There are actions in human societies which are considered immoral/unethical. Most of them have to do with causing harm to other members of the community and violating their rights as they are defined within the community. For example murder is almost universally considered as an immoral act.

However, there are situations for which murder is considered justifiable. A court will find someone innocent of murder if they can prove that they killed in self defense.

This indicates that there are cases where causing harm to others, even depriving them of their life, can be justified.

I have observed that such harm is justified when the person committing it is in danger of equal or greater harm or one of their, equal or more important, rights is being violated by the other party.

It is this observation that worries me.

If it is true then it opens up a Pandora's box of justifiable immoral acts by people who are being harmed and/or having their rights violated by the community in general.

For example is a person who has not received education and is therefore unemployed (their right to education and employment have been violated by the community) morally justified to steal the stuff he/she needs but can't buy?

Let's take it a lot further. The same person given their status in the community has very little chance to find a partner, yet they have the need to reproduce. Are they morally justified to rape someone?

I assume not so let's turn the question on its head. What would it take to make rape morally justifiable like murder is in the case of self defense? In essence what I am asking is what does it take to make an immoral action moral in a certain community?

  • 2
    But morality is a relative concept when the discussion happens. People have different views on what is moral and immoral and not everyone agrees to discuss anything in these terms. Another thing is to discuss the "True Morality". But aside from purely belief that one assumes his morality is exactly that "True Morality" a human has no way to show it like it's impossible to show existence of anything outside of universe.
    – rus9384
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 19:15
  • "For example is a person who has not received education and is therefore unemployed (their right to education and employment have been violated by the community) morally justified to steal the stuff he/she needs but can't buy?" - without welfare, maybe, why not? "they have the need to reproduce" - I can attack this premise. Where does that need come from?
    – rus9384
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 19:20
  • 1
    Your question is all over the place. Murder is the wrongful taking of a human life. Therefore, murder is never moral. However, killing is not always murder. You include this idea in your question in the example of a person not guilty of murder if the killing was self defense. So you need to rewrite things so that you don't include the answer in the question. You might ask something like, when is killing wrongful and when is it moral?
    – user34017
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 19:40
  • 1
    @puppetsock, murdering a tyrant, is it immoral? Or can a tyrant only be killed, not murdered?
    – rus9384
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 20:52
  • 1
    The notion of 'right' here is not fixed. Law is not ethics, so whether a court finds self-defense legal has nothing to do with morality. Laws force us to pay for immoral wars all the time. What makes killing moral is a different question, and generally has nothing to do with what community you are in. As @rus9384 points out, rape is a poor example. There is no right to reproduce in most ethical systems, in the sense that there might be a right to live in most of them. You need to unwind law, community standards and morality in your own mind before you can make this question clear.
    – user9166
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 22:45

8 Answers 8


Morally bad but morally right

Something can be morally bad but in a particular context the right or a permissible thing to do. Say X is breaking a promise. This is a bad thing to do; all else equal it should not be done. But breaking a promise may in a particular situation for action be the right thing to do as the lesser of two evils. The moral badness of an action is never a morally sufficient reason for not doing it : context is vital. If it is a matter of breaking a promise to visit a moderately sick person in hospital or saving someone else's life, which I can't do if I break my promise, then I should break my promise - bad though that is. Breaking the promise is a lesser evil than not saving somebody's life.

This line of argument might be met with the claim that there are some actions that can never be right whatever the context or situation for action. I can only say that I cannot imagine any action, however intrinsically bad, that might not be the right thing to do in extreme circumstances because it is (in those circumstances in which one has to act) the lesser evil.

The dilemma would be appalling. My moral imagination is lively enough and there are many actions which, were I to do them, would haunt me for the rest of my life. Yet I still cannot say that there is any action which, however deeply bad in itself, might not still be the right thing to do in a situation of tragic choice. I hope never to face such a dilemma.

My position here does not express morally relativism or subjectivism. It could be held by a moral realist or indeed by anyone who recognised the real complexity of the moral life. Nor does it endorse the idea of 'doing evil that good may come of it'. If I break a promise since without doing so I cannot save a life, breaking the promise is not a means of saving a life; rather, it is the result of a choice between the alternatives of keeping a promise or saving a life - a quite different matter.

The rights of conscience

Suppose we accept that private property is a legitimate institution. Then taking someone's private property is, all else equal, morally bad. ('All else equal' in the sense, for instance, that they have gained it by just acquisition or just exchange - and not stolen it.) But if I believe that 'property is theft' then it is positively right for me to relieve private-property owners of their possessions if this is what I believe I morally ought to do. It is right for me to do what in all conscience I believe I ought to do. Even if it is actually morally bad to relieve persons of their private property, it becomes the morally right thing for me to do if I act conscientiously. What else should a moral agent do but act on their conscience even if it is what St Thomas Aquinas called an 'erroneous conscience'? Of course, there is every reason for people whose consciences are more conventional to thwart my conscientious action since their own consciences offer different guidance.

