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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Are Immoral People Capable of Rational Thinking?

 

I enjoy consuming commentary, discourse, and debate through online platforms. As such dialogue ranges from timid to controversial topics, I appreciate being able to filter received information through the lens of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT).

 

Doing so allows me opportunities to practice this psychotherapeutic modality so that I may strengthen my skills which are used to help other people. Additionally, I blog about many of the issues I encounter online, as a means to carefully think through my positions.

 

Not always (if ever) is this done with elegance. Admittedly, I’m not a proficient writer. Nevertheless, I challenge myself to develop healthy and alternative perspectives to many positions I receive from online sources.

 

One such claim I commonly hear is that immoral people are incapable of rational thinking. I’m intrigued to discover how different my position is regarding this matter when compared to the interpreted stances of other people.

 

Are immoral people capable of rational thinking?

 

Before providing my answer to this question, it may be useful to define terms. “Moral” may be defined as of or relating to principles of right and wrong in behavior. Thus, determination of good, bad, right, wrong, etc. is the function of morality.

 

Some people argue that there’s such a thing as objective morality, arguing that perhaps a deity, nature, or some other unfalsifiable component dictates what is evil, righteous, proper, improper, or otherwise. As an example, unlawfully or unjustifiably killing someone (murder) is widely considered an immoral act.

 

However, determination of what is unlawful or unjustifiable is heavily dependent upon subjective distinguishing arguments. For instance, killing a person who plans on and then carries out genocide is something many people would consider a moral act.

 

Nevertheless, such an action may be deemed appropriate if sanctioned by a state actor, though inappropriate if committed by a lone individual. Therefore, it’s considered lawful in the case of government intervention and unlawful regarding an independent vigilante.

 

Before continuing any further, it’s worth mentioning that REBT practitioners aren’t a monolith. We don’t all agree with the positions of one another. Thus, my approach to REBT may differ drastically from the stances of other REBT psychotherapists.

 

In any case, according to one REBT source, the late psychologist who developed REBT, Albert Ellis, posited in his earlier iteration of REBT, “Morality consists of two rules which form the basis of rational-emotive therapy (RET): (1) Be kind to yourself and (2) Don’t hurt others.”

 

The latter rule coincides with the non-aggression principle (NAP), which I value. All the same, there are many people who may disagree with the NAP. Simply because Ellis and I value this ethical element doesn’t mean others should, must, or ought to do so.

 

This brings me to the next term worthy of defining, “ethics”—a set of moral principles; a system of moral values. Whereas morality determines what is good or bad, ethics are the rules one pledges to live by – based on a moral framework.

 

As an example, I consider it an immoral (bad) act to commit the act of genocide. Therefore, my ethical principle is that I won’t commit or support those who commit genocidal actions.

 

It’s worth mentioning that merely because some actions are considered legal or illegal doesn’t mean everyone will agree with such behavior on moral or ethical grounds. For instance, abortion, capital punishment, or illicit drug usage aren’t fully accepted or rejected irrespective of legality or illegality of these elements.

 

Expanding upon morality from an REBT perspective, one REBT source states:

 

[A]n important distinction needs to be made between “metaphysical demands” and “moral demands.” A metaphysical demand is of the form, “Reality (X) must be a particular way,” whereas a moral demand is of the form, “To be moral one must do or be Y.” The moral demand can be written as a conditional (as an if-then statement), namely, “If one wants to be moral, then one should (must) do or be Y.” Thus a moral demand is always a conditional, a non-absolute demand. A metaphysical demand, on the other hand, is never a conditional; it is an absolute demand.

 

Using this distinction, I posit that my stance on genocide—the deliberate killing of a large number of people from a particular nation or ethnic group with the aim of destroying that nation or group—is both a moral and absolute demand. Thus, in the manner of dialetheism, two opposing things can be true at once.

 

I maintain that the conditional demand of myself is that genocide is wrong and must not be committed by me. If I want to be a moral individual, then I must not partake in genocide.

 

At the same time, I maintain that I absolutely (metaphysically) must not commit genocide – under no circumstances whatsoever. Therefore, I live my life in accordance with these moral and absolute demands.

 

Moving from the matter of morals and ethics, I now turn to rationality. “Rational” may be defined as that which is based on or in accordance with logic or reason. This calls for defining standards of logic and reason.

 

“Logic” may be defined as a science that deals with the principles and criteria of validity of inference and demonstration. “Reason” may be defined as a statement offered in explanation or justification; a sufficient ground of explanation or of logical defense.

 

It’s worth noting that a statement may seem logical, though it may not be reasonable. Using a syllogism, I’ll demonstrate this proposition:

 

Form (Modus Ponens) –

If p, then q; p; therefore, q.

 

Example –

If you want to stop cancer, then kill everyone with cancer.

You want to stop cancer.

Therefore, kill everyone with cancer.

