping in response to need” and “treating others with respect”.

    I really like his concept of “ends and means” whereby human beings are an end in themselves and not a means to something else.


    1. Agree, what does a person do when one has conflicting Kantian duties? You know to tell the truth, but also to preserve life! ( axe murder example who is looking for a victim).
    2. Do you think it would be possible to understand the main normative ethical frameworks and use a combination of all 3 to arrive at a sensible and practical solution. For the real world situations?

    Like as described by John Rawls in Reflective equilibrium?


    Simon Paynton

    As far as I’m concerned, there are three stages to a “moral” action (that which affects others):

    1. intentions
    2. actions
    3. consequences.

    Probably 1) corresponds to “duty”.

    I believe that all three “normative ethical frameworks” – which are duty, virtue, consequences (?), are combined in this formula:  “when we act, all those affected by our action are to receive the maximum benefit and minimum harm available to them”.  This is equivalent to Jesus’ “love God, and love your neighbour as yourself”.



    Simon I really don’t think you have understood deontological moral systems. Kant never outright said it is okay to break your moral rule. In essence, if you have posited a moral rule, it’s your duty to follow that rule and to not self-justify an exception (especially since we cannot possibly know the outcome of that decision) and that justifications are extremely difficult to work out. He might have lied but he admitted he was breaking his moral rule and that ultimately that would be an arbitrary act which undermined the moral rule. No one ever said that you must abide by that rule without exception, you can do whatever you want, but to be authentic you have to accept that you allowed yourself to do what you expect others not to.

    Probably 1) corresponds to “duty”.

    Again, you really need to read up more on Kant’s and others’ deontological ethics because duty absolutely does NOT correspond to intention. I know you are trying to jam your own take on Jesus morality into it…but they are two so completely different moral systems and you have used duty in a way that makes little sense. How did you reach that conclusion? In deontological systems your duty is to legitimize your moral rules by not pleading exceptions. In virtue ethics your duty is to virtue. I’ve never heard any meaningful use of duty in your type of moral system.

    I One of the strengths of deontological ethics is that it doesn’t fall for the illusion that “exceptions” can be rationally justified. They might be emotionally justified (like when Kant was stuck with a difficult challenge to his theory where you could not win either way) but not logically justified. Other moral systems put 99% of their efforts into a mly futile exercise of justifying exceptions to moral rules, usually informed by their own cultural background than through reliable logic and reason.

    Agree, what does a person do when one has conflicting Kantian duties?

    You do one of two things. You stay true to your rule. When you follow your rule in a difficult situation it adds legitimacy to the general rule and strengthens it. There is a general misunderstanding that if you break your rule in a difficult situation, then it makes you bad and it entirely implodes that moral rule. This is not the case. However, for most deontological systems, you should be authentic with what you have done, admit that you broke one of your rules and that it is almost futile to try to justify it. You can explain why you wanted to do it, but it is rationally indefensible. That is, if you break your rule in the hope that it will turn out in such and such a way then you must admit you failed to follow your own moral rules and that you put your own self-interests or emotion (or even the self-interests of others) ahead of the moral rule (which you would expect others to uphold when you deal with them).

    Once again, you can not break the rule, strengthening the legitimacy and integrity of the moral rule…or you can break that rule and not necessarily be judged as “bad for doing it” especially if you can admit you did so arbitrarily (regardless of the good intention) in the hope that it works out well for most people.

    I wouldn’t take Kant’s dilemma here too seriously. It was born from a story about what Kant said when challenged and he was given a question where it was win and lose one way and win and lose the other way. In the end he said he would just keep his mouth shut (or so they say). It’s a cop-out and he admitted it was a cop-out. No human being could ever possibly adhere to their universal moral rules all the time. And he reminded the reader of this throughout his magum opus. Ultimately there is no question of which you should do. The question is can you admit the implications of what you have done (and the futility of rationally justifying it) if you fail to adhere to your own moral rules?

    • This reply was modified 5 years, 6 months ago by  Davis.


