If a large portion of the intrinsic production value of a society comes from the relationships that exist and develop between its members* does it follow that self-imposed removal from this system by one member (node from a graph) diminishes its value and thus becomes immoral? Or does the question of immorality depend on the number of people with the potential to commit the so-called immoral act?

*one could argue that without these connections in place our civilization (and others) would not be as technologically advanced/productive,

  • One could also argue that the productivity of our nation has nothing to do with morality and the two concepts are unrelated.
    – dgo
    Jan 31 '14 at 3:09
  • @user1167442 How would you make that case?
    – val
    Jan 31 '14 at 3:21
  • 1
    Nazi Germany and Totalitarian Russia both committed immeasurable crimes (immoral in almost any possible definition) under the auspices of production (more Russia) and moving the nation "forward" (both). The point isn't that technological advancement and production is immoral. The point is that morality as such and civilization are not intertwined. Remember that we have killed Jesus, MLK, Gandhi, etc.
    – dgo
    Jan 31 '14 at 3:36
  • Perhaps my example took this the wrong direction, but my point remains. The foundation of your argument rests upon the assumption that civilization / society is somehow moral. I'm not saying it's not. But your assumption seems to rest upon the premise that it is - which is debatable.
    – dgo
    Jan 31 '14 at 4:09

You are assuming that by becoming a hermit that the hermit has become separated from society and separated from having an effect on society. All effects and interactions with society are not on a physical level. There are many examples - Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist, of hermits that have profound effects on their societies. From a Christian perspective read The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis, The Interior Castle by St. Teresa of Avila, Dark Night of the Soul, or The Philokalia for hermits that have profound effects on society. There are Eastern references as well.

  • To the contrary, IMO, I wasn't assuming the hermit becomes separated from effecting society; this is my point. Since all things are connected, by "removing" themselves society in the sense of interacting through work, community, life, etc the hermit is changing the network dynamic in the "connectedness". Some users have indicated that, for exmpl, 1 in a million makes no difference while others wished to make the unrelated point that "genius" comes out of hermitism. I wanted to know if the act of shifting the dynamic could be considered unethical or immoral. Thx for the refs.
    – val
    Feb 5 '14 at 18:49

Put simply, it would only be "immoral" to people who hold that the act of becoming a hermit resulted in violates a moral principle. If you are asking whether most people in this day and age believe it is immoral, I would imagine most people would see nothing intrinsically wrong with it. I feel like — in developed nations at least — we generally don't mind people doing what they want to do as long as it doesn't harm others. If you believed it did harm others (regardless of whether or not you could prove that), then you would hold it to be immoral. Otherwise, you would not.

If you believe that it is everyone's moral duty to further the human race, and by becoming a hermit a particular hypothetical person would less likely be in a position to do so, then yes it would be immoral for them to do so according to your beliefs. But perhaps the person in question is a serial killer; alienating themselves from society in such a case would be a moral good.

Does the number of people who take an action make it more or less moral?

You bring up sizes in your question which I find interesting (sizes of groups who make decisions / take actions which would be judged morally). I've seen this kind of reasoning in other questions as well:

does the question of immorality depend on the number of people with the potential to commit the so-called immoral act?

Moral acts are judged in and of themselves. The number of people who take a particular action (moral or not) is irrelevant to rightness or wrongness of any individual moral act to both deontologists and consequentialists alike. Each and every action is its own case. For example, consider a scenario where there are 10 pieces of bread and 11 people to feed. One of these people to feed is a starving 6 year old girl (where as everyone else is not in such dire circumstances). To take bread from the pile at all before letting the starving girl have her piece (assuming 1 would fill her) is likely seen as immoral to most people. Now if 10 people do it and leave the girl without a piece of bread, is it less immoral for any of them to have made their decision to take a piece of bread because many people did it? No, and I think most moral people in the moral community I live in would agree. It doesn't matter how many or how few people did it, the actions of each and every one of them was immoral.

Using your Hermits scenario as an example of why numbers don't matter

It is either immoral for a particular person to be a hermit under the circumstances they are in, or it is not. The quantity of people partaking in a particular action only matters in that it may change the circumstances, but that doesn't affect the morality of the decision. For example, let's say I hold that:

  • human happiness is the greatest moral good, and
  • humans must be alive to achieve happiness.

I also believe that:

  • becoming a hermit (unless you are a serial killer) reduces productivity and social cohesion and therefore marginally reduces happiness.

The act of becoming a hermit would be then immoral, logically. It would be odd, I think, to have a moral framework in which you thought, "It's not immoral for the first several thousand people to be hermits because their actions don't affect us much, but once more than 50% of the population is hermits, that really starts to tax our well-being as a species so anyone who decides to be a hermit after the 10001th person (assuming that's half the population) is now considered immoral." No, the actions of the first people to become hermits were immoral before, they were simply ignored because their impact was lesser.

