Perusing the books in the Visiting Scholar Office at Reasons to Believe, I came across a nice text, Thinking Well – An Introduction to Critical Thinking by Steward E. Kelly (2001, McGraw Hill ISBN 0-7674-1848-4). So I took it home to browse at the pool this evening.

I enjoyed Chapter 8 especially where Dr. Kelly expounds upon the characteristics of mature moral thinkers. In reading this section, I was struck by our current situation in the US and elsewhere. Reasoning and rational discourse appears to be completely absent from our media.

Yet, I still have hope. In my personal conversations, people are still interested in meaningful dialog. In fact, they light up when I am gracious and careful in my speech.

So to further promote good moral reasoning and gracious dialog, I quote Dr. Kelly’s list. (with very few mods)


Characteristics of Mature Moral Thinkers

Given the controversy surrounding the domain of ethics, we should say a few words about the characteristics of people who think well about moral matters. These people could be described as being morally responsible and having good moral character. And they would possess many or all of the following characteristics. (He cites, “The following list is adapted from William Hughes, Critical Thinking“)

  1. Independence of judgement

    We believe what we believe on the basis of (hopefully good) reasons, and not because it is fashionable, convenient, or the like. In this sense, the individual should be morally autonomous.

  2. Justification by appeals to principles

    All moral judgments are ultimately answerable to appropriate moral principles. If no particular moral principle supports our moral judgement, then we need to rethink our moral reasoning behind that judgement.

  3. Generalization of moral judgments

    We believe that, whenever it is morally wrong for someone to do something under a particular set of circumstances, then it is morally wrong for everyone else to do that action under those same circumstances. (Pojman’s Test of Universalizability)

  4. Consistency

    First we need to live according to the principles we have adopted. People who consistently fail to live up to their own standards are guilty of hypocrisy and will lose the respect of mature members of the moral community. Second, we should apply our principles consistently across the board. (If we believe that it is morally wrong to break the law with respect to murder, but morally OK with respect to speeding laws, we need either to show that the two cases are relevantly different or to change our thinking about one of the two matters.) Finally, the principles we adopt should be consistent among themselves. (For example, suppose Lou adopts two moral principles 1) it is morally wrong to eat meat, and 2) it is morally right to do as we wish as long as it gives us physical pleasure. The problem here is that many people get physical pleasure from eating meat, so it would be impossible for them to obey these two conflicting principles.) 

  5. Awareness of complexity

    We recognize that life/reality is complicated and that applying the relevant moral principle and gathering all the relevant facts can be complicated and even perplexing. Reality is often not as simple as we make it out to be.

  6. Knowledge of the relevant facts

    We do not make moral judgments until we have all the relevant facts in hand. (For example, for emotionally volatile issues, much arguing takes place even though the facts are either lacking or distorted.)

  7. Recognition of our fallibility

    Humans are finite and limited creatures. There is much we do not know. We tend to believe what we want to believe, and many thoughtful and morally informed people will disagree with us on any moral judgment we might make. To think that a moral judgment is correct simply because it is our own is to display a form of arrogance that is not justified. (The Greeks called this hubris.)

  8. Tolerance

    We should always respect the moral judgments of individuals who have made the effort to gather the facts and carefully apply the proper moral principle. We can significantly disagree with others yet treat them with the respect and dignity they deserve as fellow human beings.

Note that the morally mature individual may not have full possession of all eight characteristics; rather, moral maturity, like many good things, is a mater of degree. The fact that few will ever attain high moral maturity does not mean that these are not worthy ideals for which we should strive.

I hope you will benefit from this little post on the characteristics of mature moral reasoning. Let’s become examples of mature dialog and calm conversation in high contrast to the shrill shout fests on the nightly news and commentary shows.

“Come now, let us reason together”, says the LORD
-Isaiah 1:18

Some commentary

It is easy to point to someone (or several someones) in a group to discredit that group or to complain about that group. I confess that I fall into this very often. You will catch me complaining about “the media” all the time. My complaints are that “they” do not appeal to moral principles, or if they do then these principles are not universally applied to all sides of the issue. But I am personally inconsistent because I am painting a whole industry with a single broad brush.

People do this all the time with whoever is on the “other” side. Christians do this to atheists, etc. People do this to Christians as well, so I have been on both sides of the assuming game. It’s a subtle trap.

So, let’s not paint our opinions of an individual onto the group, nor the group onto the individual. But let’s also not throw out our moral convictions. Use this short list to check yourself. Present your views graciously, consistently, and with all the facts you have gathered. And then listen to your conversation partner as they do the same.