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What is a Moral Issue?  
The Distinction Between Moral Actions and Nonmoral Actions

Abstract:  A working definition of an issue of moral concern is shown to be any issue with the potential to help or harm anyone, including yourself.

I. Hypothesis 1: Moral issues are those which involve a difference of belief and not a matter of preference.

 

A. In other words, a moral dispute would involve a factual disagreement (or a disagreement in belief) where one or the other or neither belief is correct. It would not involve a disagreement in attitude (or a disagreement in feeling).

 

If you need a clarification on this distinction together with some exercises in making the distinction go to the varieties of Disagreements in Attitude and Belief and the quiz on that topic.

   

1. On this view, an example of a moral issue would be cheating on exams or obeying the law.

   

2. A nonmoral issue would involve examples like eating grapefruit or listening to music, c.p.

 

B. Objection: Many nonmoral issues are factual. This distinction would not be sufficient distinguish between scientific and moral beliefs.

II. Hypothesis 2: Moral issues are those which involve a specific kind of experience, i.e., a special kind of feeling.

 

A. This feeling differs intuitively from other kinds of feelings such as religious or aesthetic feelings. (Some people think they arise from a conscience.)

 

B. On this hypothesis, such feelings are a kind of satisfaction, shame, or guilt.

 

C. Objection: such feelings depend to a large extent upon how one has been reared.

   

1. Sociopaths or pyschopaths have no such feelings. These words are informal descriptors for . . .

     

"Antisocial personality: A personality disorder characterized by a basic lack of socialization and by behavior patterns that bring the individual repeatedly into conflict with society. People with this disorder are incapable of significant loyalty to individuals, groups, or social values and are grossly selfish, callous, irresponsible, impulsive, and unable to feel guilt or to learn from experience. Frustration tolerance is low. Such individuals tend to blame others or to offer plausible rationalizations for their behavior." (American Psychiatric Association, A Psychiatric Glossary, 4th ed.)

   

2. Other feelings which some people experience are simply inappropriate. For example, feeling guilty for taking your fair share; inferiority complexes, and so forth.

III. Hypothesis 3: Moral issues are those which involve a specific kind of situation, i.e., the acts which affect other people.

 

A. On this view, whenever people interact, issues of moral concern arise.

 

B. By inference, then, there would be no matters of moral concern for Robinson Crusoe.

 

C. Objection: (1) There are self-regarding duties (your first duty is to yourself--you ought to develop personal habits of courage, and so forth.) (2) Not all interactions are of moral concern; some or morally unimportant.

   

1. Interestingly enough, this objection is a reason why the Golden Rule cannot be a universal principle of morality.

   

2. We have duties to ourselves. Not all persons which to be treated in the same manner.

IV. Hypothesis 4: Moral issues are those actions which have the potential to help or harm others or ourselves.

 

A. This is the definition we shall take as a working definition for this course.

 

B. Notice that if we have an issue of moral concern, it might involve something good. (Often, many people think that if an issue is of moral concern then it is an issue involving some wrong action.)

 

C. On this definition, very few human decisions are actions are not of some moral concern--only those with no foreseeable consequences which can help or harm others or ourselves.

   

1. The physical, biological, and social sciences would be used to determine the potential to help or harm.

   

2. On this view, carelessness and unintentional actions are moral issues. The full explication of the view is dependent upon a consistent theory of human action. (Is an accident of moral concern?)


Recommended Sources

Quiz on What is a Moral Issue?:  A short quiz covering the terms "moral," "immoral," "nonmoral," and "amoral."

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