If we are rationally obliged to be moral, and morality is not arbitrary, then are some decisions not freely made?

I mean 'not arbitrary' to mean that some values, e.g. courage, are more rational than others, e.g. genocide (I know I've blurred virtues and acts there).

By 'freely' I mean in the sense that the decision and so act is performed so that the agent is made responsible for it not someone else (unless of course they are complicit in the act).

What if we do or do not feel like we made a free decision, does that change the answer?

Seems obvious to me the answer is yes, but perhaps Sartre disagrees.

  • This is a strange definition of "freely", on compatibilism we may be physically predetermined to act as we do, and still be responsible. But that aside, what we are obliged to do we still have to choose doing, "freely". I doubt that Sartre would be impressed by "rationally obliged" or other Kantian theses, he is not a rationalist.
    – Conifold
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 20:05
  • ok, apologies for the unusual definition @Conifold though i'm now pleased i included a definition!
    – user38026
    Commented Oct 9, 2019 at 20:42

1 Answer 1


Here is the question:

If we are rationally obliged to be moral, and morality is not arbitrary, then are some decisions not freely made?

There are two propositions that the antecedent of the conditional asks us to assume:

  1. We are rationally obliged to be moral.
  2. Morality is not arbitrary.

Both of these may be true, but because people are still able to act irrationally, options are still available for them to make decisions freely. So the premises in the antecedent can be considered true but given human psychology the consequent is false. Therefore the conditional is not valid.

However, the premises may also not be credible. If they are not true then the conditional would be true regardless of whether the consequent about our freedom is true or not.

Consider the first premise in the antecedent, we are rationally obliged to be moral.

If one accepts a divine command theory of the origin of moral obligation, then whether one rationalizes a command from God is irrelevant to the command: we are under moral obligation regardless. So this premise is not true in case one assumes a divine command theory.

Suppose one does not accept a divine command theory. Elizabeth Anscombe argued that attempts so far to rationally derive moral obligation have led to cases where injustice is justified. Although Anscombe was a theist (Catholic), she bases her argument on David Hume, an atheist, and uses it against Kant, another theist. This suggests that even for the case where a divine command theory is rejected, we may not be under any rational moral obligation.

Jonathan Haidt, also an atheist, offers empirical evidence from social and cultural psychologists, again supporting Hume and again opposed to rationalists, that instead of moral obligations there are moral foundations that are innate, based on intuition. He lists five to six (or perhaps more) of these moral foundations. These may conflict with each other providing people with alternatives on which they must make their own decisions. This explains why people disagree especially in political contexts.

Together with Anscombe's argument and the evidence from moral foundation theory, even if one rejected a divine command theory the first premise that we are rationally obliged to be moral does not seem credible.

Consider the second premise in the antecedent which states that morality is not arbitrary.

If moral foundation theory is correct, morality is not based on moral obligation but moral foundations. These are not arbitrary. However, there is more than one moral foundation offering opportunity for free decision making. So the second premise may be credible (unlike the first), but it is not strong enough for someone to reject free will because of it.

In summary human irrationality offers us a means to make a free choice given moral obligation. Furthermore, the idea that we are rationally obliged to be moral is questionable both from the perspective of a divine command theory and from evidence coming from social psychology.

The belief that we have free will is not challenged by these premises.

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