    Do you think it would be possible to understand the main normative ethical frameworks and use a combination of all 3 to arrive at a sensible and practical solution. For the real world situations?

    No. It is next to impossible to rationally and objectively pull this off. How on Earth could we? We cannot predict the future, we don’t know what other people consider a  desirable result, we speculate and intuitively answer these questions much more than rationally working it out. Every moral system deals with real world situations. We don’t make ones just to deal with the really difficult ones. One of the tests is how well your system stands up to really difficult situations. For many moral systems, in difficult situations the system falls apart and the agent usually goes ahead and does what the emotionally or culturally or self-centredly feel is right. If a moral system allows that, then the moral system is reduced to a stronger one with daily decisions and a very weak one when one has to make important and difficult decisions, especially if that system says your actions were “justified” within that moral system. It is a myth that you can arrive at a sensible and practical solution to problems without resorting to emotional, cultural and self-centred factors. What one person claims is sensible the other claims as selfish. One claims it is rational…the other claims it is just repeating what your father and their father and their father always did. No one has pulled off a working matrix with an objective means of qualitatively judging actions, reliably judging possible future results and working out the most balanced choice. Like most moral systems it sounds good on paper. It falls apart in real life (especially when it claims it is justified to do whatever you thought would be best anyways when in a difficult situation).



    I agree with all the statements above. It is very difficult maybe almost impossible. But I was thinking in terms of applied ethics.

    What does one do in real life situations. Which I agree its difficult or maybe impossible! To logically arrive at the “right” values based answers?

    But some how ordinary everyday people ( atheist or believers) I think make reasonable moral choices.

    I was thinking how does one get there? What is the process?




    I was thinking how does one get there? What is the process?

    Hi Brightsky. I understand now what you mean. It obviously depends on the person. First because atheists are an enormous multicultured multi-ideaology group with little in common other than lacking a belief in God. If you randomly picked an atheist from a Chinese Village and an atheist from a European city … they would very likely differ on many moral rules and how they approach decision making.

    But if we narrow the field down to humanistic Western democracy atheists. Still…it depends a lot. Some people (often those who have studied philosophy, ethics/morality, theology etc) have taken advantages of the tools they learnt from philosophy. I myself dig deontological ethics and whenever I break a broad general rule I later ask myself why I did it, how it happened, what the consequences are and how comfortable I am with it (of course not for every single time but you get my idea). Others do the same with other moral systems or a mix or who knows. While people may try to incorporate or have a moral system inform their choices, it is very unlikely that the moral system itself can overcome cultural, personal, emotional, self-interested, sociological, psychological forces. Perhaps it gives some people an edge or at least an ability to rationalize decision making and not feel quite so overwhelmed by uncertainty.

    But you are probably referring to the people who never put too too much though into their actions, developed their sense of morality over time (we are assuming they are in general nice sympathetic people). How do they make their decisions? It’s a mixture of so many factors it’s impossible to spell out a formula. Factors include:

    • Country (and even city)
    • Class
    • Gender
    • Culture
    • Education
    • Intelligence
    • Ability to sympathise
    • Propensity to sympathise
    • Ability to empathise
    • Propensity to empathise
    • Frequency of thinking out bad decisions
    • How emotional you are
    • How you deal with your emotions
    • How you internalise your emotions
    • Chance
    • The advice and influence of others
    • Subconscious forces
    • Parents and grandparents
    • Ability to influence and convince others
    • Patience
    • Pain tollerance

    And the list goes on. Remarkably, despite this long (and very incomplete list) most people when it comes to most of their decisions, don’t to scumbaggy things and are generally empathetic to others when they make it and try to balance self-interest with the interests of others to some degree.

    Or you can take my favourite rule from wikipedia:

    Don’t be a dick.

