Religion and SpiritualityScience

What IS immoral?

A few days ago, my grandmother had a pamphlet wedged into the space between her windshield and her windshield wipers. This pamphlet is titled: Is It IMMORAL to vote Obama for President? The pamphlet starts out with this sentence: “A debate has emerged among Catholics and Evangelicals as to whether or not a Christian may in good conscience vote for Obama for president.” 

It goes on to call Obama “an aggressive accomplice of child-killers” because he is pro-abortion. It attempts to explain how voting for Obama is immoral because if you know his intent (which, according to this pamphlet, is child-killing aka. abortion) you are helping him with this act and therefore sinning by voting for him.

The writer of the pamphlet (Randall Terry) goes on to explain three scenes that he thinks answer the question of what is moral and what is immoral. You can read the whole brochure at:

 Case 1: I am in my car at a red light, and a man comes up to my window and says: “Hi. Could you please give me a ride to the bank? I have some banking to do and my car just broke down.” I say, “Sure. Hop in…” and take him to the bank. As I am leaving, to my horror I see him pull a mask over his face, draw a gun from his pocket, and enter the bank. Gunshots and screams fill the air, and the man I drove to the bank comes running out – after he murdered the banker, and stole all the money he could carry. He flees successfully.
The question is: did I sin by giving this murderer and robber a ride to the bank?
The answer is: no. I did not sin, because I did not know his intent.

Case 2: I am at a traffic light, and a man comes up to my window and says, “Excuse me; I’m going to rob the bank, then shoot the teller so that he won’t be able to testify against me at trial if I get caught. Would you please give me a ride to the bank?” I say, “Sure, hop in…” and give him a ride to the bank, and he fulfills his promise. Given those facts, have I participated
in the sin of theft and murder? The answer is: yes. In the eyes of God, and in the eyes of any court of law, I would be guilty of participating in the sin (and crime) of murder and
robbery, because I knew his intent.

Some say, “But Obama is not actually killing children. He is only supporting laws permitting abortion; he is not the abortionist killing the child.” Good point. Let me give the third illustration.

Case #3: I am at a traffic light, and a man comes up to my window and says, “I have a friend who intends to rob the bank and shoot the bank teller. I want to keep him out of trouble, so I promised to watch out for him while he commits the crime. If a policeman comes, I will distract him so that my friend won’t get caught. Will you please take me to the bank?” I say, “Sure. Hop in…” and take him to the bank. (On the way over, we discuss how neither of us could ever rob a bank or murder a bank teller.) We arrive and see the thief/murderer drive up, exit his car, cover his face, draw his weapon, and enter the bank.We hear screams and gunshots. Within seconds, a policeman emerges on foot from around the corner with his gun drawn, looking anxiously for assailants or victims. The man I gave a ride to plays his role perfectly. He jumps out of my car, yelling and pointing; “I just saw a man running down that alley with a gun in his hand and a bag he brought out of the bank!” The policeman takes the bait, and runs down the alleyway, vainly chasing a villain who is not there. The murderer merges from the bank, glances over at his friend (my passenger), nods appreciatively, gets into his car, and escapes. Given these facts, have I participated in the sin of robbery and murder? The answer is: yes. Because I knew the intent of the accomplice and I helped him and his friend accomplish the crime, I became an accomplice; I participated in the sin (and crime) of robbery and murder. 


Let me give you a fourth case, though, one not mentioned in the pamphlet. A girl is brought to the hospital, writhing in agony. Her teenage body is not ready physically to make a baby. The tiny human growing inside her is literally killing her. You refuse to give her an abortion because you claim that killing the baby would be immoral. Both the unfortunate girl and unborn baby die because of this. Isn’t your decision immoral? Two people died because of it.

The point I’m trying to make is that you cannot compare abortion to a few bank robberies. There is much more going on behind than you could ever know.

What if preventing a birth means saving a life? How do you determine what is moral and immoral?


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  1. November 3, 2008 at 9:28 pm —

    I took an ethics class last semester and I can say that…I don’t know.

    I left that class even more confused than when I entered it.

  2. flib
    November 4, 2008 at 10:19 am —

    If an action causes more net suffering than pleasure for all interested parties, it is immoral. Otherwise it’s morally neutral or positive. That’s oversimplified, but not by much.

