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If someone acts immorally - assuming some sort of free will - then they are doing so despite it being demonstrably wrong, i.e. it is a mistake as surely as 1+1=3 is a mistake. Doesn't this then give the idea of a 'bad' person a different implication - we wouldn't say the same to someone if they made a mistake in math or in their finances yet people who are simply in moral reasoning get this pejorative label. Does this then imply that as a society in our language that all humans have an innate understanding of morality to be even able to claim that they are bad not simply ignorant. Nevertheless, it seems different to say someone made an irrational decision (by inflicting gratuitous pain) and might be an irrational person than to say they are an evil one.

The difficulty I am facing is that to make an immoral decision appears like it must be ignorant and irrational, as one who fully understood right and wrong and the implications would realize they had an imperative to act differently, but this seems wholly different to our conception of evil and whether someone is evil.

Edit: I may have been a bit lax with my terms. I was saying that if one acts immorally, then either one is ignorant of morality or one is irrational, i.e. understand moral obligations but nevertheless ignore them. E.g. Selfishness.I think I have an obligation to others' well-being as much as my own, but I often spend on myself money which could be better spent on others

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    Someone in a normal state of mind - e.g. not in a panic, not drunk, not with attention-deficit disorder - who adds 1 +1 and produces 3 - is ignorant of arithmetic. Their mistake is one of ignorance, not of irrationality; they don't know the rules of arithmetic. If the parallel holds, then someone who lies, intentionally makes a false statement in order to deceive, is ignorant of the requirements of morality. Why should they be any more irrational than the calculator who produces 1 + 1 = 3 ? Ignorance and irrationality are different and unrelated defects. – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 12 '18 at 19:09
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    Haidt and Graham offer an alternative to rationality in moral foundations theory: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moral_foundations_theory Here there a multiple innate foundations that conflict with each other. Rationality is more useful as rationalization of decisions rather than as a way to find out what one should do. – Frank Hubeny Mar 12 '18 at 19:52
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    ... 'morality' exists only in the framework of a 'society'. People will do whatever they can get away with, and the 'golden rule' is all one needs to coexist. Criminals make a 'rational' choice that is only proved irrational when they get caught. – amI Mar 12 '18 at 23:41
  • @aml The Golden Rule is fundamentally flawed in a lot of ways... Not everyone wanting the same things being the biggest. – Onyz Mar 13 '18 at 12:23
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    Broadly speaking, epistemic rationality is about whether you're right about the world. Instrumental rationality is about how good you are at achieving your goals. Morality is about what you want from the world. They're all different, though depending on what you think the source of morality is, they could be linked to a greater or lesser extent. – Patrick Stevens Mar 13 '18 at 21:28
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What you are describing is the Platonic view of good and evil, that no one does wrong willingly, but only out of ignorance. An unusually clear and explicit statement of this concept is found in Plato's dialogue The Meno, but it is implicit across his writing on morality, for instance in his discussion in the Republic of the tyrant as the most miserable of all men. It was later expanded upon by the Neoplatonists.

Neoplatonic thinking was very influential in the development of both Islamic and Christian theology, and therefore on Western morality as a whole. However, there are other conceptualizations of good and evil that have arguably been even more influential. The religion of Zoroastrianism has all but vanished, but its conception of the world as an eternal battleground between forces intrinsically aligned with either good or evil is as strong as ever. Like Neoplatonism, Zorastrianism has likewise been absorbed into modern religious theologies, particularly in the idea of God versus the devil. It is arguably Zoroastrian dualism that most directly informs dominant modern Western ideas of good and evil, which explains the conflict with the Platonic vision you describe.

The notion that morality is a function of rationality is far from universal. In the Zoroastrian view, there are spiritual forces at work in the world that are evil as part of their inherent nature --their rationality or irrationality has nothing to do with it. Once you get outside the West, you also encounter thinkers like the Chinese contrarian Zhuangzi, who famously argued that even bad people profit from wisdom.

