Morality and the Human Condition, #4–How Morality Relates to Rationality, & Six Famously Hard Cases.

Mr Nemo
16 min readJan 17, 2020

By Robert Hanna

“The Human Condition,” by Thomas Whitaker


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. The Standard Conception of Morality

II.1 The Moral Question and The Meaning Question

II.2 How Ethics Relates to Morality

II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality

II.4 Six Famously Hard Cases

III. Three Classical Challenges to the Standard Conception of Morality

III.1 Moral Relativism

III.2 Eight Logical Principles of Human Rationality

III.3 Moral Skepticism

III.4 Psychological and Moral Egoism

IV. Morality and Religion

IV.1 God and The Divine Command Theory

IV.2 Does an Essentially Rational God Exist?

IV.3 Religion and Morality

V. Three Classical Moral Theories

V.1 Aristotelian Virtue Ethics

V.1.1 Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, books 1–3: A Brief Exposition

V.1.2 Four Worries about Aristotle’s Virtue Ethics

V.1.3 Contemporary Virtue Ethics

V.2 Millian Utilitarianism

V.2.1 Not-So-Happy Little Campers: Ten Big Problems for Millian Utilitarianism

V.3 Kant’s Ethics of Persons and Principles

V.3.1 Ten Basic Ideas

V.3.2 Three Classical Worries about Kant’s Ethics

V.4 All-Things-Considered Conclusion of This Section

VI. Pascal’s Optimism and Schopenhauer’s Pessimism

VI.1 Pascal’s Optimism About the Meaning of Life

VI.2 Schopenhauer’s Pessimism About the Meaning of Life

VI.3 Pascal or Schopenhauer? Optimism or Pessimism?

VII. Existentialism, the Absurd, and Affirmation

VII.1 Two Kinds of Existentialism

VII.2 Nagel and the Absurd

VII.3 Camus and Affirmation

VIII. The Ethics of Authenticity

VIII.1 Existential Ethics and the Concept of Authenticity

VIII.1.1 What is Authenticity?

VIII.1.2 Authenticity and Radical Freedom

VIII.1.3 Inauthenticity, Freedom-Refusers, and Freedom Deniers

VIII.2 Two Important Problems for Existential Ethics

VIII.3 Sartre on Principled Authenticity

IX. The Nature of Death

IX.1 The Ambiguity of “Death”

IX.2 The Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.1 Nagel On the Nature of Our Own Death

IX.2.2 Suits Against the “Deprivation” Account of the Badness of Death

IX.2.3 Some Critical Worries About What Nagel and Suits are Saying About the Nature of Our Own Death

X. The (Im)Possibility of Human Immortality

X.1 Williams on the Tedium of Immortality

X.2 Fischer on How Human Immortality Could Be a Good Thing

X.3 Some Worries About What Williams and Fischer are Saying About Human Immortality

X.4 Human Life Without Immortality


This installment contains sections II.3 and II.4.

But you can also read or download a .pdf version of the complete short course HERE.


II.3 How Morality Relates to Rationality

In the brief, cogent, and much-taught first chapter, “What is Morality?,” in The Elements of Moral Philosophy, James Rachels very plausibly proposes what he calls a “minimum conception of morality”:

Morality is, at the very least, the effort to guide one’s conduct by reason — that is, to do what there are the best reasons for doing — while giving equal weight to the interests of each individual who will be affected by what one does. This gives us, among other things, a picture of what it means to be a conscientious moral agent. The conscientious moral agent is someone who is concerned impartially with the interests of everyone affected by what he or she does; who carefully sifts facts and examines their implications; who accepts principles of conduct only after scrutinizing them to make sure they are justified; who is willing to “listen to reason” even when it means revising prior convictions; and who, finally, is willing to act on the results of this deliberation.[i]

Rachels’s “minimum conception of morality” is essentially the same as what I’ll call the standard conception of morality, in order to indicate that over and above its being minimal, it’s also very widely shared.

There are three things about the standard conception of morality that I particularly want to draw your attention to.

First, as Rachels notes, the standard conception is intended to be a minimum conception of morality, which means that it’s a required feature of anything we’d be reasonably prepared to call “morality.”