  3. November 4, 2008 at 11:56 am —

    Mr. Terry should know that it’s immoral to lie to characterize someone as a monster. Obama is an “an aggressive accomplice of child-killers”? Even Mr. Terry knows better than that. For one thing, an aggressive accomplice to abortion (which ain’t child-killing, BTW – but I shouldn’t have to tell Skepchicks that) would be busing pregnant women to abortion clinics, not just voicing a pro-choice position. But then Mr. Terry is a demented fetus fetishist. In his own mind, normal rules of morality don’t apply when he’s defending the fetus.

  4. w_nightshade
    November 4, 2008 at 4:54 pm —

    @Brian’s A Wild Downer: That is easily the most mature reply anyone can give to a question like that. “I don’t know” is a heck of a lot more trustworthy an answer that “This is how it is every time, no exceptions.”

  5. Im a Hedge
    November 5, 2008 at 11:46 am —


    If an action causes more net suffering than pleasure for all interested parties, it is immoral. Otherwise it’s morally neutral or positive. That’s oversimplified, but not by much.

    See the short story “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” for a possible counter-example. It raises questions about the limits of utilitarian ethics.

    I am a Hedge

  6. November 7, 2008 at 9:57 am —

    I’ve got morality on the brain of late, and had to come read the article when it was mentioned on your big-sister site.

    Robbing a bank is always unambiguously amoral. This whole argument assumes that an abortion is always ambiguously amoral.

    False Analogy. Thank you for playing, please try again.

  7. slxpluvs
    November 7, 2008 at 10:33 am —

    Long post, first paragraph is my summary: This is a good look at moral systems. I’m worried that it is simplifying out the fact that the man which approaches is a stranger looking for help. Clearly, to me, the stranger represents the woman looking for the abortion. Why should this stranger ask any car for help other than a professional taxi? They shouldn’t and it is shameless for anyone to expect them to or for anyone to wish them to ask a non-professional (who isn’t already involved).

    Primordial justice is an ethical idea that Aristotle discusses along with his other ethic virtues. It is one of the two way we ethically deal with “outsiders,” which is what I would call the individual asking for the ride. (the other way is just resentment – which ranges from callousness to spitefulness).

    According to primordial justice, people ought to treat outsiders modestly. You want to help strangers where you can (don’t bashfully hide from them), but you don’t want to be too hold back a little (don’t shamelessly do whatever you’re told).

    In the scenarios you present, none of the actions are moral because it is shameless to give a ride to someone who approaches you at a stoplight unless you’re a taxi. Another scenario:

    You’re at a park with your 3 year-old brother. A thirty-something year-old man comes up to you and says, “Hey, mind if I play with your little boy? My little boy ran away and I just need to play with a little boy so badly right now.”

    The only moral reaction I can think of, other than to get the willies, is to pick up your little brother and run home. Similarly, the driver should have rolled up his window and turned up the music. People needing a ride shouldn’t ask cars that aren’t taxis and cars that aren’t taxis should want to get involved.

    How does this relate to the abortion debate these scenarios reference? The person having the abortion is like the person looking for a ride. They shouldn’t ask people that aren’t doctors and people who aren’t doctors shouldn’t get involved. Oh, and specifically doctors who are asked to participate – things happening in one’s crotch should always be invitation only.

  8. slxpluvs
    November 7, 2008 at 10:40 am —

    @JRice: Not false analogy. This scenario is really how some people under the … experience level (?) of 25 see the abortion debate. It is a correct analogy for what they understand. It is our job, as the more experienced, to help guide them to understand their analogy better.

    Save the harshness for the adult Skeptchicks, where we can properly ignore your petty arguments while we enjoy the rational, kind, just thoughts of other, experienced, commentators.

  9. November 7, 2008 at 10:58 am —

    I think morals start from having respect and empathy for others. They are tempered by expecting respect and empathy oneself. The bank robber in the example clearly did not respect nor empathize with the driver.

