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What's the difference between morality and rationality?

Some of my friends argue with me saying,

What is rational is what is moral

I do not believe so because, I believe there are absolute moral labels for every possible human action in the world no matter whether we already know it or will know it later with new revealed information. Thus, morality in my understanding does not depend on context, culture, time, place etc. However, I believe rationality is context dependent. Sometimes an immoral action can be justified as rational action depending on situations. For example, killing to save owns life. Murder is always immoral but may be ration in some cases.

Now, I want to confirm if my above understanding is wrong. Aren't there really differences between a moral action and a rational action? If they are different, where?

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The term 'morality' refers to a (any) systematic approach to 'proper' behavior in human society. In general, it establishes a set of human values, outlines how those values can be achieved, and offers some justifications for its value structures and practices.

The troublesome aspect of this definition is the scare-quoted term 'proper'. Speaking philosophically, there is a range of approaches used to determine what constitutes 'proper' (moral) behavior, the short list being:

  • Revealed knowledge: principles of proper behavior are revealed to humanity by a divinity
  • Mysticism or intuitionism: principles of proper behavior are understood directly through apperception of the world-as-it-is, transcending the limitations of language and communication
  • Rationalism: principles of proper behavior are discovered by introspection and critical analysis of the human condition, establishing formal moral rules

These are not mutually exclusive by necessity, though different systems may privilege one or reject others. One might think of the Socratic system, which invoked both rationalism and mysticism: ideal forms that we must perceive through applications of philosophical reason. I myself would argue that any approach to understanding morality will ultimately lead in the same direction — for reasons that are far too complex to get into here — but clearly reason is one system that people use to access the complexities of moral behavior.

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  • "The term 'morality' refers to a (any) systematic approach to 'proper' behavior in human society." You are describing mores or customs, not morality. Apr 29 at 18:05
  • @DavidGudeman: Mores are morality-light; they even share the same linguistic root. Think of morality as the universal ideal of mores, perhaps... Apr 29 at 18:08
  • I may have misunderstood your sentence, but even so, you are defining "a system of moral principles", not "morality". Morality refers to proper behavior--full stop. There are systems that attempt to encode morality, but what they are attempting to encode is something that presumably existed before the encoding and that the encoding is trying to approach. There are relativists who deny that morality exists before mores, but they basically deny that morality exists at all in the sense in which it is usually understood. Apr 29 at 18:29
  • @DavidGudeman: You are putting the cart before the horse. The presumption that 'morality' exists before people attempt to encode it is just that: as presumption. What we know is that morality is an attempt to define a systematic approach to proper human behavior; whether that attempt does or does not rely on some universal ideal is an open question. Apr 29 at 18:43
  • Morality existed long before there were any attempts to define a systematic approach to human behavior. Just what do you think is the criterion against which these systems are judged? If there was no pre-existing notion of morality, what are they trying to accomplish? Just an arbitrary set of rules for no reason? Apr 29 at 18:47
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The relationship between reason and morality is most extensively and famously addressed in Kant's "Critique of Practical Reason." In this context, "practical" refers to judgments of morality or the determination of proper actions.

To understand the connection really brings in the whole Kantian system, on which I'm no expert, but let me try a sketch. First, Kant distinguishes between instrumental or "hypothetical" reason and reason per se. His hypothetical reason, what you call contextual, is reasoning from any given end. If you want X do Y. This would even include utilitarian or consequentialist moral thinking, if you want the greatest good for the greatest number...do Z.

But Kant is, like you, a universalist who believes that there are absolute moral duties no matter what the consequences. He bases this not on divine injunction or dogma, but on the internal coherence of reason itself. He argues that we have certain a priori categories of reason that are evident in all experience, for example, the categories of space and time.

We also have freedom of will or self-determination, so we are not bound by the causal necessities of the sensible or "phenomenal" world. We can form judgments about what ought to be and what we ought to do, which can be given in experience. Kant likens this to a different form of "causality" found only in the will of self-conscious rational beings.

He then argues that true, unconditional moral imperatives, or "categorical" imperatives, conform with reason itself. These are maxims, like the golden rule, that we can will to be universally binding without internal contradiction. An example is the way in which lying is ultimately contradictory. If everyone universally lied, then lying itself would not be possible.

So, for a utilitarian we might morally lie to save a life, for example. For Kant, not so. It is a categorical imperative of reason, not unlike an axiom of geometry. And, Kant adds, the consequentialist makes the false assumption that she can ultimately predict the consequences, for example, of the "good lie," which we simply cannot know in the realm of free actions. In any case, to get the better of your friends without resorting to dogma, you want to brush up on a bit of Kant.

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Based on what you said:

Thus, morality in my understanding does not depend on context, culture, time, place etc. However, I believe rationality is context dependent. Sometimes an immoral action can be justified as rational action depending on situations. For example, killing to save owns life. Murder is always immoral but may be ration in some cases.

If rationality by you is scoped to winning and losing, then yeah what's rational isn't necessarily moral.

However if rationality by you is scoped/limited/measured with to what's moral, then that which is rational is moral.

In Islamic philosophy, al-Sadiq describes having wisdom and its intended applications as such:

اَلعَقلُ‌ ما عُبِدَ بِهِ‌ الرَّحمٰنُ‌ وَ اکتُسِبَ بِهِ الجَنان

Wisdom is that which is used to worship (through good actions) and achieve the heavens

وبالعقل عرف العباد خالقهم و عرفوا به الحسن من القبیح

Using wisdom one recognizes his creator and distinguishes right from wrong.

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  • What do you mean by heaven? Is it real and any objective evidence for heaven? Apr 30 at 17:29
  • My answer assumes God exists. He is just. Heaven and hell are required. If you have different assumptions, then yeah this answer isn't for you. Based on the question either way can be inferred....
    – Honey
    Apr 30 at 18:01
  • Why to exist a God, heaven is required? Apr 30 at 18:31
  • @SazzadHissainKhan Can you open another question? I can't answer that all in a comment. FYI in (Shia) Islam there are two principles Monotheism + Justice. Heaven is based off of the principle of Justice.
    – Honey
    Apr 30 at 19:52

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