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    Thanks for this! Even if there have been other conceptions of good and evil, how do they counter the argument that if morality is a logical/reason-based imperative then immorality - regardless of if it's some cosmic battle - is a result of people's ignorance or irrationality? (after exams I am going to read some Plato as a post-exam interest, so thank you for the reference) – Ethan Horsfall Mar 12 '18 at 19:24
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    @EthanHorsfall Can I suggest that you post this separately as a follow-up question? It's really too large an issue to handle in the comments section. – Chris Sunami Mar 12 '18 at 20:37
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    Just finished reading Protagoras in my ancient civilizations class. Plato~Socrates talks a lot about this. – OldBunny2800 Mar 12 '18 at 22:35
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    Morality as a function of rationality exists in other ethical models as well, Stoicism, Utilitarianism, & Confucian define morality as the duties of a member of society which heavily relies upon logic & knowledge, while Islam, Hinduism (especially early works) & Shinto assume an innate divine understanding, where evil only exists as a willful ignorance to the truth we know (Islam/Shinto) or our Dharma (Hinduism). Stoicism/Util./Islam are difficult to say they were not influenced by Plato, but are traditionally not considered Platonic derivatives. – kcar Mar 13 '18 at 21:39
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    @kcar Good points, I have edited to address... – Chris Sunami Mar 14 '18 at 13:21
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Doesn't this then give the idea of a 'bad' person a different implication - we wouldn't say the same to someone if they made a mistake in math or in their finances yet people who are simply in moral reasoning get this pejorative label.

We usually take an extra step in judgment if we think of a person/act that is morally bad is bad in general. That is at least that the person is also blameworthy and it might additionally be that the person/act is evil.

What you seem to be saying here is that if someone acts immorally due to misunderstanding moraliy then the person isn't blameworthy. Therefore the label "bad" would only mean "morally bad" and nothing more.

Does this then imply that as a society in our language that all humans have an innate understanding of morality to be even able to claim that they are bad not simply ignorant.

Well, the word "bad" can mean a lot of things. Also, if their ignorance is their own fault then they could still be blameworthy, so this wouldn't apply in general.

Nevertheless, it seems different to say someone made an irrational decision (by inflicting gratuitous pain) and might be an irrational person than to say they are an evil one.

Yes. There are a bunch of approaches that don't take "morally bad" to be equal to "evil". More in the SEP article about it.

The difficulty I am facing is that to make an immoral decision appears like it must be ignorant and irrational, as one who fully understood right and wrong and the implications would realize they had an imperative to act differently,

Not necessarily. You could hold that morality itself doesn't motivate. This position is called externalism (about moral motivation). For example, there may be a person that knows what would be morally correct but chooses to act immorally. So if someone chooses to act morally then they are motivated by some other reason. F.e. social pressure, empathy, etc. More here.

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In English we often use the terms good and bad relative to an ideal. (In Spanish it is the same).

So we call a person a good person when some portion (Surly a majority but what percent I don't know) of their actions conform to our expectations about how a person should behave. When enough of their actions do no not conform to our moral ideal then we call them "bad".

We don't usually consider their ignorance, and intentions when classing them as good or bad usually because we don't know what their real intentions, are nor what their education/ignorance level is. We can't know for sure what goes on in the heart and mind of another human, So we class them based mostly (sometimes entirely) on their actions, because we can see and understand their action much more solidly.

As an extreme example no one cares what Hitlers motives were, we only care that he killed 6 million innocent people. And that's enough for us to know that he, (and his ideology) were)(are) bad. (What an understatement!)

I do believe that morality (good and bad) is inherent in the real structure of the universe. For starters Pain and suffering is bad. It is a universal constant that no one likes to suffer. Every one will reach for the aspirin when their headache gets bad enough.

There for that which causes more pain and suffering must be more bad, and that which alleviates pain and suffering must be good. that which causes the most pain and suffering must be the worst. And that which alleviates the most pain and suffering must be the best, (of course this must apply both now and in the future , to the individual and to those other individuals living with you).

So it is important to educate ourselves, to be aware and watch ourselves and others so that we can learn where we are ignorant and improve our ability to recognize and do good. Bringing ourselves closer to that ideal by which we are judging every one (including our selves). And sometimes that will mean modifying the ideal we are holding as well.

