Passion, Reason, Trust and Habit: How We Make Ethical Decisions


“I hate those people who think they can control my body.”

“I can’t stand thinking about the lost lives of those poor unborn babies.”



“I weighed up the reasons and concluded logically that this was the way to vote.”



“Women fighting for equal rights support a Yes vote.  I’m with them.”

“The church opposes change.  I’m a good Catholic.”



“I always vote that way.”


There is an approach to ethical decision-making (associated with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics) according to which we need to combine all these procedures in our ethical thinking.


Habit: This is how we get started with thinking about right and wrong.  We learn how to act in certain situations, being rewarded for getting it right and punished for getting it wrong.  Then we internalise these practices and act in those ways automatically. Developing good habits early on gives us the basis for developing our ethical nature.  But should we rely on habit?

  1. We might have been badly brought up; so perhaps we should question the way we were brought up and challenge our own habits.

  2. Real life situations will inevitably involve more complexity than can be managed by any of our habits of behaviour, however good they are.


Trust: Without relying on the expertise of others we would never get to know very much.  But are there ethical experts whom we can identify? Trust is often based on loyalty.  When you identify yourself as a good Christian for example you may need to trust what the church leaders says.  When you identify yourself as a good feminist you may feel bound to trust what the feminist writers who have impressed you say on the matter.  Is this how we should decide how to vote?

  1. There is an interesting philosophical debate on the question of whether the idea of an ethical expert makes any sense.

  2. While it may be true that we can’t get by in life without trusting people, blind trust is foolish.  Our guiding lights and authority figures often turn out to be untrustworthy, so it makes sense to keep a watching brief on whether they deserve our trust.


Passion: We are emotional creatures with compassion, anger, fear, etc. and should not deny our nature in our ethical thinking and acting.  Our emotional states involve evaluations of our environments – as frightening, outrageous, unbearably sad, etc. It is often argued that we would not even have the concepts that are the basis of our ethical thinking if we did not have emotions.  Should we simply rely on our own emotional intuitions in voting?

  1. We can have irrational emotions and our intuitions are not reliable.

  2. We can (and should) adapt our emotional responses in the light of higher-order ethical thinking.

Reason: In general reason seems to be a reliable route towards knowledge.  We can think rationally about the reliability of our habits, the people we trust and our emotional dispositions and adjust them accordingly.  Should we rely on purely logical thinking in this vote?

  1. Philosophers like Hume (Book 2, part 3,  section 3 of his Treatise on Human Nature) have argued that reason by itself cannot motivate us – we need emotions to get us moving.  However other philosophers, like Kant (Groundwork for a Metaphysic of Morals), claim that we can and should make ethical decisions on the basis of reason alone.  If Hume is right then passion provides us with our motives though we still need reason to work out the way to act in order to achieve our desired ends.

  2. The concepts we use to think about ethical issues may depend on our emotional nature, though they are still subject to rational reappraisal.


Given all this, one way to approach ethical decision-making is to be aware of the way habit, trust and emotion are together determining our underlying motivations, to think through whether we are happy with the way they are doing this and then to work out how these motivations are best accommodated in rational arguments about how to vote.

It is also worth mentioning that ethical decision-making is not always a matter for an individual on their own.  Often we work out what to do together with other people - arguing, conceding, negotiating and developing compromises.  Voting is quite an unusual kind of ethical action in this respect - you are on your own in the voting booth.

Frameworks for making ethical decisions using reason

There are a variety of different ways someone can think rationally about ethical decisions. People sometimes propose one of these approaches as a way to understand all ethical decision-making, but it is also possible to combine them in a more complex approach.

Consequentialist thinking -  assess the consequences:

  A.  Repealing the 8th amendment is right (or wrong) because of the overall social impact this change will have.

  B. The termination of a particular pregnancy is right (or wrong) because of the impact it is has on the life and well-being of all those involved.  


Rights-based ethics:

The law of a state should reflect and enshrine a set of rights.  If these rights are too broad they will conflict with one another and be of no use.  So the task is to work out specific formulations of a set of rights that together protect the wellbeing of members of the state.

The rights that are often discussed in this issue are:

   The right to life.  This usually means the right not to be killed, but can also mean the right to have access to the means to live a worthwhile life.

   The right not to have one's body used by others for their own purposes witout one's permission - often called the right to bodily autonomy.

   The right to equal treatment - justice.  


Agent-based thinking:

Ethical decisions should reflect the perspectives of the ethical decision-makers.  We all have our own attitudes, projects, commitments, relationships, roles in society, and so on, and the way we make decisions needs to reflect these things.  (These attitudes, projects, commitments, perspectives and roles are themselves things we should make ethical decisions about - so it gets complicated!)

In this issue the question arises as to who is the ethical decision-maker whose perspective should be respected.  Should we just look at the issue from our own perspective as a voter in the referendum or does the perspective of the women and girls with unwanted pregnancies have some priority?


Care-based ethics:  Moral decision-making is largely a matter of maintaining the right relationships with the people around us.  Both sides in the campaign talk about love and compassion. What is the compassionate way to vote on this issue?  What is a compassionate society?


A handy and quite comprehensive summary of these and other approaches can be found on this website from Brown University: A Framework for Making Ethical Decisions