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What Is Moral Reasoning?

By Kenneth W. Michael Wills
Updated May 23, 2024
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Collective or at the individual level, moral reasoning is the act of thinking objectively about what actions are considered right and what actions are considered wrong. As such, thinking is directed at deciding what to do in a situation or what not to do in given situation. Intention is part of this process and often relies on logic to arrive at a conclusion. Typically, the reasoning process deliberates on the intent and action directed toward a given situation, and then weighs the possible choices against potential consequences to make a decision. Choices, however, can be individual, economical or ethical, depending on the circumstances regarding the situation that poses the moral question.

Moral behavior is commonly cited to have four distinct components. Those components include moral sensitivity, moral judgment, moral motivation and moral character. Sensitivity of morality refers to a person’s ability to understand how one's actions impact others, while judgment of morality refers to correct reasoning to arrive at a moral conclusion. Motivation refers to acceptance of responsibility for ones actions, while character refers to taking action regardless of extenuating circumstances or pressure from others. Therefore, moral reasoning is often dependent on the logical constructs of these various moral components.

Moral reasoning is also culturally and religiously influenced and subsequently may at times suffer from misreading the environment or the desired accomplishments of actions. Principally, applying moral reasoning involves understanding the desired accomplishment and knowing the environment well enough to judge how best to accomplish such results. Just as important to the process, the individual or group involved in the moral reasoning process must also understand their place in respect to the environment. For example, if one wants to determine whether abortion is an acceptable action, one must first understand what abortion is meant to accomplish. Thereafter, one must then understand the different ways to accomplish those intended objectives within the given environment before arriving at a conclusion.

Rules are also inherent to moral reasoning and usually provide the premises from which morality is reasoned and conclusions are drawn. Consider a line of reasoning: Killing an innocent being is wrong. To kill an animal is to kill an innocent being. Therefore, killing an animal is wrong.

The general premise to arrive at the conclusion is that killing an innocent being is wrong. This is termed moral syllogism and serves to illustrate the important rules play in moral reasoning. Exceptions to the rules, however, also apply and must be given consideration. It is this required consideration that illustrates the importance of understanding the environment, one's relationship to the environment, and the intended goals one wishes to accomplish in order to reason effectively in regards to morality.

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