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weeveeship's avatar

How to balance morality and practicality?

Asked by weeveeship (4363 points ) April 4th, 2011

Definitions:
Morality: the ethical standards that you believe in, based on your religion, philosophical outlook on life, etc.

Practicality: does what you do achieve desired results that are favorable to you (assume that you like pleasure and dislike pain)

Details:
The two can be in harmony. However, the two are sometimes in conflict. Helping someone in need could delay you. Kindness might be met with abusiveness and manipulation (i.e. the other guy keeps using you, thinking you are a pushover). Then, there are cases where you might have to choose between the lesser of two evils.

So, I’m just wondering, how do you balance your personal morality with the practicality of your actions?

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31 Answers

Hypocrisy_Central's avatar

Fact from fiction, truth from diction. At the end of the day unless the practicality runs afoul or morality the practicality has to rule the day. Though morality will give you peace of mind you are doing the right thing it has no direct effect on how your day to day goes. You see a mother trying to get her young kids in the car, juggle packages and a large dog the moral thing would be to help. If you are running close to being late and you can’t be late for a job, catch a fairy, an appointment where you would be placing another party at a disadvantage then the practical thing is to make the appointment or timed event you simply must be at. The mother will have a harder time getting the situation under control, but she will eventually and nothing but a little time that could not be lost would be the difference.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

I don’t think the two are ever in conflict. Morality is what it is because evolution has deemed it a behaviour that improves survival skills. Helping someone in need could delay me, but it is still worth doing unless someone else can help or I am on my way to help a greater number of people in more desperate need. Kindness might be met with abuse, in which case the ethical principle of autonomy would dictate that kindness should not be forced on a person, and they should be left to their own devices. Choosing the lesser of two evils can still be a moral choice, because you are choosing the most advantageous of the paths available. Morality is never impractical.

weeveeship's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh What about a case where one sees a murderer killing someone? One can help or call for help, but doing so might arouse the attention of the murderer, making the helper a target.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@weeveeship Morality is a spectrum. There are always more and less moral courses of action that may be taken, but I don’t think practicality is ever an excuse to choose something towards the immoral end of the spectrum. The reason people are taught not to jump in and help is that becoming a second victim does not help the first. Anything that can be done to help the victim should be done, but running in to the fray with all the best intentions does nothing to benefit the victim.

SABOTEUR's avatar

You stop thinking about it and do what you know is right NOW.

CaptainHarley's avatar

You make sure that your morality is sufficiently sound to override your practicality before you ever encounter a possible clash between the two. Your morality should always be paramount. If it’s not, then it’s not your morality but something you kinda think you should maybe believe.

FireMadeFlesh's avatar

@SABOTEUR I think that only works when, as @CaptainHarley says, the groundwork has been done previously. Many heinous acts have been committed by people who thought it was the right thing to do.

BarnacleBill's avatar

It’s easier to live with yourself when you do the right thing. Letting someone take advantage of you, as in your example in the question, is not doing the moral thing. The right thing is to encourage self-reliance in other people.

Pandora's avatar

Practical does not have to be immoral. Lets say you don’t desire to have sex with someone you are not married to. But you both plan to be married. Now the situation is that you both want to save money for your wedding and living together would make it more practical for savings. Living together would not be immoral if you do not engage in sex.
In your example about kindness. Well a practial person would just get away from that person. It would not be immoral to walk away. If you can’t walk away because it is someone like a child you are raising than the moral thing would be to seek counseling for that person and yourself. It would still be moral and practical at the same time.
If you are having toubles with a co-worker the moral thing would be to talk to them first and try to resolve it without involving your bosses. You let them know that you desire to resolve it without involving anyone else but if they insist of harrassing you than you will be forced to get your bosses to become involved. It is moral and practical. You put the ball in their court. If they do not wish to handle things in a mature way than it was their decision to involve others.

SABOTEUR's avatar

@FireMadeFlesh Most people over the age of 18 understand what is moral and what is practical. Unfortunately, many of these people are also handicapped with the stigma of other people’s opinion about what they “should” be doing, so they waste time worrying over the pros and cons of a particular action when they should be doing what they know to be correct.

“Heinous acts” will be committed regardless. Well intentioned people have a way of justifying whatever they want to do. But, generally speaking, most people know the difference between right and wrong and they should know how to act according.

chocolatechip's avatar

All actions are practical. People act only in their bests interests. There is no such thing as a moral action, only a practical action that has the benefit of being moral. As an extension of that thought, people are not moral or immoral. Rather, there are people whose own interests just happen to coincide with certain principles, and those who don’t.

SABOTEUR's avatar

@chocolatechip Darn. Wish I had said that.

CaptainHarley's avatar

That presupposes a very flexible moral code, which, in my opinion, is actually no moral code at all.

gasman's avatar

@weeveeship: If you’re asking how to resolve complex moral dilemmas that involve the wisdom of both history and foresight, whose final choice may have far-reaching consequences for you personally? Get in line behind the rest of humanity! lol There are always lines not to be crossed, “boundaries” by which we deem behavior appropriate and acceptable based on some system of values unique to each individual (typically shaped by cultural immersion). The “rules” are social constructs that more or less everyone agrees exist.

