Humanists: Rational Justification for your Morality

After a discussion with an acquaintance regarding the morality of smoking marijuana, I got to thinking. This acquaintance is rather on the religious side and it was very apparent that she derived all justification for her moral stances directly from scripture and religious authority. I, on the other hand, analyze the morality of specific issues based on their impacts on individual people, society, etc.

So, I was wondering how you justify the morality or immorality of specific acts. Some of my examples:
Murder: This is wrong because it clearly eliminates another person’s basic human rights–life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to quote a famous document. Each person should have the right to self-perpetuation.
Heroin, Meth, Cocaine, etc: While I make no judgments what you can or cannot do with your own body, the use/sale/manufacture of these substances clearly have negative effects on society. Users are very likely to commit crime, including theft and assault, in order to get more of the substance.
Same-sex marriage: Clearly moral, in my view, because each person should be able to pursue their happiness in whatever fashion they please so long as it does not infringe on another’s right to do so. SSM is a private affirmation of love, affection, and happiness.

A note: this question is for everyone, including those that may identify as religious, but I am interested in rational moral justification. Also, this question is not meant to be GD material; no debating whether X is moral or immoral.

What about cheating on your spouse?

That’s very tempting, and I’m flattered, but I have to say no thanks. Maybe you and your husband should seek counselling.

OK, seriously – Cheating is a very hurtful thing to do. It’s extremely cruel. Would you be cool with your spouse cheating on you? Part of being a humanist is having empathy, and cheating is really selfish.

A recognition that basic law and order is in one’s self interest should motivate an individual to act in such a manner as to help preserve/promote that basic law and order. From this comes a desire for the well-being of others (as well as yourself), and you can then develop a moral code for yourself that helps to achieve this end.

My thoughts are pretty much the same as the OP.

I will go on to add that most of my acts of morality are instinctive. So the thought process that the OP describes is just an after thought. (if that makes sense)

I sometimes wonder whether we get our morality from religion, or if we get our religion from our morality. My money is on the latter.

Morality is a personal aesthetic. It’s a subjective emotional response to external stimuli. Much of it is biologically hardwired, some of it is enculturated. Ultimately, it’s all personal and autonomous, including adherence to religious codes. In order to follow a religious morality, you still have to first make the personal, autonomous moral decision that following that morality is the “right” thing to do.

My own personal moral aesthetic is driven by how a given action affects other people. There is no other sane way to define it.

The question is flawed! It might be better asked, “Why do you need religion to act morally?”

Not all things that are hurtful are immoral. Divorce, or even just breaking up with a girlfriend or boyfriend, are hurtful and we wouldn’t want the other party to do it unto us, yet we still consider it moral. Your metric needs some refining there.

Hurtful in the short term, maybe, but beneficial to both in the long term, usually. It’s better to be divorced and apart than to be together your whole lives, miserable and hating each other.

No, I think athelas has a good point. What if it were a marriage where one partner would have been happy in the long run to stay together? What if they would both be happy in the long run but the one who wants a divorce is making a rash and objectively bad decision? I still certainly wouldn’t call that immoral. Cheating has the added element of deceitfulness.

It may just be a matter of opinion, but personally I find cheating to be far more hurtful than breaking up. Jealousy is one of the strongest emotions we have, and a betrayal of trust cuts deep.

At any rate, though, I don’t see much sense in comparing the amplitude of various hurts. Sometimes we have to do hurtful things, such as breaking up, for the greater good, as filling_pages said. Cheating doesn’t normally have a long-term benefit. An empathetic person will realize this and keep it zippied.

This. And I’ll add another question to a religious person: What is the rational justification for your choice of religion? You are still making a moral choice; on what basis? If your answer is “It says so in the Bible,” then what is your justification for believing in the Bible?


I’m not debating this point. All I’m asking is how do YOU justify your moral positions. I care not to debate whether or not people should derive their morality from religion or from rational analysis.

I think I can justify all of my positions based on common sense and reasoning. I don’t have a position on arguments that have no basis in rationality.

So you think that breaking up with someone is always immoral when the other person is left worse off in 20 years than in the relationship? Even if said person is, for example, a terrible, demanding partner and the reason they find the relationship congenial is because you accommodate them?

The problem with these rational justifications is not that they’re non-God-derived per se but that in practice are usually extremely simplistic and flimsy, as I just demonstrated. They’re basically rationalizations of whatever emotional reaction you have to a particular situation, and do not meaningfully constrain behavior. A moral code should meaningfully constrain behavior (the set of “what is right to do” should be nonequivalent to the set of emotionally pleasant actions) and kneejerk emotional reactions, even when dressed up in a rationalist patina, don’t do the job.

I would have less of a problem with someone who started with a nuanced rational core and then deduced from that to specific situations. But like I said, in practice, people tend to take the easy, rationalizing way out.

Cite that they don’t constrain behavior? My moral code constrains me just fine, thank you very much.

This is an interesting question. For me, the deeper we probe, the less tidy morality is. I think at the bottom of this well, morality is made out of emotion and planning.

The emotion might be empathy for somebody in a difficult situation (which leads to a sense of fairness) or abhorence (making us feel like killing is wrong). I figure to the extent that morality can be instinctual, it is through emotion.

By planning I mean thinkng about how we want the world to be. For example, I can empathize with both people in a couple that is breaking up, but feel stronger emotion for the person being left than for the person doing the leaving. However, thinking things through, I worry so much about the concept of forcing people to stay together when one of them wants out, that I think it wiser if we all agree that leaving isn’t immoral. At least, sometimes. The word “planning” didn’t seem quite right; I didn’t really phrase this well, but still am not hitting on a better way.

There is no such thing as a moral absolute, and rationalization is necessary to good judgement. Without being able to be objective and rationalize unpleasant decisions we would be left with a very childish and selfish system.

For myself I start with the principle of harm. If an action is likely to cause more harm to others or society as a whole then the benefit to myself, it is generally unethical or immoral. However, circumstances can change the level of that same action or occasionally justify it. It is important to note that a just action is not the same as an ethical or moral one though.

To use a simple example: Killing people is wrong because it causes harm on many levels- It deprives the victim of their life, future happiness, etc… Their death causes intense pain to their families and friends, and society must expend resources to punish the killer that could have better been spent improving society as whole. So while it is always immoral to kill, it may not always be unethical or unjust. It certainly is justified to take a life in direct defense of my own life or those of my family or loved ones. My action was still immoral, but the scales balanced the other way this time providing me with a different if unpalatable course of action to take.