Morality and Reason

If there ever was a man in possession of a “pure” reason, it has to be Socrates: it only spoke to him once, saying all it could ever say: “I know that I know nothing”. Ask a computer a moral question, or, to be really cliché, the meaning of life, and it will use its only tool, logic, to give the most reasonable answer thinkable: silence.

Giving reason a decisive part illuminators (and especially Kant, as the last spark of the dying era) have condemned philosophy to be locked inside the artificial concepts, which do not exist but in the “program code” of such a subtle though imperfect and unexplored machine as human brain, linked not only with chemistry of the body, but also with mental viruses of society. “The pure reason” was never more than an ideal, and today it is a lie, and it cannot be any more than this. The result is laughable: we claim to be rational without any conscientious effort to use our reason. It does not transcend our nature; it is part of our nature – and only a part.

In trying to fit – or should I say cram – everything into the domain of reason, we make the concepts vulgar and unappealing, but our reason is no connoisseur – it will eat the ugliest things. When attempting to develop, prove and express right and wrong by reason, one has added something which was never there, and removed the whole essence which one’s reason cannot touch. Lofty ideas of justice, good, evil and duty belong to the courtroom – or the classroom – not to the individual; their basis come from a different source than reason. We have misunderstood the order; such ideas are not part of the domain of reason – it is the other way around.

Be honest: when helping a person who fell in front of you, is it not automatic – or some pressing sense that you have to do it? When not giving a rude person a proper smack in the face, is it not from some inexplicable restraint within – some feeling that you cannot do it, just because it is wrong? – There is no categorical imperative, no methodical proof by logic and reasoning that this is what you should do. “If killing is allowed, society will degenerate and disintegrate, and there will be nothing keeping anyone from killing you, and this outcome is not desirable. Therefore killing should not be allowed”. Is it not rude and crude, a direct insult and lie, to claim that there is such a procedure preceding every, indeed any, action of Man, belonging to a moral choice? Kant’s famous ‘proof’ that lying is wrong, is a proof of nothing more than how far removed the rationalistic view of morality is from the actual nature of our judgment and action. Ecce machina.

Most of our endeavours into this abstract realm has been backwards: we have the conclusion and the conviction, and we seek to justify them by reason, but our reason works on the foundation from which our conviction comes from – from the conviction itself. The result: “Why does opium cause sleep? – because of its soporific power”. To repeat myself: we already have the conviction, it lies far deeper than our reason – beyond our reason – and we do not care to change it, disprove it or remove it; it is far too ingrained and obvious to be put into words, too be seen; it does not belong to these senses. All we want, since we are “rational” beings, is to find some justification, some explanation – any and all. Our reason will eat the ugliest things.

Illustrations are always simplification, and I’ll make no exception to the rule. I once observed a discussion on capital punishment. A woman argued that capital punishment is wrong because it is wrong to kill. The man argued that capital punishment can be necessary and is tolerable because it can be morally acceptable to kill in certain cases. Suffice to say the discussion did not go very well for each side thought the other irrational: if killing is always wrong, the only rational conclusion is that capital punishment is wrong; if killing can be acceptable under some circumstances, one may argue that capital punishment may be allowed. The foundation from which their reason worked did not correspond, and so they could never agree – and this foundation was never touched upon. Here the foundation was clear, but this is rarely the case – but even when it is in plain sight, we fail to see it.

When the moral choice does not proceed by automatism, and we have to think; to ask our reason, what does it say? “It is wrong to do it”, “it is wrong not to do it”. It only refers to a basis which it does not question; which most individuals hardly can imagine questioning; which they cannot fathom being questionable – reason works from this basis much like the mathematician works from axioms and definitions. This is why two perfectly reasonable, by common standards (that is, completely unreasonable),  individuals can be utterly unable to comprehend each other – the foundation from which they work do not correspond, and from one’s foundation the other’s opinion will be completely irrational and illogical, and vice-versa, and for each, the foundation is so ‘natural’ that it does not even occur to their consciousness.

What else could reason work from than this ‘foundation’? Already with Hume did it become clear that one cannot rationally, with logic, make any statement of the morality of any action – indeed any statement about morality at all. Having given the most reasonable answer possible, he could unfortunately not leave the matter at nothing, and had to remark that this does not really matter, since we seem to be endowed by nature with a sense of morality, which we follow.

