21 Distinguishing Between Moral & Nonmoral Claims

Radford University, Radford University Core Handbook, https://lcubbison.pressbooks.com/ and Deborah Holt, BS, MA

Recall an ethical dilemma is a term for a situation in which a person faces an ethically problematic situation and is not sure of what she ought to do. Those who experience ethical dilemmas feel themselves being pulled by competing ethical demands or values and perhaps feel that they will be blameworthy or experience guilt no matter what course of action they take.

What is the role of values in ethical dilemmas?

Frequently, ethical dilemmas are fundamentally a clash of values. We may experience a sense of frustration trying to figure out what the ‘right’ thing to do is because any available course of action violates some value that we are dedicated to. For example, let’s say you are taking a class with a good friend and sitting next to him one day during a quiz you discover him copying answers from a third student. Now you are forced into an ethical decision embodied by two important values common to your society. Those values are honesty and loyalty. Do you act dishonestly and preserve your friend’s secret or do you act disloyal and turn them in for academic fraud?

Awareness of the underlying values at play in an ethical conflict can act as a powerful method to clarify the issues involved. We should also be aware of the use of value as a verb in the ethical sense. Certainly what we choose to value more or less will play a very significant role in the process of differentiating between outcomes and actions thereby determining what exactly we should do.

Literature and film are full of ethical dilemmas, as they allow us to reflect on the human struggle as well as presenting tests of individual character. For example in World War Z, Gerry Lane (played by Brad Pitt in the movie version) has to make a similar choice as Sartre’s Frenchman: between serving the world-community of humans in their just war against Zombies, and serving his own immediate family. It adds depth and substance to the character to see him struggling with this choice over the right thing to do.

What ethical dilemmas are more common in real life?

If you’ve ever felt yourself pulled between two moral choices, you’ve faced an ethical dilemma. Often we make our choice based on which value we prize more highly. Some examples:

You are offered a scholarship to attend a far-away college, but that would mean leaving your family, to whom you are very close. Values: success/future achievements/excitement vs. family/love/safety

You are friends with Jane, who is dating Bill. Jane confides in you that she’d been seeing Joe on the side but begs you not to tell Bill. Bill then asks you if Jane has ever cheated on him. Values: Friendship/loyalty vs. Truth

You are the official supervisor for Tywin. You find out that Tywin has been leaving work early and asking his co-workers to clock him out on time. You intend to fire Tywin, but then you find out that he’s been leaving early because he needs to pick up his child from daycare. Values: Justice vs. Mercy

You could probably make a compelling argument for either side for each of the above. That’s what makes ethical dilemmas so difficult (or interesting, if you’re not directly involved!)

What is an ethical violation?

Sometimes we are confronted with situations in which we are torn between a right and a wrong; we know what the right thing to do would be, but the wrong is personally beneficial, tempting, or much easier to do. In 2010, Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel discovered that some of his players were violating NCAA rules. He did not report it to anyone, as it would lead to suspensions, hurting the football team’s chances of winning. He was not torn between two moral choices; he knew what he should do, but didn’t want to jeopardize his career. In 2011, Tressel’s unethical behavior became public, OSU had to void its wins for the year, and he resigned as coach.

Ethics experts tend to think that ethical considerations should always trump personal or self-interested ones and that to resist following one’s personal desires is a matter of having the right motivation and the strength of will to repel temptation. One way to strengthen your “ethics muscles” is to become familiar with the ways we try to excuse or dismiss unethical actions.

How does self-interest affect people’s ethical choices?

In a perfect world, morality and happiness would always align: living ethically and living well wouldn’t collide because living virtuously—being honest, trustworthy, caring, etc.—would provide the deepest human happiness and would best allow humans to flourish. Some would say, however, that we do not live in a perfect world, and that our society entices us to think of happiness in terms of status and material possessions at the cost of principles. Some even claim that all persons act exclusively out of self-interest—that is, out of psychological egoism—and that genuine concern for the well-being of others—altruism—is impossible. As you explore an ethical issue, consider whether people making choices within the context of the issue are acting altruistically or out of self-interest.

What is the difference between good ethical reasoning and mere rationalization?

