The Hierarchy of Moral Principles

A couple of conversations in the last week have made me think about morality tonight.

In particular, I’ve been thinking about moral principles that I try to live by. For example “do no violence”, “be truthful”, “be compassionate”, “stand against injustice”. And I’ve been thinking about how these interact. Because they do. As I imagine gradually more extreme situations, any moral principle I might hold turns out to be a flexible guideline. And I realise that in very non-extreme situations I hold some other moral principles that I didn’t expect.

The interaction of moral principles seems to be hierarchical. There are definitely higher principles and lower principles.

For example, I am (in American political terms) pro-choice. But I also hold a moral position “don’t abort pregnancies”. That is a rather complex position: one where the severity of the moral prohibition changes based on the development of the foetus, and the situation of the mother. I think it a pretty obvious moral wrong to abort a foetus the day before it comes to term, for example. But I think while it would have been preferable to have a different outcome, it is no more immoral to abort an early stage foetus than it would be to impose the anguish of a pregnancy and childbirth on the undesiring mother. And even in the extreme case I can think of situations in which the abortion would be the morally preferable choice to worse evils.

This much is probably nothing new or insightful. But my attempt tonight to actually make explicit some of these connections has been interesting, and not entirely intuitive.

I believe in truth and honesty, for example, but if I’m honest, I compromise my integrity fairly often for social reasons. It may be not saying something that someone should know. Or else feigning more support for a position or person than I feel. Or emphasizing something that I know will lead someone to jump to the wrong (and a better) conclusion about me.

I guess we all do that. But the surprising thing to me is that, if I really think about them, many of those cases don’t feel morally wrong (sure, some do – mostly the ones that are designed to inflate my ego – they are morally wrong, but many aren’t). So I obviously have some kind of moral principle around “be social” or “be a good friend” that trumps my “be honest” sense. And I wouldn’t have thought that would be true about me. I would never have thought that my “be honest” would be an absolute (do you lie about the Jews in your attic to the Nazi officer? Hell yes!), but maybe not that negotiable.

And I’m not sure what is at the top. Maybe “protect your family”. I don’t know. The higher I climb the more far-fetched the imaged scenarios (“okay, I would kill the guy trying to kill my son, but would I kill the guy trying to kill my son if it meant dropping a bomb on a city and killing a hundred innocent bystanders…hmmm”), and the less I am at all confident that any intuitive response at that point is dependable.

If you think honestly about moral decisions you’ve made in the past, do you find that things you would have thought immoral actually don’t feel so?

A side note to bring things back to religion. As I’m thinking of these terrible scenarios, I can run to the most extreme: something like “is it moral to do X rather than see a thousand innocent people tortured to death over some extended period”. And I’m reminded why any Christianity which preaches a literal Hell can have no claims to its own morality nor to a moral God.


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10 responses to “The Hierarchy of Moral Principles

  1. One point: Trying to delineate one’s intuitive morality has several limitations which would change those insights:
    (a) The mood you are in during the thought experiment
    (b) Your present situation and experiences (health, age, security, ….)
    Thus, there is not “My Morality” to be discerned. Also, we can’t trust our minds rationalization for an intuition at any given moment to guide us about understanding “hierarchies” and such. Our thoughts and emotions are inextricably tied together (see today’s post) — thus trying to tease out the some implicit brain rules around ideas seems problematic to me.

  2. Boz

    We lie ALL the time in social situations. It makes the interactions run more smoothly. Take for example these questions:

    How are you today? Do you like the wine? Did you have a good time? How are your kids? etc. And there is also body-language lying, such as pretending to be interested in what the other person is saying. 😉

    Based on people’s actions, I don’t think many people actually believe in a literal heaven/hell. See this passage from “God’s Debris”:

    “Look,” I said, “four billion people believe in some sort of God and free will. They can’t all be wrong.”

    “Very few people believe in God,” he replied.

    I didn’t see how he could deny the obvious. “Of course they do. Billions of people believe in God.”

    The old man leaned toward me, resting a blanketed elbow on the arm of his rocker. “Four billion people say they believe in God, but few genuinely believe. If people believed in God, they would live every minute of their lives in support of that belief. Rich people would give their wealth to the needy. Everyone would be frantic to determine which religion was the true one. No one could be comfortable in the thought that they might have picked the wrong religion and blundered into eternal damnation, or bad reincarnation, or some other unthinkable consequence. People would dedicate their lives to converting others to their religions. “A belief in God would demand one hundred percent obsessive devotion, influencing every waking moment of this brief life on earth. But your four billion so-called believers do not live their lives in that fashion, except for a few. The majority believe in the usefulness of their beliefs—an earthly and practical utility—but they do not believe in the underlying reality.”

    I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “If you asked them, they’d say they believe.”

    “They say that they believe because pretending to believe is necessary to get the benefits of religion. They tell other people that they believe and they do believer-like things, like praying and reading holy books. But they don’t do the things that a true believer would do, the things a true believer would have to do. If you believe a truck is coming toward you, you will jump out of the way. That is belief in the reality of the truck. If you tell people you fear the truck but do nothing to get out of the way, that is not belief in the truck. Likewise, it is not belief to say God exists and then continue sinning and hoarding your wealth while innocent people die of starvation. When belief does not control your most important decisions, it is not belief in the underlying reality, it is belief in the usefulness of believing.”

    “Are you saying God doesn’t exist?” I asked, trying to get to the point.

    “I’m saying that people claim to believe in God, but most don’t literally believe. They only act as though they believe because there are earthly benefits in doing so. They create a delusion for themselves because it makes them happy.”