    But not every person, animal, or thing deserves the same amount of respect and empathy. Consider a fire fighter, a serial killer, the neighbor’s pet dog, and a cold-causing germ. If their interests conflict, who should get the bigger piece of the moral pie (to mangle an analogy)? Most people would put the fire fighter first and either the germ or the serial killer last. But why? More complex organisms get more respect, people’s (and animals’) actions move them up or down, and we empathize more with those most like us.

    Well, I’ve worked my way down a rat-hole and should stop before it gets any deeper.

  10. russellsugden
    November 7, 2008 at 11:57 am —

    Morality is wholly subjective. It is only possible to determine what you believe to to moral or immoral by whatever standards you personnally hold.

    There is no external, meta-physical “Right or Wrong, Good and Evil”. Of course if being moral is limited to mean “following the precepts of whatever your belief system dictates” then it is perfectly possible to be moral.

    However as there is no external yardstick by which to compare one morality belief system with another then all morality belief systems are equally valid.

    For example, Hitler, Stalin, Mao et al all believed themselves to be on the side of “The Good Guys” and peolpe who opposed them to be traitors to the human race.

  11. Jamalam
    November 7, 2008 at 12:29 pm —

    I think as a non-theist the question of morals is one of the most difficult ones to address.

    Many staunch religious folks (Had to stop myself saying “Christians” there) will declare that we atheists cannot have any morals because we don’t have a holy book to draw them from, or that we are what we are simply because we want to sin all the time:

    I think that anyone claiming to know for sure what is moral and immoral is deluding themselves, morality is something so complex and dependent on situation that it’s impossible to lay down a set of simple rules which will suffice for every conceivable circumstance.

  12. slxpluvs
    November 7, 2008 at 3:19 pm —

    @Jamalam: I agree that it can be difficult to discuss morals when there is no moral authority. The way that non-theistic morals seem to be determined is people think of a common sense moral, e.g. lying is immoral, and test it by using it in unusual scenarios, e.g. is it immoral to lie if not doing so would certainly result in the death of your parents?

    One way that some philosophers look at morals is by talking about both the moral action AND the degree to which one should deal with the other person. So, it might always be wrong to lie to your mom but might be good to lie to a stranger to save them from having to listen to a long, dull story. This isn’t an alteration of “lying is bad”, but a look at why it is wrong?

  13. slxpluvs
    November 7, 2008 at 3:21 pm —

    why is it wrong … to lie to certain people?

  14. Jamalam
    November 7, 2008 at 6:54 pm —

    @slxpluvs: Well what you were saying there about it being wrong to lie to your mum but okay to tell a lie to prevent the dull-awkward-stranger-talk… is essentially what I was saying about morality being dependent on circumstance.

    I think that morality tends to be relative. Although it would be reasonable to be of the opinion that “murder is ALWAYS wrong”, if you were forced to murder either one person or a group of ten… most people would opt to save the larger group.

    Whilst the act of murder itself could still be described as immoral, nobody would blame you for doing it or even consider you to be an immoral person.

    You could argue that it was a “less immoral” act of murder than if for example a criminal shot someone in cold blood for their cash.

    I think we should avoid trying to set in stone what is or isn’t moral and instead have a more fluid system based on the circumstances and the individuals involved.

  15. Jamalam
    November 7, 2008 at 7:00 pm —

    @slxpluvs: Why is it wrong to lie to certain people?

    Well again it depends on the circumstance in my opinion. I don’t think it’s “always” wrong to lie to my mother.. nor do I think it’s okay to lie to a stranger simply because I don’t know them.

  16. slxpluvs
    November 8, 2008 at 12:46 am —

    @Jamalam: Ah, I see now that you meant situations are relative to if you dealing with someone more so inside your group or outside your group. However, if you set down one set of rules for inside your group and one for outside, couldn’t that cover most situations?

  17. Jamalam
    November 8, 2008 at 7:36 am —

    @slxpluvs: I think you may be misinterpreting what I was saying there… I DON’T think that morality should necessarily change depending on whether or not someone is “inside” or “outside” your group, by which I’m assuming you meant you closer friends and relatives etc??

    What I was saying was that just because a stranger isn’t somebody I know intimately, that doesn’t mean that they should receive a double standard in terms of the moral choices I make whilst dealing with them.