When pressed to justify their choices, people may try to evade responsibility and to justify decisions that may be unethical but that serve their self-interest. People are amazingly good at passing the buck in this fashion, yet pretty poor at recognizing and admitting that they are doing so. When a person is said to be rationalizing his actions and choices, this doesn’t mean he is applying critical thinking, or what we have described as ethical analysis. Quite the opposite: it means that he is trying to convince others—or often just himself—using reasons that he should be able to recognize as faulty or poor reasons. Perhaps the most common rationalization of unethical action has come to be called the Nuremberg Defense: ‘I was just doing what I was told to do—following orders or the example of my superior. So blame them and exonerate me.’ This defense was used by Nazi officials during the Nuremberg trials after World War II in order to rationalize behavior such as participation in the administration of concentration camps. This rationalization didn’t work then, and it doesn’t work now.

What kinds of rationalizations do people make for their actions?*

Rationalization is a common human coping strategy. An intriguing finding in research on corruption is that people who behave unethically usually do not see themselves as unethical. Instead, they recast their actions using rationalization techniques to justify what they’ve done. Common rationalization strategies:

Denial of responsibility

The people engaged in bad behavior “had no choice” but to participate in such activities OR people turn a blind eye to ethical misbehavior.


“What can I do? My boss ordered me not to tell the police.”

“My neighbors’ children always seem to have bruises, but it’s none of my business.”

Denial of injury

No one is harmed by the action, or that the harm could have been worse.


“All’s well that ends well.”

“Nobody died.”

Blaming the victim

Counter any blame for the actions by arguing that the violated party deserved what happened.


“She chose to go that fraternity party; what did she think was going to happen?”

“If the professors don’t want students to say mean things in student evaluations, they should be more entertaining.”

Social weighting

Compared to what other people have done, this is nothing, OR everybody does it, so it’s okay.


“I sometimes come into work late, but compared to everybody who leaves early every Friday, it’s nothing to get worked up over.”

“Everyone around me was texting; it’s not fair that I should be the one in trouble.”

Appeal to higher values

It was done for a good, higher cause.


“You should let me copy your homework; if I fail this class, I’ll lose my scholarship.”

“I couldn’t tell anyone because I’m loyal to my boss.”

 Saint’s excuse

If someone has done good things in the past, they should get a “pass” for misbehavior.


“He’s done so many good things for the community, it would be a shame to punish him.”

“She’s so talented, why focus on the bad things she’s done?”

What fallacies are most prevalent in debates over ethical issues?

In addition to self-deception and rationalizations, we often find overtly fallacious reasoning that undermines open, constructive debate of ethical issues. Of the common we described, those most common in ethics debate include ad hominem (personal) attacks, appeals to false authority, appeals to fear, the slippery slope fallacy, false dilemmas, the two-wrongs-make-a-right fallacy, and the strawman fallacy. Fallacious reasoning, especially the attempt to sway sentiment through language manipulation, is ever-present in popular sources of information and opinion pieces, like blogs and special-interest-group sites. It may take practice to spot fallacious reasoning, but being able to give names to these strategies of trickery and manipulation provides the aspiring critical thinker with a solid start.

* Modified from Anand, V., Ashforth, B. E., & Joshi, M. (2004). Business as usual: The acceptance and perpetuation of corruptions in organizations. Academy of Management Executive, 18(2). Retrieved from http://actoolkit.unprme.org/wp-content/resourcepdf/anand_et_al._ame_2004.pdf

How can I tell what is the “right” thing to do?

That’s the million dollar question. Ethical theories describe the rules or principles that guide people when the rightness or wrongness of an action becomes an issue. In this section, you will read about some of the most common and important ways of approaching ethics. They all ask the question, “how can I tell what the right thing to do is?” but differ as to where to start and what to consider:

  1. Situation. Relativists say that rightness changes depending on the individuals and culture involved.
  2. Results. Consequentialists believe that you should judge rightness based on the predicted outcome. Utilitarianism is a type of consequentialist perspective.
  3. Actions. Deontologists judge the rightness purely on the action itself. Duty-based and rights-based perspectives fall into this category.
  4. Actors. In actor-oriented perspectives, the person or entity making the decision- the ethical actor- must decide what a virtuous person or entity would do, and follow that path. The ethical actor may also be called the agent.