Here Hume, and all who has thought like him – they are many – made a huge misstep! The nature of Man is dynamic. The ant is born with a full set of instincts regarding his whole behaviour, and does everything according to this set of rules from day one. The instincts of human are of a different kind; not only are we born with some personal, dynamic, sense of morality and behaviour, but also with an instinct to form society, and primarily to conform – an instinct of society.

But society is also dynamic, for Man possesses tools with which to shape it – intelligence and creation. It is from these two dynamic sources, both society and the personal sense of behaviour, none of them as fixed as the ants’, that morality comes from. The previous and current societies have suppressed the personal source – and herein lies their biggest flaw. There are two elements of Man, individual and social – this is clear, for no two people are completely the same in mindset, while at the same time each society is greatly homogenous. The aforementioned foundation differs at some levels from society to society, and so these parts rarely belongs to the individual – and certainly not to reason. In the personal scale reason is also a secondary point – for the main part of individual is subconscious and the only role or reason is its extraction.

The rights and wrongs that seem common to all humans and are thus taken to be part of our nature, or in other words a common part of the personal source, like “thou shalt not kill”, cannot they be equally well explained as coming from society? Indeed, history and present provides ample examples of killing being considered less wrong, or even right, if the victim does not belong to the society. How could there possibly have developed a society in which the mindset of the individuals allowed indiscriminate killing and rampant theft and vandalism? Such a society would collapse even before it formed.

An essential feature of all morality that truly is common to all humans that it is a necessity for the existence of the society. It is not until modern time that killing itself has been wrong: usually it was only the killing of certain people, the proper citizens of the society. And indeed, the idea of the intrinsic value of human life regardless of race, society and culture is just part of the mindset of some societies. It is an idea that has slowly developed over time, and still most people differentiate between people of different societies and races, even if this differentiation is not conscious and does not exist as an idea: it exists as a psychological phenomenon.

The rights and wrongs of the personal source therefore remains to some extent a mystery, since societies have been so suppressing of it. The only criteria of the personal verity is personal actualisation – and does not the latter manifest through the reason, but not by it? Can the morality then not also be verified on the personal level, if only we could put the omnipresent reason in its initial place? For morality should not be the bound of either individual or social freedom, but the point where the both are free. It is a worthy question then, if and how one can combine these two sources to achieve both the structural safety of society and true individual freedom.

Nowadays the concept of morality is completely blown away and exists only as a battlefield of theists and atheists. Theistic “morality” has failed being unable to speak to human’s mind in the reason’s language. “Morality” of atheists can not by definition answer the moral questions because of its artificial foundation, based on non-existent idea of the “pure reason”. The proper function of morality, as a mean of connection between individual and society, has disappeared, and nobody can give any reasonable definition of “right” or  “wrong”. A computer can only make the limited quantity of logical operations, but, properly used, it can give amazing results – if only one remembers what is behind the code: nobody expects the laptop to work in absentia of the user.


See also:

Reason is a tool of emotion


16 thoughts on “Morality and Reason

  1. It was not pure reason that Socrates left us with that sentence… it was the enslaved and defeated calm voice echoing the screams of madness of a mind that wants to learn but finds itself trapped in a college campus, alone, not another mind to be found. It was the sound of determined will defiantly declaring war on ignorance. It was the lonely cry of humanity fading across the aeons of time from this end to that of our universe. It would have simply died in the blacckness had it not met the screams of another mind…

    All I know is that I know nothing … except that I am.

    These echos, like the wax and wane of the lighthouse beacon, keep humanity from crashing headlong into self inflicted extinction. I think, therefore I am, and all I can know is that I know nothing. I am, beyond known measure, richer for the adventure of it.


  2. I claim the labels of anti-theist, mechanical atheist, monist, and nihilist among others.
    The basis for understanding of morality, or any other thing, is not some foundational principle so much as it is the rules we program our brains with from birth. Nature genetically gives us a few rules (what smells good or bad and so on) and we learn many more but as we slide away from puberty the brain changes again and we begin to reason more by adding more complex rule sets to the programs of our brains. By this time we have learned that the law of reciprocity is in fact a survival tool in social group species. So we use it and do so blindly, never realizing that this is what we are using, or at least most of us are. In your story of capital punishment, one argues from what is right for the person and the other argues what is best for the society. There is no moral position to be had only a perspective on how best for the tribe to survive. today capital punishment might serve the survival needs of a society and tomorrow it might not. This makes morality flexible and changing and the ebb and flow of it confuses many. The one unchanging facet of morality is the survival of the self, group, and species…. in that order. Reduce everyone to a violent chaos of starving people and only survival of the self will guide morality. When niether the survival of the self or society is at risk, morality is a coin toss, and a game for politicians and pulpits.

