Is It Always Rational to Act Morally?

Post Author: Bill Pratt 

If you are a dictator, and you have complete control over your nation, and you have good reason to believe you will remain in control, why should you not take whatever you want from whomever you want in order to bring yourself pleasure? Why would it be rational for you to be moral?

In certain cases of truth telling or repaying a debt or keeping a promise, and in those rarer cases where the performance of a duty risks death or injury, why do the moral thing? In an atheistic world, there may be instances where doing the moral thing does not advance my goals and desires for my life. In other words, doing the moral thing may not be the rational thing for me to do.

David Baggett and Jerry Walls, in their book Good God: The The Theistic Foundations of Morality, offer this choice to the atheist:

Either affirm that morality and rationality sometimes dictate different things and then either infer that we should do the moral, irrational thing anyway, or do the rational thing and ignore the dictates of morality.

How does this differ from the theist?

Notice how sharp is the contrast here between the theist who believes in ultima facie prescriptively binding moral obligations and the skeptic who rejects the existence of such duties or their rational authority. The theist affirms that there are such duties, which are in our ultimate self-interest because loving God and doing right are always in our ultimate self-interest. So it’s always rational to do such duties and acknowledge their authoritative force. The skeptic denies this, saying instead that morality seems to lack rational authority or perhaps authority altogether, for sometimes it’s just too costly.

Baggett and Walls continue:

Now, both thinkers could be said to be thinking in a way that’s rational in at least one sense. Each is thinking through the implications of their worldview in a way that is not obviously unreasonable or irrational.

What this shows, then, is that the meta-ethical question about morality and rationality is inextricably tied to ultimate questions of ontology and metaphysics. The right ultimate view of reality is plausibly the one that will be most likely to produce the right analysis of the relationship between morality and rationality. Both the atheist and the theist are predicating their approach on a fundamental axiom: that the world makes sense.

Why does it matter if the world makes sense and what does that have to do with morality?

It wouldn’t make sense if the world required us to do what isn’t in our ultimate self-interest. We think this was Kant’s insight when he suggested that the moral enterprise needs, in a deep and radical way, the postulate of a God who can, and will, make happiness correspond to virtue. Morality fails to make sense when that correspondence fails.

Does atheism guarantee that morality will correspond with ultimate happiness?

It’s the atheistic world in particular, however, that introduces the failure of this correspondence. Reality itself must be committed to morality in some deep way for morality to make sense. Morality really must be a very deep feature and fixture of reality in order for its demands to retain their authoritative force. In an atheistic world there just doesn’t seem likely to be the sort of ontological foundation to morality that renders it always rational to both believe in and do what’s morally binding. The picture is very different for a theistic world of a certain sort.

On Christian theism, is always rational to act morally. On atheism, it is sometimes rational to act morally, but in certain cases atheism can give a person no guarantee that their moral actions will ultimately lead to their happiness. Surely atheism, then, weakens the dictates of the moral law.

  • LentusAmor

    Bill, how do you explain verified experiments with atheist mice that act morally in the laboratory while theist humans cut each other up with knives, and this includes Christians (including the Christian named Adolf Hitler)?

    http://www.animalmosaic.org/sentience/knowledge/video/default.aspx?page=0&video=tcm:46-28656

  • LentusAmor

    “Hence today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord.”
    -Adolf Hitler

  • Of course Christian theism doesn’t even pretend that moral actions will ultimately lead to one’s happiness since all our moral actions are dirty rags in God’s site.

  • Lentus Amor

    Why do you need a Sky-Daddy Bill Pratt?

  • Bill Pratt

    Please read the Comments Policy. Consider this strike one.

  • billf

    “Let’s save the rhetorical comparisons to Hitler and Nazis for those who really deserve them–hate groups who proudly assume the
    Nazi mantle, and ‘Holocaust revisionists’ who would fantasize away Hitler’s genocidal crimes.” – David Gehrig.

    Hitler was as much a Christian as most modern politicians. He was an expert at speaking out of both sides of his mouth to get in office. Once in office he made Nazism the religion of Germany and removed Bibles from schools and replaced them with copies of Mein Kampf. He was about as much a Christian as Richard Dawkins.

  • Alex


    Is It Always Rational to Act Morally?”Jesus answered this question for you. In his time working on the Sabbath was considered immoral. Mark 2:27 showed that he was not concerned with all that. Case closed.

  • Please read the comments policy. Consider this strike 1.

  • Andrew Ryan

    I couldn’t agree more with that David Gehrig quote. LentusAmor aside though, I’m afraid it’s generally the American Right (ironically enough) such as Glen Beck, who makes the Hitler comparisons. Hitler is also much raised by Christian apologists. I wouldn’t defend the notion that Hitler was a Christian, but he did appear to be a theist of some description.

  • John Hiett

    Dear Bill Pratt,

    If you are a true “engineer”, I would trust you would think based on love of direct evidence, and not on fear of faith.

    Faith is mere reflections of “evidence” written by words of people thousands of years ago who had no clue what electricity was, nor any idea how to design and build computers, nor how to design spacecraft and airplanes.

    If you can’t provide evidence of her, then how do you know she exists? How do you know he is a he or do you fear she is a she, and don’t want to admit the possibility without hearsay evidence to the contrary?

    Can you identify an umbilical cord as evidence? If you are basing all your evidence as the mask of myths, then I would call that reflections of fear, when you are ignoring the true light of the Sun.