At the same time, however, it’s also far from being trivial, in that the picture of the “conscientious moral agent” is actually quite thick, rich, and substantive.

Thick, rich, and substantive concepts, and claims based on such concepts, are especially likely to be open to critical challenge.

In fact, we’ll see in the next part of this course that it’s possible to challenge the standard conception in at least three different ways:

(i) by being a relativist about morality,

(ii) by being a skeptic about morality, and

(iii) by being an egoist about morality.

Second, the standard conception is grounded on our “human, all-too-human” capacity for rationality, which, not too surprisingly, is essentially concerned with reasons, and more specifically, with:

(i) recognizing reasons as reasons,

(ii) adopting reasons as our reasons,

(iii) having those reasons for at least some of our beliefs, feelings and desires, and choices,

(iv) critically analyzing those reasons,

(v) justifying those reasons, and finally

(vi) acting according to policies or principles for which we have good reasons.

Third, in being rational, we are also supposed to be impartial in the sense that we always take into account not only our own interests but also those of all relevant others.

The standard conception of morality also includes some general moral issues/notions that we’ll encounter constantly as we investigate the nature of morality:

(1) good vs. bad,

(2) right vs. wrong, and

(3) obligation (i.e., what you ought to choose or do, or what’s required by principles, rules, or laws of morality) vs.

permissibility (i.e., what’s acceptable for you to choose or do, or what’s consistent with principles, rules, or laws of morality) vs.

impermissibility (i.e., what you mustn’t choose or do, what you ought not to choose or do, or what’s inconsistent with principles, rules, or laws of morality)

II.4 Six Famously Hard Cases

So far, this has all been very abstract and non-specific; but now I want us briefly to consider six concrete and specific cases that are also famously hard cases, and see whether we can apply some of the abstract notions I’ve been talking about in a way that indicates the characteristic moves of moral thinking in accordance with the standard conception.

The first two famously hard cases are fictional cases, that jointly comprise what’s called The Trolley Problem.[ii]

Case 1 — The Bystander at the Switch

There’s a driverless runaway trolley that’s heading straight towards five innocent people trapped ahead on the tracks, and an intervening spur occupied by one innocent person who’s also trapped on that spur. You are standing beside a switch at the spur, which you know how to operate, and you see the runaway trolley, so you decide to turn the trolley onto the spur and thus onto the one, thereby saving the five.

Case 2 — The Really Fat Man

You are standing on a footbridge over the trolley track. Beside you is a really fat man. You see the runaway trolley below you heading towards the five, and realize that if you push the fat man down onto the tracks he will stop the trolley. So you decide to push the fat man off the bridge and save the five.[iii]

It’s a truth generally acknowledged — not only by philosophers who teach introductory ethics courses but also by cognitive psychologists and social scientists who’ve relentlessly empirically tested these things — that most people who consider those two cases, judge that your action in The Bystander at the Switch is morally permissible or even morally obligatory, but that your action in The Really Fat Man is morally impermissible.

Nevertheless, it must also be generally acknowledged as a truth, that a minority of other people do also in fact judge either that both cases are morally permissible (or even morally obligatory) or that both cases are morally impermissible.

So The Trolley Problem is just this: what (if anything) is the moral difference between the two cases?

The next three cases are famously hard real-world cases.

Case 3 — Baby Theresa

Real-World Facts: Baby Theresa was a human baby born with no cerebrum or cerebellum, but also possessing a functioning brain stem and some autonomic functions.

Specific moral issue: Is it morally permissible (or even obligatory) to remove Baby Theresa’s organs, thus killing her, in order to harvest them for several organ transplants that could save as many as (say) five people?

Case 4–Jodie and Mary

Real-World Facts: Jodie and Mary were conjoined twins with fused spines and one heart plus one set of lungs between them. Jodie was stronger and provided blood for Mary. Doctors said that without medical intervention they would both die within six months. It was expected by the doctors that if the twins were surgically separated, then Jodie would live, but Mary would die.

Specific moral issue: Is it morally permissible (or even obligatory) to separate the twins, thereby killing Mary to save Jodie?