    The warrior poet knows this and waits patiently at the guard house on the wall while the politicians and preachers argue nonsense to themselves, knowing that his morality will trump the others when the bears come out of the woods.


    • Certainly!
      Survival of the self is “the one unchanging facet of morality”, but would it be correct to say that the self is unchanging?

      We are used to understand the self as a simple egocentric and dangerous beast, which needs an external control in order to stay what we call “human”. But who will dare to say that the real self as the deepest and the most substantial part of ours is just a false beast?

      We say our self is polluted by animal instincts, but the instincts, as you pointed out, only help us to orient ourselves in the material world: we do not only choose which smell is good or bad – according to our instincts we subconsciously choose what is acceptable for our body in this particular moment.

      We say our self is polluted by egocentric ambitions. But what else can we move from but from our ego? If we only knew what our real ego is we had probably never done “an immoral step”.
      You say, there is no moral position in choosing for society a path to survive. I say: the self is the only thing deserving survival – with the help of society, morality, culture and primarily the owner of the self. But should we not agree that the self is not the most obvious thing to describe – certainly less obvious than a biological organism (which is actually also not as obvious)?

      And if, according to you, the morality is “flexible” – is it not because of the main feature of the self, which is flexibility?


      • Hello again,
        I do not think it is correct to say that the self is unchanging. Even in complete isolation the self will change as change is necessary in reaction to new information. In isolation our brains will create information to add to the knowledge store of self.
        The self, on its own, is neither beast nor false, rather it is ‘blind’ and without knowledge. It’s through sight (experience) and knowledge acquisition that we become more than only self. Our humanity, if you insist on calling it that, is lost or forbidden without these.
        I think that at this point in the philosophical time line, self is obvious to describe. As a reductionist in principle I see all else built up from self and further upon what self is built from. Despite any formal function of self, it’s operation is flexible and thus morality itself is flexible – morality without a self to view it is non-existent. The perspective on morality will change with the flexible properties of self, thus morality will appear to change from the perspective of self and this is expandable to group and society as well.


        • “Blind” – is a very good characteristics for the self. But if the self is not unchanging and experience and knowledge can transform it, can we not assume that the self is not always blind?

          Is it not our self which makes the decisions, which are impossible to make with merely the help of the body or reason: a favourite colour, a favorite activity (profession), a person to love?

          Concerning the experience: in Merab Mamardashvili’s very nice lecture on Psychological Topology of Path one can find some interesting thoughts concerning extraction of the experience, for until the experience is extracted it literally doesn’t exist, but only stored. The process of such extraction, and not only the experience itself even, is also able to enlighten the self.

          And, of course, the blind self can not be the criteria of the personal morality.


          • For the first part one would have to define ‘not blind’ and ‘blind’ ….. Those born blind apparently do not dream with pictures. The symbolic language of the interpretation of their sensory data does not include images. For the mind to be truly blind would require that not only the senses be removed, but the language of the senses. The mind will create it’s own discussion in that language available to it regardless of the sensory data available. I would argue that to remove the language ability of the mind to interpret sensory data is to remove the mind. To be truly blind then is to not exist, for all intents and purposes.

            Something like ‘favorite color’ requires even more definition. What is a color? Why would one be prefered over any other? A color is a subjective representation of external phenomena in the symbolic language of the mind. The second is a preference for that representation, or phenomena description in the symbolic language of the observer favoring that color. Does the mind determine which is more pleasing or simply identify which is more pleasing or less unpleasing? That brings us squarely in front of the question: what is a decision?

            What do you say is the definition of a decision?

            I hold that all we appear to perceive is merely the simulation of the perceived object/phenomena in the symbolic language of the observer’s mind, further that to perceive requires the simulation and that in perceiving we have both stored and extracted the experience of the perception by virtue of encoding it in a symbolic language and decoded it in the simulation we call consciousness.

