Is it harm? What about things that are not harmful? For example: lying to someone and taking measures to ensure they would never find out about the lie would intentionally reduce the risk of damage. There'd be noone that could possibly be psychologically or physically harmed by the lie so why would the harmless lie be immoral?

Sexual actions involving corpses with no family or relative left to care about them harm noone so why would the necrophilia be immoral?

Stealing the property belonging to someone who doesn't care about their said property harms noone so why would the theft be immoral?

Fantasizing about kidnapping and raping someone harms noone so why would the fantasies be immoral?

Etc, etc

  • The answer depends on the INTENT of the person doing the action. Was this action done deliberately to hurt or cause physical harm or emotional harm? Was a good deed done out of the kindness of one's heart or for an ulterior motive. Motive or intent is the first step. Whether or not if the action was done or not the intent can still be evaluated the same way.
    – Logikal
    May 13 at 18:56

3 Answers 3


Various propositions for defining what is moral or immoral have been made through the history of philosophy. So far none have been demonstrated to be the correct one, so it is important when discussing morals to set the scope of conversation by specifying what school of thoughts is considered.

Long story short, there are:

  • deontologism consider one has an absolute duty of acting in a certain way. It's usually in the form of obedience to a rule, like obeying one's parents, boss, god or political ruler. Kant also posited that it was one's duty to act according to reason and infered rules of conduct from this premise, including the famous categorical imperative. In both cases, are moral the actions that have a good intention (I.e. Conforming with duty, but this duty can vary depending on the school of thoughts)

  • consequentialism focuses on the result of an action. Are moral actions that have good results or (depending on who you ask) come from the intention of producing good results. Again, what "good" means is still up for debate.

Your question seems to focus on consequentialism ("what is the harm?") so let's forget deontology for the time being.

In that case your examples all raise questions about the analysis of their harmlesness and the thoroughness of the measures taken to prevent harm.

How sure are you that no one cares or that you will never be found out ? Is it a whim or have you taken serious measures to make sure it was ok? Are you sure that entertaining your fantasies won't bring you in a mental place where you will want to enact them?

If one is just acting carelessly because it is convenient for them, on the spot, to evaluate what they do as harmless it's difficult to consider they are acting morally. They just don't care, which is different.

To go further, the notion of social contract should also be considered. We are not acting in a vacuum, but our decisions involve other people and we hold together a certain moral standard that let us coexist in harmony.

For example, what if you were the one to be lied to or stolen from? Do you trust the other person with the decision about what part of your property you care about ? Or what lies are harmless to you? As they are not you, how can they pretend to be better informed on the matter than you are?

Wouldn't you prefer them to ask you before, and if they ignored your opinion wouldn't you be pissed? Do you think a society can thrive with people constantly trying to second guest each other and taking advantage every time they personally think it's ok?

If you think other people ought to ask you if such and such action is harmful to you before going on, then you are holding a moral position about it, you are fixing a moral standard. And other people would be justified in holding you up to your own moral standards.

  • They are hypotheticals. Not everyone would find out that their partners cheated on them. Not everyone would find out that they were lied to. Not everyone has someone that cares about them (like me). My questions are variations of the "why would raping the deceased body of a homeless person that had noone that cared about them be immoral" question. In the cases that noone finds out, why would the actions be immoral?
    – ActualCry
    May 13 at 8:11
  • @ActualCry in the very hypothetical case the probability any one ever finds out is zero, consequentialism would say it's not immoral, since you do no harm. But if it is more than zero, which is almost always the case in real life, you are being immoral by taking the risk.
    – armand
    May 13 at 11:10
  • Consequentialism seems to not care about anything but harm. What about non-consequentialist theories?
    – ActualCry
    May 13 at 12:06

The examples in the question indicate that this question is about descriptive ethics https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Descriptive_ethics, the study of what people find immoral.

This is in contrast to normative ethics, what philosophers derive as immoral based on various frameworks.

There is no single thing or else about what will be considered immoral in a given society. This is obvious in that some things are immoral in some societies but not others. Eating pork, nudism, various sexualities, kissing in public...

It seems reasonable to assume that early and basic morality starts with preventing harm or suffering, but then there are various ways societies can come up with rules that are less obviously linked to harm and suffering, at least some centuries later.

Somewhat interestingly, societies can even come up with rules to follow that are philosophically immoral in normative ethics frameworks.

One thing to consider as an example is that people in society have a social status https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_status The preservation of social status generates a need to follow rules of society even when not following them would not cause other harm or damage.


Morals is a set of group-defined rules that enforce specific individual behaviors. Morals follow teleological arguments (the chief interests of the group). Some human groups just try to survive, others try to conquer, seek for eudaimonia or pure Hedonism.

In consequence, what is moral is determined by the group on the grounds of common goals.

For example, cannibalism is not considered immoral in some groups, which goals are related to survival. In others, stealing/rape/violence/etc. are not immoral, since they have chosen survival on such conditions. Other groups follow higher goals, so, morality is subject of profound debates about subtle topics like morality of art, cloning, abortion, rights of criminals, linguistic accents, etc. Such evolved groups are clearly not focused on survival, but on higher/spiritual interests.

You ask, for instance, "What determines the immorality of human cloning or animal rights?", and the answer is: the group goals. But what are they?

If you consider that contemporary common goals could be allowing all members to live the good life, then, evidently, it is largely complex to determine if the influence of globalisation on sociolinguistic accents contributes or conflicts with such goal.

When a group debates such kind of subtle issues, the debate is precisely about the morality of such issues. But the concrete result is not only the establishment of moral rules, but also the enactment of legal rules (laws), which in a healthy society should reflect shared moral rules agreements.

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