How do I use ethical reasoning to make decisions?

Making good ethical decisions takes practice. Our instinct or “gut” can draw us to selfish choices, so we need to step back and think critically about ethical dilemmas rather than just jumping to our first solution.

We need to consider all the elements involved:

  • Who is affected?
  • Who is making the decision?
  • What are the known facts and circumstances?
  • How ethical are the possible actions?

The framework below can help guide you through this process. It is not a checklist of steps; rather, decision making is an iterative process in which learning a new fact may cause you to revise earlier thoughts on the situation.

How do I recognize an ethical situation?

Identifying an ethical situation will require you to research the facts of a situation and to ask whether stakeholders must consider questions about the moral rightness or wrongness of public policy or personal behavior. To help you identify and describe the nature of the ethical issue, ask the following:

Does the situation require individuals to engage in ethical judgments? Do you find yourself thinking about whether an action is morally right or wrong or whether a person’s motives are morally good or bad? Could you debate what, morally, someone ‘should’ or ‘ought to’ do in the situation?

Does the situation seem to pose an ethical conflict for one or more stakeholder? That is, does there seem be a clash between what a stakeholder ‘ought to do’ and what she ‘wants to do’?

Does the situation pose an ethical dilemma for one or more stakeholders? That is, does it seem as if someone is pulled between competing ethical demands, each calling for behavior that would be ethical but with one action making it impossible to perform the other, equally justifiable action? Are there values that are in conflict?

You also should consider whether any professional codes are relevant to the situation. Often professional codes spell out the ethical or moral obligations of members of a profession. Compare any relevant professional code with the behavior of participants in that situation who may be bound by that code. Was their behavior consistent with that code? Were there any competing norms or codes of behavior that put participants in the midst of an ethical dilemma?

In an ethical situation, a difficult decision- perhaps multiple difficult decisions, will need to be made.

How do I identify stakeholders?

Usually, any complex topic features multiple stakeholders: people who have an interest in or are affected by the outcome of decisions revolving around the situation. These different parties are not all affected in the same way, and therefore, their perspectives on the topic will differ.

How do I identify the different perspectives and positions held by stakeholders?

A stakeholder’s perspective or position is based upon the stakeholder’s relationship to the situation. That relationship can be captured by asking questions about power, support, influence, and need in the context of the situation that the stakeholder has an interest in.

  • Power—How much decision-making authority does the stakeholder have over the situation?
  • Support—How strongly is the stakeholder for or against the idea?
  • Influence—How much ability does the stakeholder have to affect the decisions made by other people?
  • Need—For the stakeholder to benefit, what does she need to have happen (or not happen) in the situation?

Be sure to look for interests and perspectives that may be shared by different stakeholders, and be certain that you do not automatically side with the stakeholders who have the most power and influence. If you gravitate toward the parties with the most power and influence, you may end up ignoring the individuals or groups with the most need, the ones who may be badly hurt by an unethical decision.

How can I research stakeholder positions?

When you research an issue, look beyond yes/no, pro/con arguments in order to see the people involved in the situation. Remember that often there are more than the oversimplified ‘two sides’, so be open to identifying more than two stakeholders.

Make a list of the individuals and groups who affect or are affected by the issue. Add to the list as your research uncovers additional aspects of the situation that bring in additional stakeholders.

Analyze the positions held by each stakeholder, looking in-depth at their involvement. Go to the Appendix for a list of possible questions to research.

How do I identify the ethical actor?

Within that set of stakeholders, identify which is the one (or ones) in a position to take action. It could be an individual, a group, or an institution. Those are the ethical actors, who will exercise the decision related to the ethical situation.

The ethical actor may be you, but it’s also probable in this class that you will research case studies of ethical situations in the wider world. In such assignments, focus your attention on the people and entities that can and need to take action in order for this situation to be resolved. Avoid ‘victim blaming’- looking at stakeholders and condemning them for getting themselves into the current situation, or trying to rewrite history so that the situation wouldn’t exist. Concentrate on the facts of the case as they relate to the decision making process.

How can I use critical thinking in this process?

How can a person decide whether a certain act is ethical without being influenced by his biases? The thoughtful development of criteria is one method to keep biases from having an excessive influence on the group’s decision-making process. Criteria are carefully considered, objective principles that can be applied to a situation in order to reach measured conclusions.