 

This basic logical proposition is valid (accurate) and if carried forth would actually stop cancer. However, this is an unreasonable argument, because many would argue that human life has inherent worth and the cure for cancer must not be more lethal than cancer itself.

 

Now, consider a logical and reasonable approach to the topic of cancer:

 

Form (Modus Ponens) –

If p, then q; p; therefore, q.

 

Example –

If you want to lower cancer-related deaths, then offer cancer treatment to people.

You want to lower cancer-related deaths.

Therefore, offer cancer treatment to people.

 

The major premise of the former (stop cancer) is more rigid than the major premise of the latter (lower cancer-related deaths). Although both major premises are arguably practical, the minor premise of the former (kill everyone with cancer) isn’t as reasonable as the premise of the latter (offer cancer treatment).

 

Logic and reason form the basis of rationality. Add to that one’s moral and ethical framework, and a rationally-thinking individual may determine one’s own course of action in life. From an REBT perspective, this formulation is intended to serve one’s own interests and goals.

 

Nevertheless, rational self-interest isn’t something everyone appreciates. As I imagine most humans live in or adjacent to areas populated by other people (i.e., societies), personal morals, ethics, and logic and reason may clash with that of varying groups. Welcome to complex systems.

 

Having provided my positional framework, I now turn to the original question. Are immoral people capable of rational thinking? This is a trick question, because I maintain that there are no immoral people, only immoral actions.

 

Allow me to explain. One key tenet regarding the REBT technique of unconditional acceptance is the notion of human fallibility—all humans are imperfect. Despite how often we may encounter people who absolutely demand perfection, we are all inherently flawed individuals.

 

Although we cannot perfect imperfect beings, REBT affords people the opportunity to consider tolerance and acceptance of matters in life over which we have no control and little influence. This includes issues related to oneself (e.g., me), others (e.g., you), and life (e.g., the past).

 

Additionally, people aren’t their behavior. While it’s common to believe otherwise – especially when discussing moral, ethical, and legal matters (e.g., one who murders is regarded as a murderer) – imperfect humans may behave in immoral ways, though this doesn’t make an immoral person. Regarding this matter, Ellis stated:

 

Much of what we can call the human “ego” is vague and indeterminate and, when conceived of and given a global rating, interferes with survival and happiness. Certain aspects of “ego” seem to be vital and lead to beneficial results: for people do exist, or have aliveness, for a number of years, and they also have self-consciousness, or awareness of their existence. In this sense, they have uniqueness, ongoingness, and “ego”. What people call their “self” or “totality” or “personality”, on the other hand, has a vague, almost indefinable quality. People may well have “good” or “bad” traits—characteristics that help or hinder them in their goals of survival or happiness—but they really have no “self” that “is” good or bad.

 

Thus, humans are fallible, we aren’t our behavior, and although we may behave in immoral ways, we aren’t immoral people. Likewise, individuals often – and perhaps most often – maintain irrational beliefs, though we aren’t our beliefs either.

 

In violation of Godwin’s law, I’ll now use my positional framework to invoke the name of Adolf Hitler. I maintain that Hitler was a fallible human being who behaved immorally. This admission already satisfies rejection of the trick question concerning this post.

 

Nevertheless, I think it’s worth adding that even Hitler was capable of rational thinking – though this proposal in no way infers that he often, mostly, or always thought in a logical and reasonable manner. I have no clue how the decedent’s mind actually functioned, so I’m merely hypothesizing herein.

 

At some point later in his life, Hitler reportedly turned to vegetarianism. Additionally, the Nazis reportedly introduced animal welfare laws which were unparalleled at the time. To many people, Hitler’s decisions in regard to animals – whether due to health, moral, or ethical reasons – would seem rational.

 

Therefore, even one of the most controversial figures in human history, who was a fallible human being, was apparently capable of rational thinking. Given infamy of Hitler’s legacy and ability to exercise some degree of rational thought, most other imperfect beings are likely capable of thinking rationally, as well.

 

In conclusion, this blogpost isn’t intended to defend Hitler. As well, I’m not inferring that human fallibility on one level is comparable to the extremes of genocide on another level. Let’s not think ridiculously.

 

Rather, I’m merely stating that people aren’t immoral, though we can behave in immoral ways. Nonetheless, fallible human beings are capable of rational thinking. Whether or not we exercise logical and reasonable cognitive abilities on a regular basis is another matter altogether.

 

Perhaps you disagree with my positional framework. Maybe you maintain that people can be bad, evil, or otherwise immoral. You possibly further conclude that those among us who are capable of significant atrocities are equally incapable of rational thought.

 

If this is your position, I unconditionally accept that we disagree. As well, I can tolerate our differences of opinion. If you’d like to know more about how to practice tolerance and acceptance of this sort in your own life, I’m here to help.

 

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

 

As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

 

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

 

 

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW


 

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