(Original publication date: April 13, 2007)
If you ask a friend to describe the essence of morality or ethical behavior, he or she will probably list a number of personality traits: unselfishness, courage, commitment to ideals and values, patience, willingness to forgive, and similar qualities. Certainly, in many religious faiths and philosophical systems, personality traits are the focus: the Christian Beatitudes, for instance, praise meekness, purity of spirit, and peacefulness, while the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism emphasizes honesty and detachment.
Against such a backdrop, I am willing to bet that almost no one, when asked, “What is morality?”, would reply, “Good logic skills.”
Logical ability simply does not get factored into discussions of morality, neither in religious nor philosophical nor politically correct circles, at least those to which I am privy. Personality, not processing power, is what we believe to be the heart of morality.
But I think that the omission of reasoning skills from the landscape of morality is a mistake. In fact, it is not difficult to demonstrate that bad logic and bad acts — morally bad acts — often go hand in hand.
Looking into the history of a particular instance of slavery or genocide, we often find an entire network of scientists, philosophers, writers and speakers who laid the foundation. They did so through clever, manipulative but logically untenable theories and “discoveries.” The crimes against humanity committed by Nazi Germany, for instance, were in large part made possible by widespread dissemination of specious arguments about German racial superiority.
A person armed with strong logic skills sees through such garbage. But someone without sufficient reasoning skills is easy prey for pseudoscientists and demagogues.
The relationship between bad logic and immorality, however, is by no means limited to grandscale, social and cultural events and institutions. Personal acts of immorality are also committed by those whose primary “moral” flaw is that of having poor logic skills. Child abuse, spouse abuse, elder abuse and animal abuse are oftentimes predicated upon a genuine but irrational belief in the mind of the perpetrator that the abuse is “good for” the victim. In such a case, the failure may not be so much one of personality as it is one of intellectual ability, in particular, reasoning skills.
The relationship between bad logic and immorality becomes much more visible in the field of law. In particular, when lawyers, judges and lawmakers make logical errors, the results are quite dramatic: people lose their rights, their freedom, and sometimes even their lives simply because someone else can’t reason well.
If one’s irrationality hurts no one else, it’s not a big deal. But when one person suffers actual harm as a direct result of someone else’s poor reasoning skills, the latter’s rational failure is, to me, immoral, perhaps as immoral as any failure arising out of a personality trait.