            Lastly, we have more terms to define: What is morality? This must be complete to know if the mind (blind or not) can determine what is morally good or bad. What then is the primary reductionist understanding of morality? How do we define it?


            • All your questions made me think for a very long time. How do you like a solution of the following brainstorming:

              Let us imagine our psyche as a layer structure. We can hardly imagine the quantity of the layers, but we can easily separate between conscious and unconscious (I don’t want to use the psychoanalytic terminology here, for the only thing we can say about the unconscious – is that it is external towards the conscious, but nothing about its hierarchic position, higher or lower). The funniest thing is that the biggest part of our psyche is unconscious and our mind (or our consciousness) is a tiny window through which we can at least try to see what is happening. Reason – is a mechanism, acting at this window, a programme of identification, analysis, synthesis.

              The further a layer is from the consciousness the harder it is for the reason to operate it. Corporal, Sensitive, Intuitive – the layers affect us, and the only thing we can do is to study them through the window. We can not change the kind or intensity of an affect – we can merely decide whether we will follow it or not.

              What is “the self”? The width of the window.

              What is mindset? The properties of the glass.

              The mind in all its complexity of language and habits works both directions like a filter between conscious and unconscious. Obviously it can only determine what is pleasant for the mind itself, for in this case the “pleasant” means “similar”. Red glass easily let waves of the red spectrum in. The biggest challenge of mind is that it is too closely connected to the society – so close we can hardly separate between the two. And in some sense personal taste is completely determined by society (which can be also considered as an external unconscious layer): we like what we are used to. Consider, for instance, the phenomena of fashion.

              Other individual preferences, such as favourite colour, can be equally dependant on society as well as on body (type of constitution) or senses (temperament). Mind can hardly give us any information about the source (or layer) of our preferences except for the case when the preferences are linked to attributes of society: language, external behaviour, appearance. In all other cases mind usually only recognizes some signs from the layers – certainly, according to the mindset.

              A decision, then, is an act of mind, based on unconscious (or let us say conventionally conscious) elements of psyche.

              Morality? A structure of mind (a filter), reflecting social patterns of acceptable behaviour.

              Just a small reservation: let the word “psyche” be disconnected from its narrow neurologic connotations. I could equally use “internal space” instead.

              And, finally, leaving all the simplifications aside, imagine a sphere structure instead of the layer one.


              • @Magnus

                I’ll try not to wander back and forth, forgive my excursions.

                With the psyche (internal spaces) as layers this would relate well to networks of connected spaces/neurons/functions. I describe it more mechanically but I think that is the same, or close to your layers.

                As for separating conscious and sub-conscious, I don’t see them as layers. To my mind consciousness is a specific functionality – The process of integrating sensory and input information and collating it into a symbolic language. In my understanding, every aspect of the information is translated to rules which govern how any object/thing interacts with others. It is a cause/inference engine which solves the ‘problem’ of how everything in sensory/understanding range relates to everything else. The solution comes in the manner of rules which describe how things interact, and that is a poor description because of length of post.

                Imagine you sneak a 1st century chalice into work and leave it on someone’s desk. What are the reactions going to be? Those questions that people ask are their brains trying to solve the problem of that item being in the office. Leave it there for a couple of days and it is no longer a problem to be solved and will become one of the millions of things that people ignore every day.

                Succinctly, consciousness is the process of solving those problems, and others.

                The layers you describe as being further away from consciousness are simply rule sets that we do not question as we are using them to solve problems or data that has been output from a process not accessible directly by the consciousness process. We have the ability to focus on certain inputs or even on imagined inputs so that we can solve a particular small problem or relationship or we can be fully aware and analyze all inputs. Think of the monk who meditates to be focused only in this current instant, claims of heightened senses and so on… this is focus in action and stoping the consciousness from solving any problems. To simply be extant and do nothing with your brain except to focus on incoming sensory data.

                Imagined inputs would be like you imagining a scene in your parents house, reconstructing from memory all the objects and how the behave and interact, then imagine if x or y happened, what would be the result? No external input was necessary because you have previously stored the object data and have rules to operate on them.

                Self, then, is the process of observing the integrated data with respect to our physical person and solving problems that help us to solve other problems. There are hierarchies and precedences etc to the rules, but all we’re doing is solving mathematically representable problems – complex math, but math just the same.