    You seemed to imply that it might “always” be wrong to lie to my mother. However even when I’m dealing with mum or close relatives, for me the circumstances and situation determine what is right or wrong (I.e. The severity of the lie is what matters… not necessarily who the lie is being told to).

    Also I think that dividing people into “inside my group” and “outside my group” is far too general. How exactly am I supposed to determine my group? Does that mean that it’s okay to be less moral to strangers or people I’m unlikely to meet again? Outside my group, presumably refers to anybody I’m not in some form of regular contact with… which means “outside” my group consists of many billions of people. Within those billions are such a wide and varied range of individuals and personalities that I still think that “outside group” morality issues should be determined on a case-to-case basis rather than trying to authoritatively dictate to myself what is moral or immoral.

  18. kayla_unkempt
    November 8, 2008 at 2:37 pm —

    Every one of you has a good point. Ultimately, morality is a complex subject that – whether we like it or not – is based on circumstance. In my opinion, we like to think that we know what is right and wrong because it makes us feel like we have control over the circumstance, and a means to justify our actions.

    An example given is lying to someone. Whether it be a stranger or even your mother, there are so many factors involved.

    How will they be affected if you tell them the truth? Will it make them happy, sad, angry, etc.?

    How will telling them the truth or lying to them affect you, positively or negatively?

    Are there other individuals involved? Who or what are you lying about, and can your lies hurt other people?

    Is the lie worth telling – in other words, will the person you are lying to find out the truth eventually?

    And of course, in your own mind are you doing the right thing? Do you think, personally, that some kind of benefit (and not damage) will come out of this lie – whether it be for yourself, someone else, or society as a whole.

    We have laws to keep people from doing the wrong thing…but if someone thinks they’re doing the right thing, is it still wrong? Many people say yes, breaking the law is always wrong. But is it though? Should laws be circumstancial? Most people avoid the subject because they don’t want to realize how flawed a system can be. Is it moral to ignore the fact that their might be a problem, or is it moral to leave the rules how they are so that justice is not based on the situation? Is it immoral to question morality and rules, or is it our duty to constantly do so in order to find problems and fix them?

    We can ask ourselves these questions all day, every day, for the rest of our lives, and nothing will change. The answer will always be: “It depends.”

  19. Jamalam
    November 8, 2008 at 3:33 pm —

    @kayla unkempt: “It depends” pretty much answers the original question in my opinion! 🙂

    In certain respects I think that the law can be relativistic. For example the distinction between “murder” and “manslaughter” or the fact that the courts distribute a sentence based on the severity of the crime in question.

    “In my opinion, we like to think that we know what is right and wrong because it makes us feel like we have control over the circumstance, and a means to justify our actions.”
    – I absolutely agree. I also think this is one of the primary reasons behind the mass belief in all the pseudoscience, woo and religion in modern society. Some people just can’t accept the idea of not being in control, of feeling insignificant.

    People like to be told what is moral and to have clearly marked boundaries and rules to live their lives by.

  20. slxpluvs
    November 8, 2008 at 5:28 pm —


    You seemed to imply that it might “always” be wrong to lie to my mother. However even when I’m dealing with mum or close relatives, for me the circumstances and situation determine what is right or wrong (I.e. The severity of the lie is what matters… not necessarily who the lie is being told to).

    So, do you see lies as an action or a lack of performing a duty? Is a white lie might be okay if a lie is an action and a white lie is not, technically, doing that action. It is not okay if it allows you to fail to perform something you’re obligated to perform.

    I believe that lying prevents one from performing an act they are bound to do. Usually, that is to report or share something accurately. If you’re sharing with your group*, then you have more of an obligation to report accurately because you have more obligations with your group. If you’re sharing with an outsider, your obligation to protect your group ought to be placed above your obligation for accurate reporting. Even short of protecting your own group, you have an obligation to outsiders to not bore them to tears – no one but a chess player cares about the Sicilian Dragon I pulled last night. Most people only want to hear my game worked well for me.