  • "Something can be morally bad" - or not. I reduce everything to "I [don't] like it" and "There is a/no reason for it" which do not need a word "bad".
    – rus9384
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 21:05
  • You don't think it possible that what you like is or could be morally bad ? If you have no use for morality, then fine : but this is a question that arises within morality for those of us who still think in moral terms.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 21:16
  • No. To me "bad" and "good" are spooks in human minds. Whereas "like" and "don't like" refers to a scientific concept (and, therefore, not being a spook) which can be described through neurology.
    – rus9384
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 21:27
  • OK, view noted. But what if I accept that 'bad' and 'good' are 'spooks in human minds',yet try to persuade people that they are not. Is there no immorality in such deliberate deception that merely amuses me? Also I can accept that moral good and bad are not objective properties but are attitudinal - projections on to the world. If moral attitudes make life easier for us all, e.g. by requiring us to consider other people's interests beyond the limits of self-interest, this seems quite a good rationale for morality. It might even induce me to help you get what you like and avoid what you don't.
    – Geoffrey Thomas
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 22:24
  • But using inherently artificial concepts is like a deception. Because it does not allow others to fully grasp your thought - it is self-defeating.
    – rus9384
    Commented Aug 1, 2018 at 23:04

From a straightforward moral position like Kant's, nothing can ever make an immoral act moral. But rules that state what is and what is not moral can only be so clear. So one must allow others a certain level of freedom to decide how close to cut it, and how often to make mistakes.

From such a point of view, every individual instance of self-defense really is either moral or immoral, once all of the facts and considerations are accounted. But, not being omniscient, we cannot do that. And we surely cannot require an individual in a complex context with a limited time to consider the action and a potentially impaired emotional state to do that. So the only moral position for an imperfect, individual onlooker, to take is to err on the conservative side and allow mistaken instances of self-defense to go unpunished.

We write a wide berth into the law because we might be wrong. But most instances of self-defense are most likely still not moral from an outright Kantian point of view. The potential loss to yourself is generally not your entire life, there is usually something less final that you could do and still survive. If you have really killed someone when you could have simply accepted being wounded, you have killed them unnecessarily. But you cannot be sure of that in the instant, and no one would expect you to.

But that is different from saying self-defense is always moral.

From this POV, there is a gap between the standard to which individuals should be expected to hold themselves, and the standard to which we can hold people generally, while respecting their autonomy. And there is even a gap between your own perfect will and the standard to which you can hold yourself. But your own image of the perfect world does exist, and should still guide your morality.


A simple mathematical analysis (ends justify the means)

Murder of one person has a moral valence (say) = -1

Saving 5 people has a moral valence = +5

Doing the math ...

Murdering 1 person to save 5 = +5 + -1 = +4

In other words, net good (+4) has been achieved.

However no matter how many people you save by murdering, the moral valence of murder remains negative.

The same applies to the inverse situation.

Say you murder 5 to save 1

Doing the moral calculus, there's a net bad (-4), but the moral valence of saving remains positive.

In short, an immoral action e.g. murder doesn't switch its moral valence from bad (negative) to good (positive) just because a net good is the result. The same goes for a moral action, it doesn't change sign from positive to negative even if there's a net bad.

The very reason why one hss to overcompensate (save 5) for a bad deed (murder 1) is that moral valence is immutable: negative stays negative and positive stays positive.

The claim murder is morally justifiable doesn't equate to murder is good. Thus, there's no real moral conflict, a moral conflict being defined as the contradiction x (in this case murder) is both good and bad.

One reason why we misidentify the moral valence of an immoral act like murder is because it occasionally produces net good like in the example above, but a moment's reflection reveals that murder has actually reduced the net good (from +5 to +4).


If it is true then it opens up a Pandora's box of justifiable immoral acts by people who are being harmed and/or having their rights violated by the community in general.

In practical application. Unfortunately yes. There are a ton of perpetrators who rephrase their motivation as a victim narrative because self-defense and retribution give them a moral blanket to cover up.

However something important to consider is whether you've time. Like if someone threatens your immediate existence you're not going to be able to write a philosophical essay about whether or not it's justified to defend yourself, in all likelihood you'll more likely act instinctual than rational in that situation anyway. So idk flight, hide, fight, freeze, and so on. So this is likely a split second decision where you can't afford to bother with that question and aren't acting as a rational being.

That is different from the other examples you've mentioned in which case you've plenty of time to sit down for yourself, with the opponent, with a mediator and talk over what's the best course of action to proceed.

Also rape is hardly justifiable in any context. First of all it's not that person who wronged you and so you are just wronging them. And it's not that this is an immediate necessity, you have no right to another person.


I'll apply your idea to two standard kind of normative ethical theories. I'm taking those two, because it's possible to evaluate acts in such a theoretical way under them. Whereas for other ideas in normative ethics, like virtue ethics or particularism, this doesn't really work.