    I suppose may people hold that principle in their mind often when making a decision. In any case, decision making and philosophy of mind and neuroscience are only beginning to crack the process of how we make decisions. We have barely dipped our feet into the pool. If you are interested in philosophy (or better yet have a chance to take an ethics class or human behavior class) I highly recommend following it. Most especially because it brings up a lot of question per to what extent are our decisions made subconsciously with little conscious effort put into it (it seems from early research that a LOT of our decisions are done behind the scenes) and it also brings into question what role (if any) does free will play. When I look at new philosophy scolarships and research funding…the far majority of it is for research in neuro-philosophy, ethics (especially bio-ethics and business-ethics) and to a lesser degree philosophy of politics and education. Such a great time to be following this!!!

    • This reply was modified 5 years, 6 months ago by  Davis.

    Simon Paynton

    @brightsky – “how does one get there? What is the process?

    – this is why we have Judge Judy.  Two well-meaning parties can honestly disagree about what is the right thing to do.  There are moral dilemmas.  I think it’s good to stick to “truth and compassion” and then one can’t go far wrong.  This is because, thriving is taken as a basic value, and truth is necessary in order to know what’s going on.

    Beyond that, the formula I gave above checks individual selfishness while preserving as far as possible self-interest.  It also implies duty (to treat others with respect, Golden Rule etc.), virtue (do the job right) and consequences (benefit/harm).



    I read the comments from different people above there’s a lot of good and valid opinions there.

    You mention the ” Golden Rule” what’s your opinion on that compared to ” the categorical imperative ”

    Do you think its possible using purely rational methods to arrive at universal moral principles?

    Instead of relying on religious moral precepts?

    Is Socrates  “Euthyphro dilemma” a reasonable argument?



    Do you think its possible using purely rational methods to arrive at universal moral principles?

    Since overwhelming evidence shows that we have evolved from very less complicated lifeforms that are not held to moral standards why would anyone assume existence of universal moral principals (or the eternal justice that half-witted theists used to control entire generations for their benefit?) Our morality evolved along with our brains and there is nothing universal about it. A troop of monkeys have their system, ancient Aztecs had theirs and ISIS has theirs. Even the “don’t be a dick” concept is useless because a definition of what constitutes being a dick will vary greatly.

    If you start reenacting the Bible by selecting random passages you will probably be arrested in no time, so forget that book for morality guidance, we passed that up the day after it was printed.


    Simon Paynton

    @brightsky – “You mention the ” Golden Rule” what’s your opinion on that compared to ” the categorical imperative ”

    – I think the categorical imperative translates to “how would you like it if everyone behaved like that?” in everyday life.

    The Golden Rule depends on putting a valued person (oneself, a loved one, a friend) in the place of another (possibly a stranger) who is in need, so in its “positive” form, it is useable, versatile and caring right from the start.  There is probably a “negative” version too, but I can’t think what it would be.

    I would say that out of the two, the Golden Rule is a lot more versatile.  However, the Categorical Imperative does get used from time to time.

    Do you think its possible using purely rational methods to arrive at universal moral principles?

    – yes.  1) because natural selection is relative, and the resulting evolutionary arms race, all beings experience an overwhelming imperative to reproduce, survive and thrive.  2) assuming that we want to care about others, and assuming that morality concerns acts that affect others, then how is the process of thriving to be “shared out” when we do things (i.e. seek to thrive)?  The answer is in the formula I gave above.

    Michael Tomasello (“A Natural History of Morality”) comes to a similar conclusion regarding universal principles (helping, fairness) by looking at the evolution of cooperation and morality.  They are universal because they are interpersonal, and we all experience interpersonal relations.

    Jesus gave the same formula (love God, love your neighbour as yourself”).



    Jesus gave the same formula (love God, love your neighbour as yourself)

    Meaningless.  The formula Jesus gave us was that human sacrifice is required and that your “sins” are not your responsibility as long as you believe. It’s repugnant. Come on Simon, dig a little deeper.



    OK there is some good points about the difficulty of finding ” universal moral values ”

    With good examples, about values being in the realm of personal subjective opinion. Which I think is true.

    Maybe ” universal ” is not the correct term.

    I used that word as I was thinking about The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

    Are these kind of cooperative efforts by people to get some kind of Benchmarks.

    For moral values are helpful?

    Even though values by their very own nature are values & not facts can people get to some sort of consensus?

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