Ethical Realism

August 31, 2010

How to Become Moral

Filed under: ethics,philosophy — JW Gray @ 12:52 am
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Philosophers are mainly concerned with moral reasoning and knowledge, but even when we know right from wrong we still might decide to do wrong. Becoming moral is a challenging task and requires us to find motivation to be moral. I suggest that the following are aids in our quest to find moral motivation and become better people:

  1. Rationality
  2. Intellectual virtues
  3. Moral theories
  4. Moral knowledge
  5. Appropriate thoughts
  6. Close relationships
  7. Experience
  8. Spiritual exercises

These eight aids can go a long way in motivating moral behavior and lacking these aids can be dangerous. A culture that does not foster these aids is a culture that neglects morality and should expect immoral behavior. (Unfortunately all cultures seem to neglect these aids to various degrees.)


A good ability to reason helps us determine what beliefs are most justified or “rational.” A belief must be sufficiently rational and justified or we shouldn’t have it. The ability to reason requires us to understand logic either consciously or unconsciously. The ability to apply logic to our reasoning is aided by an explicit understanding of logic and experience with reasoning. Presenting arguments and engaging in debates can help us practice our ability to reason.

Additional reading – I discuss reasoning, formal logic, and errors in reasoning in my free ebook, How to Become a Philosopher. A free detailed introduction to formal logic is presented at the Hofstra University website by Stefan Waner and Steven R. Costenoble. A free discussion of fallacies (errors in reasoning) is discussed at the Fallacy Files.

Intellectual virtues

To have intellectual virtues is to be willing and able to be reasonable. A person with intellectual virtues will reject irrational beliefs and refuse to reject rationally required beliefs. It is irrational to believe that “1+1=3” and it’s rationally required to believe that “1+1=2.” Intellectual virtues include appropriate open mindedness and appropriate skepticism. An extreme lack of intellectual virtues can lead to fanaticism.

Additional reading – I discuss intellectual virtues in detail in Intellectual Virtues, Dogmatism, Fanatacism, and Terrorism.

Moral theories

The best moral theories are highly developed, comprehensive, and coherent accounts of morality that can help us determine right from wrong. Good moral theories are the result of years worth of moral debates and moral reasoning. Philosophers have now been discussing morality and moral theories for thousands of years, so a great deal of progress has been made.

Additionally, learning moral philosophy in general—thousands of years of moral debate between philosophers—can provide us with thousands of years of knowledge. It’s a lot easier to learn about morality from thousands of years of those who have spent years thinking about it than to try to develop our own moral beliefs from the ground up.

Additional reading – I discuss moral theories in more detail in Moral Theories.

Moral knowledge

Ideally moral theories, moral reasoning, and intellectual virtues can lead to moral knowledge. If this ideal is not reached, then we still attain better moral beliefs. Once we know right from wrong we can potentially be motivated to do the right thing. Much of the time moral knowledge seems sufficient to motivate us to do the right thing because we already want to do the right thing. Virtuous people are usually motivated to do the right thing, so we are all motivated to do the right thing insofar as we are virtuous.

Appropriate thoughts

Moral knowledge can lead to appropriate thoughts. When my wallet is stolen I could think, “This is terrible! I’ll kill whoever did this!” or I might think, “What can I do to get my wallet back?” The second option is more appropriate than the first. Revenge is not a moral option to losing your wallet. The Stoics suggest that appropriate thoughts are guided by moral knowledge, and appropriate emotions and actions tend to be a result of appropriate thoughts; but inappropriate thoughts can lead to inappropriate emotions and actions.1 We can imagine someone losing their wallet as becoming enraged and seeking revenge based on the above inappropriate thoughts.

Moral knowledge does not always lead to appropriate thoughts. Our impulsive thoughts, emotions, and behavior can contradict moral knowledge. The knowledge that the money in a wallet isn’t as important as human life contradicts the implied values of a person who wants to kill someone for stealing a wallet, but such an automatic response is probably pretty common.

The next step is to correct our inappropriate thoughts. Our inappropriate thoughts can often be quenched by “cooling off” and controlling our thoughts. This is why anger management classes teach people to count to 10 when becoming enraged.

When inappropriate thoughts become obsessive it can be necessary to “talk ourselves out of it.” This is when moral knowledge can become quite useful. We can present arguments and evidence that contradict our obsessive thoughts to debunk them and correct our thoughts. If we seriously start considering killing the person who stole our wallet, we can remind ourselves that the value of money is insignificant compared to the value of human life.