What are criteria?

Criteria are the standards you apply to develop and evaluation whether a solution to a problem is ‘good’ or ‘right’. People apply criteria to solve both ethical and non-ethical problems.

Criteria need to be specific and measurable in some fashion to allow them to be used to judge whether a solution is likely to successfully address a problem. See the Appendix for more information on criteria.

How do I identify possible actions?

When you have identified who can act and what criteria is essential, you can now brainstorm options for actions. You can use the major ethical perspectives to help you:

  • What action would result in the best results?
  • What action would respect stakeholders’ rights?
  • What action would respect the ethical actor’s obligations?
  • What action would lead the ethical actor to being a virtuous person or organization?
  • What action gives extra consideration to those who are vulnerable?

If this is a professional situation, you should also check to see if there are any codes of conduct to consult.

If you think of other actions, apply the different ethical perspectives to them to see if they are ethical.

How do I evaluate the possible options?

Sometimes all the theories point to the same action, but usually there are differences. At this point, you need to consider the specific situation and the context of the ethical actor. Which perspective is most appropriate given these circumstances?

For example, there is a limited amount of medication available for a very infectious disease. How do you decide who receives the medication?

  • If the ethical actor is a government official deciding on a policy, one would probably turn to utilitarianism: what would be the best result for the most number of people?
  • If the ethical actor is a physician, she may turn to deontology: what are her professional obligations?
  • If the ethical actor is the mother of a sick child, she may give up her dose to save the baby ( virtue ethics, would ask what a virtuous person would do”)*

Deontology is a universal ethical theory that considers whether an action itself is right or wrong. Deontologists argue that you can never know what the results will be so it doesn’t make sense to decide whether something is ethical based on outcomes.

Utilitarianism is a specific type of consequentialism that focuses on the greatest good for the greatest number. After you identify your options for action, you ask who will benefit and who will be harmed by each. The ethical action would be the one that caused the greatest good for the most people, or the least harm to the least number.

Thinkers who embrace virtue ethics emphasize that the sort of person we choose to be constitutes the heart of our ethical being. If you want to behave virtuously, become a virtuous person. Certain traits—for instance, honesty, compassion, generosity, courage—seem to be universally admired. These strengths of character are virtues. To acquire these virtues, follow the example of persons who possess them. Once acquired, these virtues may be trusted to guide our decisions about how to act, even in difficult situations.

What else should I consider before acting?

You should do a critical thinking check to make sure you are not falling into any fallacious thinking or rationalizations to justify an option that is selfish or otherwise unethical. Would you be okay with your decision being widely known and associated with you?

Am I done after acting?

No. It’s essential to examine how the decision turned out and consider what lessons you may have learned from it.

So, what is the difference between a moral and a nonmoral claim?

When thinking about a moral claim versus a nonmoral claim, it is important to recognize that the word “nonmoral” is not the same as “immoral.”

  • Immoral can be defined as something that does not conform to standards of morality.
  • Nonmoral can be defined as something that does not possess characteristics of or fall into the realm of morals and ethics.

For example, telling a lie can be considered immoral.  And “it is wrong to lie” can be considered a moral claim.

When asked to offer an example of a moral and a nonmoral claim, it is important to recognize that a claim is a statement where you are asserting something you believe is the case.

  • “Abortion is wrong because it involves the killing of a human being” would be a moral claim.
  • “Red lipstick is the right color for you” would be an example of a nonmoral claim.
  • WHY? There is nothing about the claim that “red lipstick is the right color for you” which relates to morals or ethics. The claim conveys a belief, but not an ethical or moral belief.
  • The claim “abortion is wrong because it involves the killing of a human being,” is an ethical or moral belief supported by the stance that abortion is killing/taking the life of a human being.


*A slight modification from the original text includes addition of thought-provoking question related to virtue ethics, and the addition of “So, what is the difference between a moral and a nonmoral claim?”.


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This work (Distinguishing Between Moral & Nonmoral Claims by Radford University, Radford University Core Handbook, https://lcubbison.pressbooks.com/ and Deborah Holt, BS, MA) is free of known copyright restrictions.

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