Case 5–Tracy Latimer

Real-World Facts: Tracy Latimer was a 12 year old with cerebral palsy, functioning at the mental level of a 3 month-old baby, who had undergone major surgery, and was frequently in pain. Her father, Robert Latimer, killed her by means of carbon monoxide poisoning, without her consent (because she was incapable of consent), in order to prevent, as he said, “mutilation and torture for Tracy,” hence as a non-consensual mercy killing, aka “involuntary euthanasia.”

Specific moral issue: Is it permissible (or even obligatory) for Robert Latimer to mercy-kill Tracy?

The sixth case is slightly less famous, at least in North America; nevertheless, it was quite famous in the UK, and it also involves a Kantian philosopher I studied with in graduate school at Yale in the 1980s and therefore knew with no degrees of separation — so this case is especially poignant for me.

Case 6 — Stephan and Edith Körner

The story was brief, tragic and haunting. A brilliant philosophy professor, Stephan Körner, had been found dead with his wife Edith, an NHS pioneer who had just been diagnosed as having terminal cancer. Instead of being divided by disease the couple chose to be united in death, taking a lethal overdose and breathing their last in each other’s arms at their Bristol home.[iv]

Real-World Facts: In 2000, the 86 year-old Kantian philosopher Stephan Körner and his 79 year-old wife Edith, who was a National Health Service expert in the UK, committed double-suicide by taking a lethal overdose, then tying plastic bags around their heads and putting pillows on top of them. She was suffering from terminal cancer, and they died together in each other’s arms.

Specific moral issue: is it morally permissible (or even morally obligatory) for Stephan and Edith Körner to commit double suicide?

Here are four general issues to notice especially in thinking and talking with others about the six cases, that we’ll also encounter constantly as we investigate the nature of morality:

(i) benefits-based moral reasoning vs. intrinsic value-based moral reasoning,

(ii) legality vs. morality,

(iii) human personhood and the differential moral status of human or non-human persons vs. human or non-human non-persons, and

(iv) moral judgments about responsibility for acts and/or their consequences vs.

moral judgments about responsibility for choices or intentions vs.

moral judgments about people’s characters.

Correspondingly, I’ll now unpack those notions a bit.

According to benefits-based moral reasoning, historically well-represented by Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, and Utilitarianism more generally — everyone always ought to choose and act in such a way as to maximize good consequences, aka positive utility — usually cashed out psychologically in terms of pleasurable experiences, avoidance or reduction of painful experiences, or satisfaction of preferences — for as many people as possible.

By sharp contrast, according to intrinsic-value-based moral reasoning, historically well-represented by Immanuel Kant and Kantian so-called “deontology” (i.e., the theory of duty),

(i) human persons are human animals that possess capacities for rationality, caring (for oneself, for others, and also about desired ends of various kinds), and free agency,

(ii) by virtue of their possession of those capacities, all human persons thereby possess non-denumerable, non-fungible intrinsic value or dignity, and

(iii) everyone always ought to choose and act in such a way as to sufficiently respect one’s own and everyone else’s human dignity, but

(iv) not all human or non-human animals have the moral status of being human or non-human persons, and our moral obligations towards human or non-human persons are stronger, more stringent, and more generally override, any moral obligations we might also have towards human or non-human non-persons.

Morality, as we’ve seen, is

the attempt to guide human conduct by rationally formulating and following principles or rules that reflect our basic personal and social commitments and our leading ideals and values.

But by contrast, legality concerns what’s deemed right or wrong by social institutions (e.g., governments, or judicial systems) that enforce their judgments, policies, rules, and laws by means of coercion.

Moreover, just because a social institution commands that something is legally right or wrong, it doesn’t thereby follow that it is morally right (good, virtuous, etc.) or wrong (bad, vicious, etc.).

E.g., in the 1940s, the government of Germany, the Nazis, commanded that it was legally right to kill millions of innocent people belonging to certain ethnic or racial groups, but this was obviously morally wrong.

Conversely, something can be morally right — say, treating all people with sufficient respect for their human dignity — but also legally wrong: e.g., under the system of slavery in the USA prior to The Emancipation Proclamation issued by Lincoln in 1863, treating black people who were slaves as equal human persons was illegal.