Common inappropriate thoughts include the following:

  1. We often have a bias to think we are more rational, knowledgeable, and ethical than we really are. We must remind ourselves that we are likely to have this bias and consider possible objections to our beliefs and actions. We can educate ourselves about good reasoning and ethics to help prevent this bias, and sometimes it can be a good idea to talk with others about our beliefs and actions to make sure they are well justified.
  2. We can sometimes illegitimately convince ourselves that something is more important than ethics and being ethical. We should commit ourselves to be ethical as a high priority—perhaps the highest priority.
  3. We often give up being ethical or improving ourselves because it’s “too difficult.” We should work at improving ourselves one step at a time by identifying ways we can be improved and coming up with realistic goals that we could reach.
  4. We often forget about our aspirations, ideals, and dreams. If we want to accomplish something in our life, we need to make plans for the future and figure out how to achieve get what we want out of life.
  5. We often give up on being moral because we aren’t sure how to be motivated. If you lack moral motivation, try different motivational techniques. Think about the importance of other people’s lives, think of yourself as the kind of person who has a strong interest in ethics, and plan to reward yourself when you can accomplish various moral goals.
  6. We often dismiss criticisms and objections, and find them offensive. Remind yourself that criticisms and objections are often part of learning our own flaws and improving ourselves. If you take offense at criticisms or objections, you might want to wait some time to cool off and think more about it later.

Close relationships

We can abstractly realize the values of human life, happiness, and suffering; but this abstraction can have little power over our motivations. To fully appreciate human life, happiness, and suffering we can understand these things from ourselves. We need to realize the value of our own life, happiness, and suffering.

The next step is to realize that other people matter too. Other people’s life, happiness, and suffering has value just like our own. Other people are just as real as we are, and we aren’t the center of the universe. This is pretty natural once we establish close relationships with others. Most people learn to love and care for their parents, siblings, and friends. It doesn’t take long to realize that their lives, happiness, and suffering also have value.

Even then many people don’t seem to connect the dots—everyone’s life, happiness, and suffering have analogous value. Our family and friends aren’t the only people in the world who count. Everyone counts. I suggest that we can connect the abstract realization of values to the values involved with real people after we have formed close relationships and spent some time thinking about morality.

Finally, there are cultural influences on our connections to others. Our close relationships can be weakened when we stop spending time with friends and family. Working too many hours, spending too much time watching television, and competing for resources are three ways that we can lose our close connection to others; and other people might no longer feel as real to us. We will see cars and bodies, but we might no longer feel the importance of another person’s life, happiness, and suffering. At that point we either need a powerful abstract way to care for others without a strong emotional motivation or we need to regain our emotional motivation (perhaps by spending more time with family and friends).


The actual result our actions will have in various situations is not something a moral theory or abstract reasoning will be able to give us. We need to learn to be sensitive to particularities found in each situation to know what actions will have the best results. For example, driving on the right side of the road is appropriate in the USA, but not in the UK due to the laws and behavior found in each of these societies.

Spiritual exercises

Spiritual exercises are practices used to become more virtuous that could be described as “moral therapy.” Studying rationality and learning about moral theories are two common spiritual exercises that are not merely “theoretical” as some might argue. However, many spiritual exercises are less theoretical and take abstract knowledge for granted. For example:

  1. Reflect upon your past and make it clear to yourself how things could be improved. Decide if there are any mistakes you have made that should not be repeated in the future.
  2. Reflect upon the future and decide how you should respond to various situations. If you have made a mistake that you don’t want to repeat, then this intention can help prepare us against making the same mistakes again. Additionally, many people find that they are caught off guard by temptations offered in life and decide to give into those temptations when the time comes. If we prepare ourselves ahead of time it will be much easier for us to face those temptations. For example, some women have been raped in public and no one came to her rescue. We have to be prepared for this sort of situation to respond appropriately.
  3. Talk to others about how you can improve your behavior. This can often be an insulting and emotional experience that makes it very difficult to achieve revelations, but you can reflect upon the conversation again once you become calm.
  4. If you have inappropriate thoughts and emotions, you can clear your mind to quench them and prevent them from leading to inappropriate actions.
  5. If you have inappropriate obsessive thoughts and emotions, you can present to yourself arguments and evidence against them. You can think of alternative thoughts that would be more appropriate.


Philosophy can help us become more virtuous by helping us have better moral beliefs and helping motivate us to act upon those moral beliefs. An understanding of rationality along with practicing argumentation can help us form better moral beliefs. Our moral beliefs are best applied to our life with life experience that allows us to better predict the outcome of our actions. Finally, forming close relationships and practicing spiritual exercises can then help us form moral motivations.

Update (5/24/11): I added more examples of inappropriate thoughts and ways we can try to correct the thoughts.


1 The Buddhist’s eightfold path also suggests that inappropriate thoughts can lead to inappropriate emotions and actions which ultimately cause suffering. (“Noble Eightfold Path.” 30 August 2010. <>.)

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