How ethical reasoning works

When people disagree with me about morality, they often ask, "*why* do you think that's right/wrong?" This question shows a fundamental misunderstanding of morality. To illustrate I usually play devil's advocate: "Why is it wrong to steal or murder?". They answer something like "it's wrong because it deprives someone else of their property/life without their consent" or "it's wrong because it's selfish/cruel". Then I ask why it's wrong to deprive people of things without their consent or why it's wrong to be selfish and cruel, etc.

(Some people give an especially stupid answer which goes like "it's ultimately in your own interests because if you act selfishly then other people will act selfishly and we'll all end up worse off as a result" (See: prisoner's dilemma). The problem with this one is different: if morality is ultimately about *your own interests*, then there is no actual such thing as morality! The whole idea of morality is that right and wrong exist even if doing the right thing *isn't* in your own interests. If you really believe this answer then you believe morality is literally The Art of Being Selfish, But Good At It.)

The point of this exercise is that "why" isn't always a valid question. Sometimes the answer is "it just is". There are certain fundamental principles, one of them being "causing suffering to innocent people is wrong", that all morality is based on, but that principle itself doesn't have or need a justification. It isn't the only one either (another obvious one is that lying is immoral - though it's less obvious that this is a distinct principle because lying usually causes suffering too, it is in fact a distinct principle; it applies even when lying doesn't cause suffering).

So anyway, if morality is all based on things that don't come from logic, you might still want to know why (causally) I think something about morality that doesn't seem true to you, if it's possible to resolve the disagreement. It usually is! To resolve such a disagreement, if you haven't already been through this, we need to go through how conclusions about morality are supposed to be reached.

Obviously, the fundamental principles of morality are not themselves self-evident. We don't have an innate infallible knowledge of what the fundamental principles are, or else I wouldn't have spent years trying to figure them out. What we do have innate infallible knowledge of is the morality of actions *we can immediately take*. Ethics, like all the rest of philosophy, is about generalization. We can reach conclusions about ethics by extrapolating from these innate feelings of morality what might be the rules they operate by.

We *don't* have infallible knowledge of the morality of actions we *can't* immediately take; when we judge the morality of such actions, we're actually using our instinct (subconscious learned patterns) to imagine what our conscience would say if we were in that position. This process is, of course, fallible.

Another caveat is that, just like reason in its domain, conscience depends on having the correct inputs. Of course an infallibly wise person could be 'wrong' on a practical judgement if you lied to them about the facts of the case. Conscience, similarly, depends on being fully aware of how everyone involved will be affected by an action. For example a newborn likely doesn't realize that the other people around them have feelings like they do, so they may not feel anything from their conscience. Hypotheticals are even more so: since you're not actually in the situation, your mind might fill in some details the statement of the scenario left out (such as assuming that a crime is motivated purely by sadism because no motive was mentioned), and if you didn't realize you were doing this, you could get a bad guess from your instinct on what your conscience would say. I have made that exact mistake before - implicitly assuming that a hypothetical crime were motivated purely by sadism - and it led me to think for a long time that there was no difference between action and inaction, when in fact the difference is really important and is the foundation of libertarianism! I noticed the error much later when I thought of many scenarios where my instinctive judgement didn't seem to align with the principle I thought I had extrapolated.

Difference between action and inaction

For the purposes of merit and blame though, conscience is infallible without any caveats, because of course you can't be at fault for doing what you had no way to know was wrong.

If you understand all this, then you understand how to argue about morality. It's very different from arguing about most other things; errors about most things are the result of confusion about the mapping between words and concepts. Errors about morality - when not the result of indoctrination or bias - are usually failures to properly consider a scenario, or a flawed instinct about that scenario due to not having experienced anything similar in the right ways. Thus, you can sometimes change my mind about an ethical judgement by calling my attention to a facet of the scenario I have glossed over, or by comparing it to a similar scenario.

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