  • Hi Dan, welcome to the site! Our official position here is that we are a resource about philosophy, not for original philosophizing. Therefore we typically prefer --with rare exceptions --that answers be reputably sourced and/or expressed in relationship to established philosophers or philosophical schools of thought (even if you are disagreeing with them). – Chris Sunami Mar 12 '18 at 20:31
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    "For starters Pain and suffering is bad. It is a universal constant that no one likes to suffer." what about masochists? – Patrick Trentin Mar 13 '18 at 9:12
  • @PatrickTrentin "For the masochist, taking on a role of subjugation and helplessness can offer a release from stress or the burden of responsibility or guilt." It has been my observation (and personal experience) that human beings will often self inflict pain to distract us from the deeper, more painful pains. see psychologytoday.com/blog/hide-and-seek/201408/… – Dan Anderson Mar 13 '18 at 15:27
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Morality doesn't have anything to do with rationality.

I'm going to be Nietzsche's advocate and say that "good" and "bad" are just labels on what a given society wants. This is by no means absolute nor static. "Good" and "bad" change across populations and across time. If you are put in a society where everyone agrees that you are expected to do X (bad things in your opinion) and you refuse, you will be called "the bad guy". Of course you will say that they are the bad ones, but why our own opinion always seems to be the right one?

Ideal rationality should give (more or less?) the same results having the same knowledge, but for morality that's not true, the culture also weighs in.

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I've given this a lot of thought as a Christian who has studied the Bible a lot and generally agrees with your reasoning here, having found overlap between the two that seems accurate to me.

Here is my understanding of things:

  • There are things which an individual inherently knows are right or wrong.
  • There are things to which an individual is ignorant of what is right or wrong. This changes over time.
  • We all have a perpetual inclination, like a dripping faucet, to do whatever is convenient, sensational, etc., even if we know that these things are morally wrong to do. (In Christianity, we refer to these things as the desires of the flesh.)
  • Like you suggest, it is irrational behavior to act immorally, but the problem is that our own wills are corrupted; that is, we do what we want because it is most appealing to us in the moment, even if we know that in the end it is not for the best.
  • Lastly, the hardest part of acting morally is accepting the responsibility and the capability that one has to instead do the right thing. Instead, people will make excuses, they will say, "But I had this other concern to worry about", "I was pressured by other people to act differently", etc.

So basically, we explicitly choose to do the wrong thing in an irrational manner, but we rationalize it in our own heads. It's a constant delusion that we all have, and the solution is to acknowledge and accept the truth and choose on a regular basis to live by that instead.

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I don't think they are the same. There are a lot of reasons one can be irrational and this irrationality might be a caused due to a temporary misunderstanding while immorality develops from a very young age. Immorality is generally due to moral principles that are not taught to a child and that turns into some kind of ego which shows up as immorality, while irrationality can be plainly sourced to irritation.

  • If you have references this would help others get more information should they choose to. I doubt that irrationality is "plainly sourced to irritation" however I do agree that immorality and irrationality are not the same. But I would want more information on why they are not the same. – Frank Hubeny Mar 13 '18 at 14:46
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Clearly, immorality is independent of the intellect of the actor. You do not have to be particularly intelligent to be moral, nor is the reverse true. The decision to do immoral acts is based on a decision to create an irrational situation, meaning that if you CHOOSE to decide that 1+1=3 to satisfy a selfish desire, even knowing that isn't the reality, you can do so. A decision to ignore consequences may be based on an assumption that the decider can elude consequences if they are clever enough. They may have gotten away with the same or similar immoral acts in the past and therefore, they believe the rationale that 1+1 actually CAN equal 3 if they say so. All this to say that choosing to be immoral is not based on rationality as rationality is somewhat subjective due to past experience. It would be necessary to say that there are always the same consequences for bad actions to be analogous to simple math where the value of 1 and 3 never change.

  • I usually assume that rationality is not subjective. However, I agree with you that immorality is not irrationality. It would be helpful if you had references for your position. Without the references people can assume it is just your opinion. With the references you are linking your position with that of others. – Frank Hubeny Mar 13 '18 at 17:30

protected by Philip Klöcking Mar 13 '18 at 15:11

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