                Our view of the collated data makes us think it is more than it is because that is how our brains work. Something causes other things, and something causes them and so on. Our brains are not designed for questions of origin about ourselves. The trick is well demonstrated but not applied many places. There is talk of infinite regression but no reason to assume it is true, that’s just how our brains work to solve problems.

                In all the problems we solve, some are easier or taint the solution in the scales toward the ‘not harmful’ scale. Everything is harmful and we conflate least harmful as pleasant/safe/good – you can steal that illusion from someone, show a child how baby spiders are crawling out from the inside of their favorite stuffed toy and it will never be a favorite again.

                Favored items reduce perception of harm in some way, either directly or via subversion of quiesent bad such tasting a delicious meal makes you forget the quiesent bad in the world around you. It’s all just how the math works out in a complex set of formula where the rules are written by the brain doing the math.. for the most part anyway. All brains understand gravity so such rules are universal by virtue of being on a planet with gravity.

                When you consider the basic math equation in our brains is simply to identify what is harmful and what is ‘non-harmful’ while searching for food then we can build on that. As the world becomes more complex the math becomes more complex. The answer to the question “is it always wrong to kill” will be based on the rules created by and used by the mind you are asking to solve the problem. In the simulation in that mind, do the rules allow for killing sometimes or do they allow for killing at all times?

                Morality is what fits the rules of right/least harm/non-harm and what does not. These rules are built up over years by any given mind and can change over time if the rules change that work together to create ‘moral judgement’.

                Hopefully that’s not too long



                • My short reply is not worthy of your long text, and I am sorry to derail your nice discussion back into morality and reason (perhaps I should say re-rail considering the title of the article).
                  I am not sure if the whole basis the mind works from “[…] is simply to identify what is harmful and what is ‘non-harmful’ while searching for food…”. Making such an assumption can make us blind to many things. When we are convinced of some idea or theory, we will see everything through the eyes of this theory and all will be distorted to it. This is especially true in social sciences like psychology and also philosophy, where one does not in general deal with hard data or formal proofs. Our consciousness is, as you say, for solving problems, but the problem given to the consciousness is here “explain this through this theory” – and the more convinced we are, the less picky we are with the answer reason gives.

                  It must have been noticed by everyone, that a moral judgement rarely comes from a reasoning about harm, but usually automatically, instantaneously. The problem that the consciousness is given is simply this: “explain why this moral judgement is correct”. Even when the answers are laughable the subject rarely notices. And if all listeners agree with the judgement, they do not notice either. So, then, where does the original judgment come from? – and what is its underlying basis?

                  Even when the reason can give no explanation for how an “immoral” action is harmful, it is usually, by most people (highly educated and/or self-aware (not at all the same things!) people are far from being “most people”), still considered just as immoral. Is the rule that says so truly based on considerations of harm, conscious or unconscious? I would dare to say again, as I did in the article, that such moral concepts that we have a hard time explaining by reason usually is a social concepts; that is, it comes from society. We are made in such a way that conforming to society is important to avoid harm (on the mental scale, at least), but is it not just an innate instinct in us?


                  • I can see where you don’t want to build the onion layers from a core of harm/no-harm to the conflicted and convoluted set of rules that humans use in their every day lives. The point I’m making is that our brains developed from very early mammalian brains over time which means that the core processing underneath all the onion layers is or is related to harm/no-harm while seeking food to survive. That is the essense of life on this planet.

                    Whatever the rules in our brains turn out to be, they must be founded on the basics of mammalian brain function. Survival or the need for it has not changed, only the methods and complications of achieving survival have changed for humans. We have made the task necessarily complex.

                    Morality, being a subjective judgement, must then also be based on those primal imperatives, convoluted and complicated by the onion layers of thought and reason we have layered upon it as we learn to use tools and operate in ever larger groups. A strangely interesting example of this is shown in the television show ‘The Walking Dead’ where survival is reduced to a more basic level and morality then becomes more basic – hint, it is derived from the need to survive.

                    The short version is that what is true for a small mammal is also true for humans no matter how complex or convoluted we make it with modern life and human activity. Given this basic premise we can see, or begin to, how morality gets confusing. This also asserts that even small mammals have ethics and morality despite the fact that we might not view it as such.


                  • forgot: what you imply is innate instinct in us is the harm/no-harm paradigm in trying to survive. This is true for field mice and humans. We just cover this basic rule set with many layers of complexity.


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