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

Abstract:  A working definition of an issue of moral concern is presented as any issue with the potential to help or harm anyone, including oneself.

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


A. On this hypothesis, 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). [1]


1. On this view, examples of a moral issue would include whether it is right that one speaks truthfully in a particular circumstance or whether one obeys the law in a particular circumstance, as these issues as the rightness or wrongness of the action are assumed to be factually determinable through empirical inquiry.


2. On this hypothesis, a nonmoral issue would involve ceteris paribus issues of personal preference having no empirical consequences of benefit or harm such as which shoe one puts on first in the morning, whether or not one prefers to eat grapefruit for breakfast, or whether or not one prefers to listen to music after dinner c.p. [2]


B. Objection: Many nonmoral issues are factual. This distinction would not be sufficient distinguish between scientific and moral beliefs. For example, the question of whether it is right that the speed of light is always constant is a question of science [3] and is not an ethical issue. As well, the distinction would not be sufficient to distinguish some questions of convention, moral codes, or etiquette from ethical or moral beliefs. E.g. In setting a table, the proper side of the plate a fork is to be placed, is a convention and does not seem to be an ethical or moral issue.

II. Hypothesis 2: Moral issues are those which involve the experience of a special kind of feeling.


A. This feeling is said to differ intuitively from other kinds of feelings such as religious or aesthetic feelings. (E.g., some people think these feelings arise from arise from conscience.)


B. On this hypothesis, such feelings can be those of satisfaction, shame, or guilt.


C. Objection: such feelings depend to a large extent upon how one has been reared and how ones character develops. E.g. ethical feelings deriving from self-judgment or shame seem to be alterable through cognitive behavior therapy. [4]


1. Sociopaths or psychopaths have no such feelings. These terms 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." [5]


2. Other feelings experienced by some persons can be simply inappropriate. For example, feeling guilty for taking your fair share or feelings of inadequacy due to an inferiority complex, and so forth.

III. Hypothesis 3: Moral issues are those which involve the specific kind of situation where actions affect other people.


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


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


C. Objection: (1) There are self-regarding duties (your first duties are to oneself — e.g., one ought to develop personal habits of courage, and so forth.) (2) Also, not all interactions between or among persons are necessarily of moral concern; some interactions might be morally insignificant. E.g. in some circumstances whether one nods ones head indicating assent or simply states, “Yes” might not be of moral or ethical concern.


1. Interestingly enough, the objection of self-regarding duties is one reason why the Golden Rule cannot be a universal principle of morality. Not all persons wish to treat themselves as we treat ourselves.


2. Depending on ones lifestyle, one has specific duties to oneself. Just as different persons have some different duties to themselves so likewise not all persons would wish 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. This working definition is a version of consequentialist ethics and has a number of objections which are discussed later in the course.


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


C. On this definition, very few human decisions or actions are not of some moral concern since very few, if any, decisions have no consequences helping or harming ourselves or others. On this view, only decisions with no possible consequences helping or harming would qualify as nonmoral actions. Decisions such as the latter are difficult to imagine. Thus, it may well be that any decision made and any action performed is of some ethical concern.


1. Principles from the physical, biological, and social sciences can be used to determine the potential to help or harm — so, in a sense, our decisions would be only as prudent as our knowledge base.


2. On this view, carelessness, unintentional, and inadvertent actions would also be moral issues. The full explication of the view expressed here would be dependent upon a consistent theory of human action.


3. Is an accident of moral concern? Accidents have causes, and if those causes are a result of a decisions, then it would follow that those accidents would be an issue of moral concern.


4. Sometimes the harm principle (that an individual's action should only be restrained if the action would harm others)[5] is used as the basis for defining the nature of a moral issue. However, it is virtually impossible to imagine all harmful consequences of an action which might affect other persons in some way, given that any action is always be done in situations where all factors cannot be known and controlled.


5. E.g., the drug user who claims he has the right to use drugs because no one else is hurt still has an effect on society at large. The drugs need be acquired somehow and upon use affect the thoughts and behavior of the user, so many other persons are affected in some manner — including, for example, the drug supplier and the user's friends and family who would be indirectly affected.


1. Clarification on this distinction together with some exercises in making the distinction are provided here: Disagreements in Attitude and Belief with a self-scoring quiz on that topic. ^


2. Ceteris paribus — the “with-other-things-being-equal” clause, is meant to exclude in the first example, cases such as the chemical interference of grapefruit with the efficacy of certain medications, in the second example, cases such as a law conflicting with a different law or with a universal ethical principle, and in the third example, cases, where one or the other foot has a higher probability of a sprain. The difficulty with this view is that practically any matter of fact involving human action regardless of conscious choice would have consequences which have the potential to be ethically good or bad. ^


3. The scientific issue is discussed in Andrew Grant, “Speed of light not a constant afterall,” Science News (February 21, 2015) 187 No.4, 7. ^


4. E. Hedman et al., “Shame and guilt in social anxiety disorder: effects of cognitive behavior therapy and association with social anxiety and depressive symptoms,” PLos One (April 19, 2013) 8 No. 4. ^


5. American Psychiatric Association, A Psychiatric Glossary (New York: Basic Books, 1975), 116. ^

    6. E.g., “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (London: John W. Parker and Son, 1859), 22. ^

Recommended Sources

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

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