    *On groups. Often, people talk about our static groups as if they were concentric circles. Self, family, school, state, country, etc. I am using the term group in a more fluid way. When discussing one idea, I am apart of a chess group. Another idea, I am apart of a family group. Another idea, a gender group. Although everyone’s mom is no doubt awesome, she is not apart of every group you are in. She doesn’t wish for you to report certain things to her – including some misdeeds – just like you don’t want to hear my whole chess story. (My opponent was using the Yugoslav attack, it was sweet!)

    When is a time that it is okay to lie to your mom that she wouldn’t believe that it was good for you to lie?

  21. Jamalam
    November 8, 2008 at 5:51 pm —

    @slxpluvs: On thinking about this I think that my morality when it comes to lying is pretty selfish. I’ll tell lies when I feel the need, and I suppose you’d be right in saying that the person/group I’m lying to would influence the sorts of lies that I’d be willing to tell.

    As to what makes a lie “moral” or “immoral”, I’m inclined to think that a lie to a stranger isn’t any less immoral than a lie to a group member. Rather, the motivation behind the lie and the lie itself determines whether or not I’d deem it right or wrong. (E.g. Lying to prevent telling a boring story I wouldn’t consider immoral, regardless of whether you lied to your mother, a stranger or anyone else). This refers back to the idea of circumstantial morality which I mentioned previously.

    I find it interesting that you feel obligated to be honest (with close groups at least). That you consider being truthful something that one is “bound to do”.

    It seems you’ve laid down certain unspoken rules by which you live your life and you would presumably like others to live by (at least when they’re conversing with you).

    This is an interesting bit of the morality question for me… where did that moral come from? What caused you to decide that you’re bound to report things with such accuracy, if not faith then where? Common human decency? Past/life experience? Do you really think that strangers are any less deserving of the truth when you speak to them?

  22. slxpluvs
    November 10, 2008 at 12:17 am —


    First, if you read all this, you’re a trooper. If you’re gonna skip any, skip to the second blockquote.

    you’ve laid down certain unspoken rules

    Oh, no. I am comfortable lying. It is a common philosophical tool to talk about lying to help understand the intricacies of self, intragroup, and intergroup ethics.

    When concerned with the self, non-lies balance between reason and akrasia (unregulated opinion). A fully reasoned answer is not truthful. For example,

    P1: “Do you think I should buy these curtains?”
    P2: “The curtains are blue.”

    Similarly for akrasia,

    P1: Do you think I should buy these curtains?”
    P2: (knowing P1 lacks the funds to purchase curtains) “You should get those and these curtains, too.”

    When concerned with intragroup ethics, honesty is best matched with the group’s level of honest.

    When concerned with intergroup ethics, lies are generally acceptable if they protect the intragroup more than they would harm the intergroup. Protecting the intragroup results in further acculturation to the intragroup. Generally, lies to those we are less affiliated with put us at less risk of loss. If the risk of lying to the intergroup is more than offset by the gain from acculturating, then the lie should be considered a good one.

    In other words, lying is an attempt to get more stuff for you and your group. If it works, good for you. However, there are different types of lies which have different ends.

    First, there is lying to the intergroup the way you would lie to the intragroup. This results in magnifying your differences and creates just resentment between you and the intergroup (alientation).

    Second, there is lying to the intergroup either because you don’t care about the intergroup (e.g. pretending things are okay) or to harm the intergroup. This results in rejection of the intergroup.

    Third, there are the lies of omission and excess. Lies of omission seek to create or maintain status in the intergroup. Lies of excess, like TimeCube, seek to pass superstition off as legitimate fact.

    As you can see, talking about lying as a way to better understand ethical dilemmas is both helpful and complicated.

    where did that moral come from? What caused you to decide that you’re bound to report things with such accuracy, if not faith then where? Common human decency? Past/life experience? Do you really think that strangers are any less deserving of the truth when you speak to them?

    In order:

    1. Evolution and development of our brain to best fit the situation you’re in and maximize your reproductive success. Irrational and rational maximizations are different (evolved vs. created). A rational approach to morals will be more civilized than the irrational.

    2. 3. 4. Faith is more intellectual than reason. Faith is seeing a coin land on heads 7 times in a row and believing that those 7 results effect the chances of heads on the 8th flip (a logical conclusion). Reason the person in the above scenario having flipped a coin enough times to understand the odds are always the same, even if there are statistical groupings. The latter is poorer analysis of the current results and better analysis of past results.