Here’s an example from today’s newspaper of judging “where to draw the line”: A guy selling his house is worried he might be taking advantage of the buyers. Go to this page of NY Times Sunday magazine column, “The Ethicist,” by Ariel Kaminer. Warning: NYT is starting to charge for some internet content, though the page opened automatically for me.

———- (c) The New York Times:
Several years ago, at the height of the housing bubble, I sold my home for a price that, at the time, I felt was probably $10,000 or $15,000 too high. Although I felt slightly guilty, I also knew that the buyers were highly educated people and that they had the wherewithal to consult the same publicly available information about the local housing market that I did.

What were my ethical responsibilities to this couple? From the point of view of the deal as a business transaction, I fulfilled my obligation to disclose everything I knew. But it seems to methat a more rigorous ethical position would hold that if I believed they were doing something that wasn’t in their best interests, I should have spoken up. NAME WITHHELD, BLOOMINGTON, IND.

You have an unusually strong ethical compass — and no future in real estate.

Your desire to negotiate on behalf of your buyers’ interests as well as yours is admirable but misplaced, because your view of their interests will never be identical to their own. They might value the house more highly than others because it’s across the street from their office. Or because it was available at the moment they urgently needed to move in. Or because they believed the next buyer would pay still more than they did.

It is not your obligation to help them assess those priorities as they settle on the true price of the house; in fact, it is literally none of your business. (In any case, the only true price of the house is the one both parties arrive at together.)

Representing your home honestly and transparently is not, then, the least you can do; it is the most you can do. The risks of the real estate market — some foreseeable, some not — are more than any individual seller can possibly bear responsibility for. But if everyone in the real estate market had shown your commitment to disclosure, there might not have been a bubble in the first place.

E-MAIL queries to ethicist@nytimes.com, or send them to the Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018, and include a daytime phone number.
———- (c) The New York Times:

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

You make choices. Generally, my morality informs everything and helps with practicality.

flutherother's avatar

Just weigh up which choice you will be most comfortable with. Morality is practicality however, it is what helps us get along with one another and that is vital in life.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@chocolatechip Virtually the whole of moral philosophy is against you. The notion that we only act in our best interests only holds up if we have a trivial definition of “best interests” such that no action could possibly count against it. Otherwise, you’re just abusing words.

josie's avatar

The whole point of a moral code is that it is a guide to get you through existence.
If it is not practical, it is of no good to you.
I am not sure how a proper moral code is in conflict with what is practical.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@josie The original question seems to be using “practical” to mean “favoring your own interests,” whereas “moral” usually means “what you should and shouldn’t do.” Places where they might come into conflict are easy to find. Most people would think it would be immoral to rob a bank even if you could get away with it, but it would surely serve at least certain interests that most people have.

josie's avatar

@SavoirFaire All morality serves your interests.
That is why it is there.
Principles of rights, justice, and law, as well as social convention and custom determine how you deal with others.
If you are starving, with no other reasonable alternatives, and you rob a bank to get money for food as your final act before you die, you are morally correct, but you will go to prison. At least, while in prison, you will take comfort in knowing you did what you had to do.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@josie Morality might serve our interests overall, but it might not in every instance. It could serve my interests to rob a bank right now even though I don’t need to do so in order to stay alive, but that doesn’t prove it is morally permissible for me to go rob a bank right now (even under the assumption I would be neither identified nor caught). As the question seems to be how to balance the two in those instances where they conflict, what might be overall the case seems irrelevant.

josie's avatar

@SavoirFaire
Once metaphysics tells you what there is to know, and once epistemology tells you how you know it, then morality tells you what to do. What is there to balance. In the bank robbery hypothetical, it is only trading starving for a time in jail. Some people would call that a good deal.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@josie In my hypothetical, it’s not trading those things at all. You don’t get to rewrite my example!

josie's avatar

Then I return to my original point. A moral code that is impractical is useless. It is capricious, made up, not based on reality. There are also sorts of moral “codes” out there. Most of them are made up by somebody. They have no relationship to the nature of man, who is using the code. Useless.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@josie So if I told you that you could rob a bank right now and get away with it, would you do it?

Assume you know I’m telling the truth.

everephebe's avatar

@SavoirFaire I don’t know about @josie but I would! :D I mean, in your hypothetical situation.

josie's avatar

No.
Why would I? I have no compelling selfish reason to do it, and plenty of selfish reasons not to.
For starters, it is somebody else’s property. I value my property, they value theirs, and I am not a hypocrite. At least to the extent that I think my property is valuable to me, but theirs is not to them. I am a happy guy. I would be less happy as a hypocrite. Why would I diminish my own happiness?

SavoirFaire's avatar

@josie This notion of “compelling” strikes me as illicitly going beyond the implied egoism in your responses. You certainly would have egoistic reasons to do it. And strictly speaking, egoists cannot respect the property rights of others. It sounds like you are adding notions of reciprocity. This is all well and good. It just undermines the supposed egoism.

josie's avatar

@SavoirFaire
The answer is still no.

SavoirFaire's avatar

But no to what? I’m not trying to get you to rob the bank. I’m just suggesting you are not actually an egoist.

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