  • hmmm...does this assume a uniform cumulative effect from every member as they leave to become hermits. What if the first 9900 have no effect on society whatsover (0) but thereafter up to 10001+ there is a "probability" of effecting devaluation if you become a hermit. Except that we don't know this tipping effect ahead of time. So that would still mean that the first 9900 were deemed to commit and immoral act...retrospectively? I think my difficulty may be with the concept of Morality as a binary function. It seems rather too simplistic a framework.
    – val
    Jan 30 '14 at 3:01
  • If the first 9900 had no effect on society whatsoever, then it was not immoral for them under their circumstances.
    – stoicfury
    Feb 2 '14 at 11:51

Imagine a 1940 German deserter who alienated himself from the society by ditching Vehrmacht and fleeing to Switzerland with his Untermensch Jude friends, thus sabotaging the Cause of the Master Race in several ways. Would you consider such person immoral?

  • but in this example we are applying my question/scenario within a context in which the "Cause" was already an immoral act. So the deserter is fleeing an immoral act. In my question/scenario, can we not begin with the assumption that the society we are living in (in a stable country) is not openly committed to an immoral cause? Or we just can't judge that and this is the point you are trying to make.
    – val
    Jan 29 '14 at 19:37
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    @val, that's the root of the problem, actually. You cannot make the assumption that the society you live in is necessary committed to a moral cause. In fact, most societies at one time or another were committed to causes that we would now consider grossly immoral. And, according to the majority of citizens of theses societies in those times those causes were not immoral. For example, Edward Snowden alienated himself from the stable society you consider moral by exposing the immoral acts committed by a trusted authority in that society.
    – Michael
    Jan 29 '14 at 22:37
  • As a format, society itself is an inorganic, non-emergent structure though. It is not a group, not a community basis. It is therefore incapable of morality. A group has morality whereas individuals have ethics, yet society has neither. Look at how constitutions are not consenting for example. No willful move adheres one to society, especially globally. Universally yes, life is emergent. Supranational and national society is not a jumping point for group identify no matter how popular it is to behave as such. But that behavior is delusional and transient. Feb 1 '14 at 1:07

This will obviously depend on what you or the theory in question thinks morality is and whether the society is fundamentally immoral.

Some philosophical views have moralities that are naturally disposed to hermitage and thinking breaking away from society is great. In the Christian tradition, there were the desert fathers. In pre-Qin China, there was a hermitage movement which seems to have influenced some Taoist thought in the Juangzi and Laozi. There's even a passage in Analects that speaks this way (a Confucian document).

Other philosophers assert fundamentally social ideas of morality. For instance, Plato's Republic, Aristotle's Politics (which also includes some analysis of the government forms he was familiar with) and Nicomachean Ethics (Especially Book VIII which identifies friendship philetia as a virtue and necessary for our lives). From the East, this is the position of the legalists in Pre-Qin China and the Confucians.

But in the fundamentally social accounts of human morality. Most provide exceptions for separating oneself from unjust societies. Plato writes this about Socrates in the Apology about how he refused an unjust government of Athens. The Confucians believed a governmental minister is not required to stay employed by an unjust ruler and should leave unless he can help people sufficiently.

To sum that up, you need to indicate the moral system you are operating from to make sense of this.


There are matters of degree here. If you can accomplish what you have to contribute to the world without isolation, and be equally effective, it is probably more moral to do so. But there is a difference between 'not perfectly moral' and immoral.

Most folks have argued that there are times when isolation is necessary, or where it pays off, and therefore there is nothing wrong with it. That does not follow. From most viewpoints, there is nothing wrong with eating steak, but one can still question whether it would be more moral not to. Or whether there is an optimally moral amount that most of us exceed.

I would argue that connection with society has an inherent moral value, whether or not it promotes 'progress' of some variety. Simply being available and contributing your perspective to the mainstream process to the degree this is possible creates a different society, and any given perspective may in the end be a deciding contribution.

To the extent that your perspectives are largely redundant, or simply balance out other existing perspectives, this is not a concern. But I would argue that being a person who contributes no genuinely unaccounted perspective is probably doing less than one might as a moral individual.

There is an obligation, when born into a society to offset one's burden upon it. Part of that burden is intellectual, even if you are a common person with no vaunted intellectual ambitions.

This is basically the "The existence of democracy, and the sacrifices implicit in maintaining it, imply you should vote" argument at a more detailed level. (So I can see how that puts me in a minority, given how Americans vote.) You cannot participate in the process if you aren't there, and the process itself has value, even if we cannot discern it. (That last proceeds from basically religious motivations, so I cannot defend it well. But I think a lot of moralities implicitly assume it.)

At the same time, if society, its structure, or the availability of its products makes you less able to express your own gifts, or if you are the kind of person who degrades society inadvertently and cannot help yourself (I have known a lot of drug-and-or-sex addicts for whom both of those things are true, and an equal number of 'schizoid-construction' deep thinkers) you may actually be more obligated to stay away.

Isolation is also not necessarily physical. I feel that modern society, although at the same time insanely gregarious, produces too much personal isolation for the good of the whole. Too many subtle contributions are suppressed. Physical isolation that produced less emotional and intellectual isolation would not be isolation in the sense of this argument if the result had any chance of making it back into society.


I would say this question hinges on the question: "Do individuals belong to themselves, or do they belong to society?" If individuals belong to themselves, then becoming a hermit is a valid choice that is morally neutral.

If individuals belong to society, then one could argue that people are morally required to enhance society and withdrawing from it would be morally wrong.

Given the premise that people belong to society, one could also argue that women should strive to be pretty, that they should keep fit and wear makeup, so that any men then encounter will have their days brightened by looking at them. I mention this example because some people do honestly believe this to be the case. People often say to random women they don't know "You should smile, you would be prettier." Some people are offended by obesity of strangers.

Given the same premise, one could argue that a woman should never leave an abusive husband because her obligation to her family trumps her own well-being, even if staying puts herself in serious physical danger.

There are many misogynistic arguments that are fundamentally based on the notion that women do not belong to themselves.

Overall, I feel that the evil results of the assumption that people do not belong to themselves overwhelm any benefit to society of accepting the premise. As such, I reject it utterly.

Without the premise that people belong to society first and themselves second (if at all), I don't see any way of justifying the claim that becoming a hermit is immoral.


Henry David Thoreau's Walden goes into this at length. You would really appreciate it. But the choice to be apart from "society" is not a moral question, it is an ethical one. What do you want? Does that lend itself to a solitary life, or not? Check out this definition of Ethics in my answer to below question:

The individual has no "duty" to "society," participation is fully voluntary. No one is inherently required or expected to populate the planet, or make appearances at ceremonies, or to congregate in any form; whether loosely in neighborhoods, or closely in parties of "civilized orders" who forward a certain ideal. Most of the greatest individuals actually went into seclusion as part of their development. And, "civilization" is a mythical aspect of "humanity." The individual is not a "social" entity "by nature." That is a generalization of specific traits observed in a majority of cases, but the study itself is tipped toward a specific desired outcome, because schools of thought and society would never allow out any future generation, otherwise it would cease to exist.

However, if one asks the question, one might want to consider if it is ethical for them to be in seclusion:

If one is aware of a weakness in character which tends toward fear or anxiety, then it is a form of self-deprecation to encourage that trait. "Society" is not valuable intrinsically, and if one perceives that, there is much to be gained by seeking the company of only animals and plants.

  • 1
    How are you defining the difference between ethical and moral?
    – val
    Jan 31 '14 at 21:21
  • That is answered at length in the linked question @val. Open to further discussion beyond that though. Jan 31 '14 at 21:25
  • I am saying that by removing myself from society I am affecting your lifestyle. In the limit it may do you no good. Furthermore, society in itself may be treated as an organism with right to exist. Pointing out that " Most of the greatest individuals actually went into seclusion as part of their development." is besides the point; And how many others went into seclusion and we never heard of them because they "didn't mean anything| to the goals of society at the time.
    – val
    Jan 31 '14 at 21:27
  • Thanks for the link. I don't think I agree with the whole Ethics/Morality stand. They may be different as you describe them but I'm not sure that either one exists. I include the idea of Will into this. I don't think Will exists. Only its very strong illusion. Ethics/Morality could be labels used to define/observe patterns of behaviour that facilitate a certain equilibrium of the system, game theory-like.
    – val
    Jan 31 '14 at 22:14
  • It might be good to come out and say your premise is anti-individual. Either for yourself to voice that, or for others to understand when speaking with you. It seems you attribute 'being' to systems of individuals, and it seems also to single-cell 'organisms' which do comprise the bodies of individuals, but strangely, not to individuals themselves. I find that interesting. You however do not affect my life style though, unless you do what you did, which is invite a response, so yes, you did affect my day. I say society is the false being, 'humanity' and society are not interchangeable notions. Jan 31 '14 at 22:26

Yes it is immoral to take your life. You are the subject of someone's social belonging. Taking your life would therefore end someone's privilege of companion or parent or sister. it is so much more than murdering. You exist for somebody and somebody exists for you. Think if your mother killed her self when you were still very young. who would have cared for you when you are an infant?

  • Fallacious answer at best, this question isn't about suicide, nor is it about murder, it's about alienation, which means the object still exists and lives, but does it out of society's reach/view.
    – Lbab
    Oct 15 '14 at 22:28

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