Corresponding to the crucial distinction between morality and legality, is the equally crucial distinction between moral responsibility and legal accountability.

For the purposes of this short course, I’ll say

(i) that moral responsibility belongs primarily to persons (as opposed to groups of persons or social institutions, say, business corporations or governments) by virtue of their choices and/or actions, and

(ii) that a person is morally responsible for any choice or intention and/or action that flows from the person herself, and

(iii) by virtue of the fact that a given choice or intention and/or action flows from the person herself/himself/themselves, then the moral value of that choice and/or action, especially including the moral value of some or all of the consequences of that choice and/or action, also attaches to the agent herself/himself/themselves.

By sharp contrast, legal accountability concerns what people can be deemed and held liable for (accused of, blamed for, punished for, etc.) by social institutions (e.g., governments, or judiciaries) that enforce their judgments, policies, rules, and laws by means of coercion.

Obviously, then, you can be morally responsible for something without also being legally accountable for it, and also legally accountable for something without also being morally responsible for it.

With respect to moral responsibility, it’s crucial to notice that because choices or intentions are one thing, and acts or consequences are another, it follows that moral judgments we make about them typically differ as well.

Indeed, we typically judge evil acts or bad consequences much more harshly than we judge evil choices or intentions, and this fact is directly reflected in our legal judgments.

E.g., someone’s making a choice with malign intent towards another person, or attempted murder, is one thing, morally speaking, and that same person’s actually murdering that other person is a sharply different thing, morally speaking.

Moreover, we also morally judge people’s characters in a sharply different moral way than we judge their choices or intentions, and actions and/or consequences.

E.g., we not infrequently judge of someone that a certain evil choice or intention for which that person is morally responsible, or a certain bad act for which that person is morally responsible, is “out of character.”

Indeed, that kind of moral judgment is often directly reflected in moral or legal judgments about punishment, as a mitigating factor.

Now let’s briefly apply these notions to our six concrete and famously hard cases.

As regards The Trolley Problem, benefits-based moral reasoning would seem to dictate that there’s no moral difference whatsoever between The Bystander at the Switch and The Really Fat Man, and that it should be morally permissible or even morally obligatory to kill one in order to save five in both cases.

Yet most people’s judgments about the moral difference between the two cases seem to reflect intrinsic-value-based moral reasoning that constrains the moral permissibility of choices and actions according to benefits-based moral reasoning, by judging the case of The Really Fat Man to be morally impermissible, which of course implies that there really is a moral difference between the two cases.

Of course, Utilitarians and other defenders of benefits-based reasoning (aka consequentialists) think that this is morally scandalous and just mock it:

Very witty, Jeremy.[v]

But in any case, we’ll come back to the debate between Utilitarians and Kantians later.

In the Baby Theresa, Jodie and Mary, and Tracy Latimer cases, the contrast or even clash between benefits-based moral reasoning and intrinsic-value-based moral reasoning is also heavily inflected by the distinction between human persons and human non-persons.

E.g., it’s arguable that because Baby Theresa is a human non-person by virtue of lacking capacities for consciousness or sentience, caring, rationality, and free agency, then she can be morally permissibly killed and her organs harvested in order to bring about life-saving benefits for (say) five human persons; and it’s also arguable that Mary can be killed in order to save Jodie, because although Jodie is clearly a human person, there’s some reason to think that Mary is a human non-person.

But even if Jodie and Mary are both human persons, nevertheless most people’s judgments about The Bystander at the Switch case would seem to generalize to the case of Jodie and Mary, by permitting (or even obligating) us to kill one (Mary) in order to save one (Jodie), in cases in which both will die if no intervention happens.

In the Tracy Latimer case, like the Baby Theresa case, whether Tracy is a human person possessing a rational capacity that would enable her to consent toor dissent from her treatment by her father, or instead a human non-person with no such rational capacity, is of fundamental importance to our moral judgments about the case; and it’s also directly relevant to the issue of Robert Latimer’s moral responsibility for Tracy’s death, in view of his claim that mercy-killing her without her consent, in order to prevent “mutilation and torture for Tracy,” which would seem to reflect benefits-based moral reasoning on his part, was not merely morally permissible but indeed morally obligatory.