For example is a person who has not received education and is therefore unemployed (their right to education and employment have been violated by the community) morally justified to steal the stuff he/she needs but can't buy?

For Kantian deontology, the answer is no. Any maxims of the act "stealing" fail the universalization test of the categorical imperative. Therefore it's morally wrong to steal.

For standard utilitarianism it can look quite different. An act is wrong iff it worsens suffering more then it betters happiness. For the example of someone stealing, it depends on what the exact context is. It will also depend on who the money is stolen from. But that's not all. Stealing can create a significantly worse social environment etc. Overall though, utilitarianism allows for stealing to sometimes even be morally right. For a scenario that that might look less like "Pandora's box", take a look at the Heinz dilemma (only the scenario).

Let's take it a lot further. The same person given their status in the community has very little chance to find a partner, yet they have the need to reproduce. Are they morally justified to rape someone?

Let's apply the above again. Under Kantian deontology: no, the context doesn't matter. It fails the test, so it's always wrong.

Your idea here is sometimes used as an objection to utilitarianism. The point is that an seemingly completely immoral act could theoretically be even good under an utilitarian framework if the people benefitting are simply benefitting enough. A similar idea is the "utility monster". Utilitarianists will mainly do two things to defend against such an objection:
1) deny that any sort of "utility monster" scenario is possible. This means that they'd claim that the harm done by torture, raping, etc. is pretty much always more than any sort of benefit someone might get. Also, keep in mind that there are many indirect consequences such acts might have, like, as mentioned before, destroying social environment, which all count against the acts. But under special circumstances, they still have to bite the bullet. For example: one sadist torturing someone is plausibly bad. But what (if torture would actually work for interrogation, and) if torturing someone could potentially save the lives of many?
2) They can restrict their utilitarian system at various points. For example, they might defend "rule utilitarianism" to circumvent such objections. There are many such adjustment screws that an utilitarian might argue for. (For an overview, see here.)

  • A utilitarian can also claim that some acts that are almost always immoral are moral on rare occasions, and that the "utility monster" would normally do something to reduce the overall good. Commented Aug 3, 2018 at 18:05

To me the question given in the title is uninteresting as I refuse to think in moral terms. However, the really interesting question one can answer is

How to persuade someone that something is not immoral?

According to it, the answer for your question would depend on how good is the opponent in persuasion. Indeed, the whole philosophy is about persuasion, but, probably, not every philosopher agrees with it.

If I want to reformulate your question into a meaningful one, the one that has meaning for me, I would rewrite it as

When does something undesirable become remissible?

The answer to this one would be a subjective one, as we can differ in our desires and our long-term vs. short-term strategies.

For example, from my view, it would be remissible for a human surviving a disaster and losing his means for existence to steal - because it is the will to survive. One can dismiss the will to survive - I don't. However, it is not remissible after a better alternative to stealing was proposed.

But now let's look at more objective question you have.

what does it take to make an immoral action moral in a certain community?

So, here comes the notion of cultural world views. There are different cultures and within cultures there can be different mainstream world views. Aside from that, there can be non-mainstream world views as well.

Depending on the world view, there are different things seen as desirable and remissible. For example, sex without marriage can be seen as not remissible in one culture, say those agreeing with sharia law, and desirable in another - among libertarians rejecting the idea of marriage.

So, there always is a note of relativism. However, there also are universal notions within world views. One can simply start from logic. But even when setting goals every human has something common as every human is dependent on the same things - air, water, food, etc. which become valuable, either willfully or unwillfully. Despite of awareness or non-awareness of these dependencies, they all are carving human world views. And when having an argument one always can try to appeal to them.

So, the answer to this question is not a simple one and SE is not suited for answering such a broad question, one can write a book on the topic. I only have shown the complexity of question trying not to give an opinion, but being incapable to fully answer it in SE format. So, I provided only the basic ideas helping to understand the topic.


Never. If its immoral its not also moral.

Basic logic states that a thing cannot exist and not exist at same time. All data proves this.

A thing may stop being immoral. Then by logic its moral. If its not immoral then its definitely moral.

Stealing is wrong but if that money can save your mother's life and there is no alternative and that money is not already doing something more important than your mother's life then go ahead steal it.

If you are starving do steal bread from a baker. He wouldnt starve without it.

Your mother's illness and your hunger can make some previously immoral acts moral.


I would say, morality applies primarily to external relations. So there may be two cases where doing bad things is good or neutral.

One is prevention and/or revenge. If you punish somebody who is bad, or even better, prevent them from doing more bad things, then harm is good.

Also in case of victimless crimes... Let's say drugs are harmful and risky, and therefore - immoral. But in principle, a person has a right to inflict self-damage, because society shouldn't use physical force against immoral and stupid individuals. So... Exercising one's freedom is a good thing, even though reasons or effects may be bad.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .