Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

What are moral principles anyway and when are they useful?

What are moral principles anyway and when are they useful?

This post is in response to
How Moral Principles Make Us Dumb

Two weeks ago I said, "I never met a moral principle I could trust." One reader responded:

Generalizations and abstractions are treacherous indeed, but we need them for directionality and efficacy. Trying to decide each and every thing as a particular never-before-thought-of situation would not make us smarter. But being aware of when we're generalizing...I think that's a good thing.

Another reader reminded me that courts of law are governed by moral principles.

Another teased me: I wouldn't cling to that moral principle too tightly. Sometimes moral principles do harm; sometimes they do good.

I was confident in my pronouncement until it came in conflict with these resonant counter-arguments. They forced me to see that I was conflicted and inconsistent about moral principles. The tease was right. I had argued for a moral principle that one shouldn't trust moral principles. That's hypocritical.

Part of me loathes discovering an inconsistency in my thinking. Admitting to one imposes more thinking, which is hard work and may force me to conclude I don't know what I'm talking about. For the past ten years though, I've been trying to replace my avoidance reaction to inconsistencies with an attraction reaction. I find that it gets easier with practice because of a change in payoffs. These days, looking at my inconsistencies is quite reliably rewarded with insights. An internal conflict generates heat, but if you get above it to analyze it, you can often generate light.

It's the big take-away from the philosopher Hegel who said (in too many words) progress is made when two opposite ideas--thesis and anti-thesis--yield a higher-level insight or synthesis.

I wouldn't claim to know how good I am at facing into my inconsistencies, or claim that I've eradicated many or most of them. I consider my mind to be a bounteous source of inconsistencies. Hoax springs eternal. No matter how hard I pursue the truth, it will never catch me.

But back to this particular inconsistency, the hypocrisy of arguing that one should live by the moral principle not to live by moral principles. If you've followed my articles, you might remember this idea: Any self-contradictory (hypocritical) moral principle is really a moral dilemma in disguise. The moral dilemma here could be stated as the recurring question in our lives: "Should I apply a moral principle here?" As the teasing reader wrote, "sometimes moral principles do harm; sometimes they do good"

So when should we trust moral principles and when shouldn't we?

With moral dilemmas there's never a definitive answer, but in this and one more article on the subject I want to suggest a perspective on moral principles that I think helps reduce error, improving our chances of applying them when they help and not when they hurt.

I'll start with what might strike you as a weirdly broad definition for "moral principle." First, I should clarify that I mean nothing highfaluting by "moral." The term covers all "should" questions. Any time we asking "what should be done, whether it be on some grand issue like climate crisis or war in Iraq or some practical question like what car to buy. It has to cover all that because there's no way to draw a clear line between big and small issues, or social and personal issues.

My broad definition of a moral principle is any decision rule, any consideration that decides how you'll interpret and respond to a situation. If someone asks you why you made a certain choice, whatever you answer as the reason, that's your moral principle.

What's weird about this definition is that it doesn't speak to how abstract the principle is. We generally think of a moral principles as residing in the loftier realms, like "do no harm" or "honor thy father and mother," or "do unto others," and here I'm proposing a definition that would encompass any explanation for a choice: "Why do I eat meat? It tastes good;" "Why don't I recycle? I don't have time;" and even "Why am I angry at you? Just because."

My definition doesn't speak to the level of abstraction, but I will speak to it. My next article explains what logicians, philosophers, biologists and mathematicians are figuring out about levels of abstraction--how far into the details or out to the abstract to zoom one's zoom lens. Understanding the origin, evolution and nature of levels is the key to improving one's chances of picking the right moral principle for the job, the right level of analysis on which to find one's decisions rule.