  3. “If you think honestly about moral decisions you’ve made in the past, do you find that things you would have thought immoral actually don’t feel so?”

    Oh definitely. I don’t know if it’s a 20/20 hindsight thing, or just a loosening up of my own feelings on the situation due to age and experience, but some things change for sure.

    I’m more surprised now to see how my morality reflects my emotional inclinations or even just physical impulses.

    Mind you, years in the education field under a Behavior-Mod Skinner enthusiast has also affected my views on the constructing of ethics.

  4. Ian

    @sabio – Well, yes, but just because we can’t do something perfectly, doesn’t mean we can’t do it at all. I think self-reflection is able to tell us things about ourself that are core. But that doesn’t mean everything (or even most things) that it tells us are.

    @Boz – Love the quote. I’m not entirely sure I agree with it (people who know full well they will die as a result still act self-destructively, so I’m pretty pessimistic that the belief in an afterlife, however fully held, would have a huge effect on someone’s inertia). But it is great. I’ll look up the book.

    @Andrew – “Mind you, years in the education field under a Behavior-Mod Skinner enthusiast has also affected my views on the constructing of ethics.” That’s too interesting a statement to let pass – can you elaborate?

  5. sorry — maybe being more cryptic than having content. I’ll try to elaborate, though some of this might very well be sphincter-sophism.

    Kind of like how Sab sees thoughts and emotions tied together, I think morality and behaviour are tied together. Or like how the word “god” has in some ways been decoupled from any specific meaning, “morality” is a word in search of consensus. Your idea of principles, translated into behaviour would be something like habits, maybe? Prioritizing habits seems related to valuing the outcomes, rewards/punishments sort of thing, along with self-definitions (a reward/punishment thing in itself) — how we have come to see ourselves, or justify or rationalize the impulses we listen to or ignore. (“I’m this type of person. See, I do this. Or at least look and play the part.”)

    The Behaviorism influence has drawn me to examine consequentialism a little more, in terms of systematic morality, I guess. Behaviorism also was helpful for me in seeing just how powerful the the narrative of a “super-nice god” that also has “super-wrath” can be on a trusting human being immersed in a controlled environment.


  6. Ian

    Thanks Andrew. Yes I can see where you’re coming from. And I wasn’t clear what my meta-model is for this. I think the post is trying to distinguish between what I think of as my morality (i.e. my self-understanding) and the actual intuitions or moral emotions that I believe are the real thing, rather than habits. I think often when we try to self-reflect we end up with models about ourself that aren’t necessarily true, or are only true in certain cases. This was one of those.

    I didn’t follow the idea of the ‘super-nice god’ though. Maybe I just need to read the archives of your blog?

  7. “I think often when we try to self-reflect we end up with models about ourself that aren’t necessarily true, or are only true in certain cases. “

    That’s a really good sentence . I find myself too often getting caught-up in my own head. It’s poor reflection. The reference points aren’t necessarily objective or consistent. I blame blogging… and maybe my own absent-minded nature.

    I don’t know if the archives would do much good or not. Feel free, of course. And suggestions/comments would be thankfully appreciated. I’m new to blogging and haven’t sorted out all my viewpoints or convictions yet. The “super-nice god” thing was an attempt to go back to your original post and the side note of a moral God in Christianity. I can see why people can get addicted to the general Christian story of heaven/hell and still see God as the moral authority — A giver of reward/punishment. I’m not saying I like it or anything. I just see why some people are drawn to it.

  8. excellent post and discussion as always. i’m with you on many levels. i feel like i’m a pretty ethical guy, plan things out, act ethically to reach ethical means (deontology). yet i find myself falling into a teleological view often. could it be that i’m lazy? or just an existentialist? too pragmatic?

    i can’t say i’m wild about Boz’s quote because there are a lot that do just that, and i normally make fun of them or get really frustrated with those who claim my religion and act that way.

    i’m also Jungian, and symbols mean a lot to me. both socially (body language and symbolic language) as well as in art, poetry and prose. so behaviorist views of morality disinterest me. as do utilitarian style ethics (or at least the stereotyped version that i’m be familiar with) where ethics becomes a numbers game. i guess i just fall more tradition in terms of morality and ethics. due in part to my Roman Catholic background as well as lived experience. ex: where you state you’re pro-choice, i would say i’m pro-life from womb to tomb. yet i also feel that a man with an opinion on abortion is like a fish with a bike. i’ve lived my life so that i’ve never had to put a woman in that situation or ever have to make that choice. yet i truly love and see how other women get put in situations where they have to make that hard choice due to a variety of factors. hope that makes some sense.

  9. Ian


    I find myself too often getting caught-up in my own head. It’s poor reflection. The reference points aren’t necessarily objective or consistent. I blame blogging

    The definition of a blogger is probably someone who, when faced with existential crisis, thinks “hey this would make a good post!”

    @01 It makes perfect sense, and you’re dead right about it not making a fig of difference what I believe on abortion specifically.

    Interesting that you ‘fall’ into a teleological ethics. I strive for teleological ethics, because it is the only thing that rationally makes sense to me. I never cease to marvel how we can always seem to be so far apart while being so near, you and I.

  10. “. I never cease to marvel how we can always seem to be so far apart while being so near, you and I.”

    and that is the joy of living! What a brave new world with such people in it! 😉

    i can never tell if i’m a lazy deontologist or a really good teleologist with a splash of virtue ethics. or just utterly confused. prolly all of the above… maybe?

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