Moral reasoning or morality is the ability to understand the difference between good and evil. Morality is actually a form of intelligence. Young children will think something is bad if they will get punished for doing it. Something is good if it benefits them. People who don’t evolve beyond this primitive state of moral development are labeled psychopaths or sociopaths when they reach adulthood. The next stages are the conformist stages followed by the non-conformist stages. Moral conformists believe something is bad if it is against the law or if their religion forbids it. Moral non-conformists on the other hand, understand that you need to evaluate for yourself what is good and bad. This evaluation is actually quite simple. Something is good if it benefits more than it harms. The problem is to get people to understand how to analyze the benefits and harm. Let’s look at a few moral problems as examples.
It if will benefit him, the psychopath will have no problem killing a person provided he thinks he has an extremely good chance of not getting caught. The non-conformist will understand that murder has many consequences. Not only do you end the person’s life and halt any good that person may do but the death may also have a profoundly negative effect on the victim’s loved ones. So while the victim may die quickly without pain you are causing an enormous amount of mental anguish to the person’s loved ones. If you murder someone there is also a very good chance that you will be imprisoned for the crime and you and your loved ones will suffer as well. On the other hand sometimes you have a moral obligation to murder. If a crazed gunman is killing people one by one and you have a loaded gun pointed at him you must stop him. Some people will hesitate because they know that killing another person is against the law. Many deeply religious people will actually refuse to pull the trigger because it goes against the commandment to not kill. If someone is near death and suffering excruciating pain, of which there is no relief from and they beg you to end their life you have a moral obligation to do it. Disturbingly, physicians will often try to say euthanasia is wrong because it is against the oath they are required to take. That is, they must do everything in their power to prolong life. This is a conformist argument. Note also that you may also have a moral obligation to not practice euthanasia if you live in a draconian society that punishes people that perform it.
Stealing a loaf of bread for the thrill of it is an immoral act. Stealing a loaf of bread to feed your starving family can be a moral act provided the owner is also not starving and you have no other means to feed your family.
Committing adultery is only immoral if it creates more harm than good. Usually committing adultery causes more harm than good. You are potentially seriously harming the spouses and children in order to satisfy your own selfish needs. However, there are cases where committing adultery is the moral thing to do. For example, a woman is married to an violently abusive alcoholic. The woman escapes to another man that gives her the strength to leave this situation and support to keep her going. Here the woman is helping herself and family and only harming a monster.
Morality is universal not subjective
Many people seem to believe that morality is subjective and arbitrary. However, morality is actually a purely logical exercise, it is not relative in any way. True morality is universal and transcends all cultures. True morality has absolutely nothing to do with laws or religions which often are relative. Determining if a given action is morally right is quite logical, almost like a mathematical formula. It is merely a cost/benefit analysis of the harm/help a given act results in. You add up all the good results of an action and all the bad. If there’s more good than bad it’s the right thing to do otherwise it’s not. Something is good if it benefits others. Something is bad if it harms others. What could be simpler? The problem is you have to actually determine the good and bad effects. You can’t just rely on what others tell you. True morality is not about believing things are wrong or good without question just because someone told you they are. That is, thinking is required not just blind acceptance. You can’t just believe something is immoral because some law or religious edict says it is immoral. It is religion and laws that are relative not morality. You have to do the analysis yourself to understand why something is good or bad. Someone following this simple method and having the knowledge/wisdom to think of all the consequences and weigh them objectively can effectively judge whether another’s actions are moral or not.
All people think alike when dealing with universal constructs like mathematics and true morality. Determining the harm and benefits of actions are not that subjective at all. These are very easily determined by people not mired in the lower levels of moral development. Assigning mathematical values to these determinations would be guesswork of sorts due to the complicated nature of the phenomena but this isn’t that subjective really. Saying these determinations are subjective is like saying math is subjective because some people can’t do it well. Determining whether an effect is harming or benefiting should be universal provided you weed out the primitive selfish child/psychopath and legal/religious conformist moral reasoning. Children and psychopaths do not tend to think about the effects of an action on others. Legal and religious conformist moral reasoners need someone to tell them what is right and wrong. Neither are really doing any true moral reasoning.
Take for example the death penalty. The benefits: get rid of really bad people that cannot be reformed and would waste money being incarcerated for life; these people will never be able to harm others again. The harm: some jurisdictions will over use it; innocent people may be wrongfully put to death; some of these bad people could be reformed and eventually become good people. The value for the equation depends on the specific case. However, the procedure is very logical and very universal.
A moral act is not determined by how many people are harmed or benefited but by the degree of overall harm or benefit to others. Contrary to what many seem to believe, morality is very simple, very logical and very universal. Provided of course that your terms are properly explained and examined from a global perspective instead of one’s own selfish interests. Morality can even be expressed as an equation: M = (B – H). M indicates the moral rightness of a given action. A positive value indicates the action is morally right while a negative value indicates the action is immoral to perform. B is the benefits to others the action will incur. H is the harm to others the action will incur. If the action results in more benefits to others than harm, the action is a morally right one.
It can be said that because people, who by nature are not perfect, are doing the calculations you are going to have discrepancies. This is correct. However, certain people, those with more knowledge and experience with moral reasoning, can give a more accurate judgment of the morality of an action. To use a math analogy, someone inexperienced with math is going to make a lot of mistakes in working out a complex equation, whereas a PhD in math is less likely to do so.
The worlds religions have overcomplicated the terms good and evil. The labels we have just need better, simpler definitions. Something is bad or evil if it causes more harm to others than good. Something is good if it results in more benefits to others than harm. These definitions are very simple and logical so everyone can easily grasp them.
Crime and Punishment
Punishment does not work well at all as psychology clearly shows us. Therefore it is immoral to needlessly inflict it on others. The moral thing to do with bad people is to turn them into good people. People that cannot be rehabilitated need to be eliminated or kept away from good people forever. Crimes of passion are not as serious as premeditated crimes. Serial killers are psychopaths. Psychopathy is more of a developmental delay (moral retardation) rather than an illness. Instead of punishment the legal system needs to rethink prisons as a way of keeping bad people away from good people or as schools to teach proper behavior. Incarceration stops criminals from committing crimes on the outside but they continue committing crimes on the inside. Plus when they get out they continue committing crimes usually more savagely than before.
Punishment only makes criminals more angry and more violent. The wise thing to do is to remove punishment and replace it with something else. For example, at one time it was considered good parenting to spank your kids. Now we know that there are more effective things to do to raise good children, like positive reinforcement, timeouts etc. The problem is that societies don’t really want to rehabilitate criminals, its too costly in the short term at least. At the very least we should recognize that punishment does not work and instead focus on keeping bad people away from good people. So instead of being imprisoned for a set period of time violent criminals are imprisoned until they are no longer a threat to society. You get the same effect, bad people in prisons, plus you open the door for better future solutions.