Moreover, Robert Latimer’s claim, if true — as it seems to have been — importantly inflects our moral judgments about his choices or intentions, namely that they were rationally justified and morally acceptable, and also about his character.

In terms of legality and legal accountability, Robert Latimer was in fact held legally accountable and blameworthy for her death and sentenced to life imprisonment for second-degree murder in the mid-1990s, with no chance of parole for ten years, but was then later released from prison with a permanent parole in 2010.

And as of summer 2018, Robert Latimer was applying for a full pardon for his conviction, with strong support from some professional ethicists[vi] and many other Canadians.

Whatever we may think about the morality of this famously hard case, at the very least its legal history clearly reflects changes over time in Canadians’ moral judgments about Latimer’s moral responsibility for his choices or intentions, and also about his moral responsibility for his act and its consequences.

And if Tracy was indeed a human non-person, then we might well think that Robert Latimer was no more morally responsible for mercy-killing her than if he’d euthanized an ailing horse or dog for the same reason, and therefore that his being held legally accountable for her mercy-killing was rationally unjustified and morally wrong from the get-go.

Finally, as regards the case of Stephan and Edith Körner, benefits-based moral reasoning seems clearly to entail, at the very least, the moral permissibility of their double-suicide, whereas intrinsic-value-based moral reasoning might, at least on the face of it, make suicide under any circumstances morally impermissible.

At the same time, however, it’s also arguable on intrinsic-value based grounds that it’s at least morally permissible or even morally obligatory to respect people’s reasonable, free choices about how and when they should die, which is why this phenomenon is commonly called “dying with dignity.”

Strikingly and significantly, however, the Körners’daughter Ann implicitly sharply disagreed with that line of thinking.

From the available evidence, Ann judged that it was morally impermissible both for her father Stephan to have performed what was in effect a mercy-killing with the full consent of Edith and also to have committed suicide too:

[Their daughter,] Dr Ann Altman, says she was “disappointed” at her father’s actions and would be horrified if her parents’ final act became lauded as the ultimate symbol of devotion. “I would want to leave my own children a different legacy,” she says simply.[vii]

And anyone can certainly empathize with Ann Körner-Altman’s point of view — what if Stephan and Edith had been your own parents: how would you feel?

Moreover, what would be the precise rational bearing of that feeling on your (supposed) moral impartiality; and more generally, how can the rational obligation to moral impartiality that’s built into the standard conception of morality be reconciled with the special moral commitments we have to our family, loved ones, and close friends?

These are amazingly hard questions.

So I’ll leave it as “a task for the reader,” to think and talk with others more about this poignant case, and try to answer those amazingly hard questions.

To be sure, I’ve only scratched the outermost surface of the moral complexity, difficulty, and richness of these six cases.

But that should also be enough, for now, to indicate what morality is all about and how rationality bears directly on it, according to the standard conception of morality.


[i] J. Rachels and S. Rachels, The Elements of Moral Philosophy (7th edn., New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012), p. 13.

[ii] See P. Foot, “The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect,” in P. Foot, Virtues and Vices (Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1978), pp. 19–32; J.J. Thomson, “Killing, Letting Die, and the Trolley Problem,” in J. Fischer and M. Ravizza (eds.), Ethics: Problems and Principles (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1991), pp. 67–77; and J.J. Thomson, “The Trolley Problem,” in Fischer and Ravizza (eds.), Ethics: Problems and Principles, pp. 279–292.

[iii] Thomson, “The Trolley Problem,” in Fischer and Ravizza (eds.), Ethics: Problems and Principles, p. 288.

[iv] A. Ahuja, “An Organized Death,” London Times (4 September 2000), available online at URL = <>.

[v] Andrew Chapman tells me that this meme was actually created by Kantians in order to mock Utilitarians who mock Kantians. If so, no worries at all: I’m totally OK with the meta-mockery too.

[vi] See, e.g., A. Shafer, “Why Robert Latimer Deserves a Pardon,” The Globe and Mail (20 July 2018), available online at URL = <>.

[vii] Ahuja, “An Organized Death.”


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Mr Nemo

Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.