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I read this very short article from SEP on the topic of practical moral skepticism.

Practical moral skepticism answers the common question, “Why be moral?” This question, like many philosophical questions, is too short to be clear. It can be expanded and explained in several different ways.

Can someone act immorally if they both understand what "moral" means and (robustly) believe there is good reason to be moral?

I'm asking because I'm (idly) wondering whether the agents of immoral actions always lack moral reasoning: such that the existence of moral theory is entirely irrelevant to their choices (whether or not that is the state decides to put up with it, or punishes / educates them etc.).

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    My guess is that almost everyone, including the Stalins and Pol Pots of the world, believe themselves to be acting morally. I think only a true sociopath -- that is, an insane person -- would act in a way he simultaneously believes is immoral (those people exist, but I'm making the case that they're rare). Leaving aside the sociopaths, the reason we can point out so much immorality in the world despite the fact that everyone believes himself to be acting morally, is we differ on what it means to be moral. For example, a huge swath of the world probably thinks I'm immoral for my atheism. – Dan Bron Mar 18 '16 at 16:11
  • @DanBron off topic, but i never know why an appeal to fudged reasoning and "a painted paradise at the end of it" is good reason to behave, let alone a necessary one – user6917 Mar 18 '16 at 17:12
  • Your question reduces to "Can someone act one way when they believe there is a good reason to act another way?" Is that reduction part of what you were thinking of when you wrote the question? – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Mar 19 '16 at 6:40
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Can someone act immorally if they both understand what "moral" means and (robustly) believe there is good reason to be moral?

Certainly. Simply knowing the definition of the word, or even knowing the "right" thing to do in every circumstance and also knowing there is a compelling reason to do the right thing in every circumstance does not necessarily force a person into a life of moral actions without adequate moral reasoning.

I'm asking because I'm (idly) wondering whether the agents of immoral actions always lack moral reasoning: such that the existence of moral theory is entirely irrelevant to their choices (whether or not that is the state decides to put up with it, or punishes / educates them etc.).

A good (yet silly) example of this comes from TV sitcoms - it's common for the lovable, well-meaning characters to know what is the right thing to do and to really want to do the right thing but fail hilariously because of their own irrationality in sizing up situations.

I'd argue that this is the most sensible theory of how immorality usually works in the wild (i.e. no maniacal dictators, no sociopaths, etc.): people know what the right thing to do is and know that being moral is better than being immoral, but can't put two and two together to realize that they are in a situation where their moral reasoning is important. Instead, people act off of impulse, necessity, or short-sightedness, short-circuiting they reasoning process with heuristics that provide "easy answers" to the moral quandaries life demands them to solve (often on short time frames).

  • i liked your attempt to dissolve the question, both by pointing out the difference between knowledge and action, and appeal to everyday example. but i remain pretty unconvinced... – user6917 Mar 18 '16 at 17:10
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    Well we could discuss a moral agent with absolutely perfect knowledge of morality and unshaking dedication to the benefits of being moral over being immoral, but I fear that would lose the "practical" side of the puzzle. I'd like to hear more about why you're unconvinced, part of me is playing the devil's advocate here. – Derek Janni Mar 18 '16 at 17:30

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