    5. Strangers are absolutely less deserving of the truth. However, it also matters very little to me if I lie to strangers. Intellectual processing takes too much energy – it is easier to tell the truth. It is easier to say that there is a 50/50 chance on the coin flip than to figure out a convincing argument about regression towards the mean and why the coin would be increasingly more likely to land tails the more times it landed heads in a row.

    the motivation behind the lie and the lie itself determines whether or not I’d deem it right or wrong.

    Other than the intended ends of a lie, what motivation does a lie have? What determines a moral ending? If a P1 murdering P2 causes P1 to develop into someone who eventually saves the world (and wouldn’t if P1 hadn’t murdered P2), is that murder moral? If, on the course to developing morality, P3 steals, can P3 still develop into a moral person? Could P3 develop into a moral person without stealing? If not, is that act of stealing moral or immoral? If so, how could P3 tolerate other people stealing if P3 didn’t understand what it means to steal?

  23. Jamalam
    November 10, 2008 at 3:52 pm —

    @slxpluvs: Forgive me for not responding with quite as wordy an answer! It’s due to lack of time rather than lack of interest.

    “If the risk of lying to the intergroup is more than offset by the gain from acculturating, then the lie should be considered a good one.”
    – I’d argue that the lie should be considered a beneficial one certainly, but that isn’t the same as it being moral. This is because society has a tendency to regard selflessness as one of the key concepts of many mainstream systems of morality. While an intergroup lie may very well benefit the intragroup, does that justify it? What if the lie proves to be seriously detrimental to the foreign party? I acknowledge the almost Darwinian drive to protect ones own over the outsider, but is it necessarily a moral drive?

    I agree with your point on evolution of the brain as being the source of our common sense of morality. Dawkins bases this in the fact that in our evolutionary history, helping those near to you would almost always prove beneficial as you were likely to come into contact with them and again, thus accommodating reciprocation of the act of kindness.
    He argues that this instinct almost miss-fires in modern society, to the effect that we feel the need to help those we know we may never come into contact with.
    However, although I’m a staunch proponent evolution, I think that moral philosophies based on “protecting ones own” can prove to be divisive and to the detriment of the species as a whole.

    Consequently I’m surprised that you can so quickly say that “strangers are absolutely less deserving of truth”, as this seemingly undermines the idea of a common morality and a common human decency. While these concepts admittedly stray from the traditional Darwinian descriptions of self/intragroup morality, I think that we’re intelligent enough to at least have the potential to ultimately rise above our immediate geographical and social groups and treat all of those we come across with a certain level of respect, simple honesty included.

    I realize how unlikely such a system is to ever come about and I’m increasingly sounding like an idealistic hippy loser! 😀 Still, I think it’s a worth while consideration when discussing inter/intragroup relations with regards to morality.

  24. slxpluvs
    November 10, 2008 at 7:38 pm —


    If a person acts as a protecter of other members of the intragroup, they had darned be ready to lie or even murder for the safety of those they are responsible for. My mother would murder for me if she had to, so I am sure that lying wouldn’t be an issue. Both actions are morally just.

    Although these behaviors seem divisive, they actually do more to punish others who are acting divisively. My mom won’t murder on my behalf unless the murderee provoked her by posing a substantial threat to my self or siblings.

    As I grew older, I would lie to protect myself from my protecter. I needed to change who I was further than her protection granted. She tried to protect me from myself and, from my POV, that actually hurt me. My protecter became the outsider and I became my new protecter. The final stage of social development is leaving the group proper and bringing the best parts of the group with you wherever you go (or, at least, so I say).

    Acting as a representative of past intragroups means that the social tools that one found most effective in others will be adapted. It is only logical that kinder actions will be more often used after leaving a group, as these are usually the most effective within the group and remembered most fondly. In that light, it should be logical why humans “feel the need to help those we know we may never come into contact with.” (great referencing, by the way!) They feel the need to help others because they observed that need as being the most effective trait of a protecter in an intragroup they have developed past.

    Oh, and, yes, this is why old people say they just sounded like their parent. They used the most effective tactic they witnessed as a protectee in the intragroup to protect another group.

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