Can One Use Reason to Make Moral Decisions?

cropped-robgoodgravatar.jpgby Rob Lundberg

As it is with migrating posts to Word Press, I have the opportunity to rework or refresh old posts from my previous provider.  This one is definitely one that I needed to rework and reconstruct from a few years ago. It is a question that is very relevant and you see if come up in online forums in various ways.

The question comes from a few years ago, having the privilege of speaking to a Christian student group at Christopher Newport University (CNU), where the topic for the evening was “The Problem of Evil and Suffering.” Much of material that I shared in that talk can be found in a piece I wrote on “The Three Faces of Evil and the Christian Response.”The subject matter for this post emerges from a question I received during the Q & A time at the CNU event.  The question came from a philosophy student, who is also a professing Christian.  The question centered on whether one can use reason to make moral decisions. This was a question that he wanted to get an answer for because this was a lecture topic at the time in his moral philosophy class.[1]

The question is as follows: “Do you believe that it is possible to use logic to make moral decisions.”  Let me ask you a question.  Have you ever thought of this? Have you ever thought of whether or not you and I can make a moral decision by just our reasoning capacities?  Let’s dive right in on this and engage this question. I will engage this using and answering some questions to get to my conclusions.

So, where does reason come from?

I once asked this question as a local Religious Freedom Rally here in the ‘Burg to one of the leaders of a local atheist group called the Fredericksburg Coalition of Reason. My question to him was this very one, “where does reason come from?”

After some questions back and forth to one another, he had to agree with me that if reason came from evolution, which has a time + matter + chance process, then the end result of our reasoning should be jumbled and chaotic, producing no order and no understanding what one another was saying to each other. But on the other hand, if it does not come from evolution, and shows some order so that we have understanding, where does reason come from?

Let’s move on.

What is involved in the use logic

Logic is “the study of right reason or valid inferences and the attending fallacies formal and informal.”[2]   Such a study is not without laws for reasoning rightly.  Many of us know these laws to be known as the laws of logic. Statements and thinking that is logically consistent, falling in line with that which corresponds to reality.  It is cohesive with the facts and conclusions, and it corresponds with the basic laws of logic. Allow me to share with you three of them. 

The first law is a fundamental law known as the law of non contradiction. This is often disputed one by those who embrace philosophical and moral relativism.  This law where A represents a statement cannot be both true (A) and false (non A), at the same time and expect it to be true for both parties.

The second law is known as the law of identity (A=A).  This law states that something is what it is by its very definition.  A car is a car.  A bachelor by definition is a man who has never been married.  It does not matter what the television program on the American Broadcasting Channel (ABC) says about the definition of a bachelor.   A widower is a man who has been married, but is no longer married because his wife is deceased.

A third law pertains to the law of the excluded middle term.  This law states that a statement is either true or false.[3]  Think of this law as claiming that there is no middle ground for a statement being somewhere between being true and being false. Every statement has to be one or the other. That’s why it’s called the law of excluded middle.  It is because it excludes any middle ground between truth and falsity.

There is a fourth law that I want to bring in that is not usually heard of too often.  It is known as the law of rational inference.  This law simply stated, presents the case that words mean what they mean. 

Suppose I were to tell you that I was going to rob the XYZ First National Savings Bank.  Let’s also assume, that you happen to do your banking at this same bank.  What would you be thinking if I told you that I was going to rob your bank?

You would mostly likely call the police, and possibly have them set a dragnet to catch me in the act. You would at least do something to prevent me from stealing money (your money) from your bank.  Words mean what they mean, even in a post modern society, especially when they affect us.

Now that we have a working knowledge of some laws of logic, let’s get to the question, “Is it possible to use reason (logic) to make moral decisions.” If the answer is yes, I see three difficulties that would have to be debated or explained.

Difficulty #1: Using reason alone makes moral decisions subject to the senses (feelings). A few months ago, I was told by a fellow coworker that the only way one can know truth is by our five senses. While that is true for a starting point, trying determine truth by our feelings only leads to perceptions. I don’t care what anyone says here, perceptions are only illusory, they are not reality.

If you and I operated on our feelings, let us be reminded that in some cultures they love their neighbors. In other cultures, they eat them. What culture would we choose?

Difficulty #2:  Using reasoning alone to make  moral decisions pits one person’s reasoning capacity up against another’s reasoning skills.  If one person’s reasoning capacities are subjective, in contrast and comparison to another’s, it is hard to come to an agreement on moral issues. One might think it is reasonable to save a nation of people from being eradicated from the earth, the other might not and start a war to accomplish such a task. Both are thinking their line of thinking is “reasonable.” But which one is right?

The question was “is it possible to use reason to make moral decisions.” We have been addressing in the first two difficulties the role of reason alone. But there is another category in the question. That is the question of morality.

What about the moral outcomes?

Difficulty #3: Moral choices imply that an ethical foundation is a starting point for making those choices. If reason alone is the foundation, then what will those moral outcomes look like based upon an individual’s or group of individuals’ starting points of reasoning out those moral or immoral decisions. (See Difficulty #2).

Is there a Solution?

I mentioned earlier that we start with our senses in learning things about reality. This starts in our very early years of life. We have our senses of taste, touch, smell, hearing, and seeing. Our parents tell us what is a dog, a cat, a baby, a cookie et al.  As we grow, we use those senses to explore the world around us. Those senses left to themselves lead only to a relativistic starting point. But is that all that there is?  Let me say there is more.

Remember when you did something wrong as a child? What did you want to do? Did your reasoning tell you that you should cover up the evidence? Did your reasoning tell you that you should not have done what you just did? No.

There is a moral code in all of us tell tells us, guides us and warns us not to torture the neighbor’s cat or steal your friend’s bicycle. Silly examples I know, but you get my point. There is something in each of us that pushes us, empirically and existentially to learn more about the world around us. We even come to conclude and realize that there is more information that can and cannot know; something or Someone beyond us.

You see, morality implies a moral lawgiver.  If it is left to our reasoning alone, morality is relative. But that leads to an unlivable standard.

But if there is a moral law that transcends (goes beyond) us, and that there is some sense in us to know that what we have done is wrong, could it be that that which has been put in us, has been put there by Someone who is beyond us to know what is right and what is wrong; and know Him in fellowship.

So can we use our reasoning (alone) to make moral choices? We can try, but ultimately left to themselves we will find it unlivable and be looking for something more.

Let me ask YOU!  What do you think?  Leave your comments below and let’s kick it around! If you don’t want to leave us a comment, email us at and we can dialogue there.


[1] The source of this question came from a moral theory known as “moral integration.” For more information please see,  Vojko Strahovnik also has a paper online in Google Docs (PDF) were he defends this view in pursuit of a global ethic.  Search “moral integration” and it will come right up.

[2] Norman L. Geisler and Ronald M. Brooks.  Come Let Us Reason: An Introduction to Logical Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 12.

[3] Wikipedia has a good entry on this law, found at  This law is not to be confused with the fallacy of the excluded middle, which essentially tries to make the argument that just because there are some things in common, it does not make the case for all things in common.  For example, Just because Jesus and Mohammad had great followings and were founders of large religions, it does not mean that they the same as far as their pointing people to “God.”  Just go to their respective places of burial and see who is in their grave and who is not.




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