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Why be moral?


To: Brian G.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 8 April 2001 11:20

Dear Brian,

Thank you for your e-mail of 28 March, with your first Moral Philosophy essay in response to the question, 'Why be moral?'

This is a careful, well written piece of work, which raises a number if issues.

You say that lack of a recognized framework of morals would lead to 'a complete breakdown of society'. It is in the interests, therefore, of society as a whole to have moral rules, which are recognized by members of that society. This explains why, as a matter of fact, all societies in human history have evolved moral rules (though not necessarily the same rules).

This is a factual explanation, which could be verified from research into history, human psychology and sociology. This is how human beings are, and here's the explanation.

At the same time, this factual explanation supplies a reason why we should wish our society to be one in which moral rules are recognized and generally obeyed rather than disobeyed.

Just as a way of finding an illuminating contrast, imagine that scientific research were to uncover an explanation of why human beings are naturally aggressive, why we fight one another, why we go to war. That factual explanation would be a reason for trying to change the circumstances that give rise to aggression.

Thus, the existence of an explanation of why we are moral does not, simply by virtue of that fact alone, give us a reason why we should be moral. What gives the added reason is the particular kind of explanation that it is: morality has evolved because it enables society to flourish. Whereas in our hypothetical example, aggression has evolved despite the fact that it is inimical to the flourishing of society. In the case of aggression, other overriding causes are at work.

But that is still not enough to establish the conclusion we want to establish: namely, that I have a reason to be moral. If someone is prepared to raise the question, 'Why should I be moral?' then it is not a satisfactory answer to say, 'Because morality is good for society, and you are a member of society.' I might do better, in my view, if I rely parasitically on the morality of others, while I ignore morality altogether.

Here, we have to be careful. As you point out in your essay, there are consequences that follow if we are perceived by others to be immoral. If we break the moral rules, we will be punished, ostracised. Aware of this point, Plato in the 'Republic' constructed an ingenious thought experiment, the 'Ring of Gyges'. The ring of Gyges makes one invisible. So you can commit acts of immorality with impunity. Suppose that you had such a ring. Then you would have the power to secretly defy morality, while putting on a show of being moral for the benefit of others. What reason would you then have for not defying morality, for not putting this power to immoral or criminal use?

You say, 'From a common sense viewpoint, for a rational, reasonable person, a life where morality plays a large part is vastly more preferable than a life without morals.' I totally agree with you. Plato, Aristotle agree with you. The question is whether that is enough in the face of the determined moral sceptic, who says: 'It may be preferable to you, but it doesn't seem preferable to me. You are assuming that my circumstances are the same as yours. But suppose they're not. Supposing I do not gain the same pleasure from friendship or fellowship with other human beings as you. Suppose I have the power to commit acts of immorality with complete impunity. Then what reason do I have for being moral?'

That is a challenge which I take seriously. One of the main aims of the Moral Philosophy program is to find an argument which works at a deeper level, which shows that more is at stake in recognizing the moral claims of others than merely the perceived superiority of a moral life over an immoral life. On my view, recognition of the moral claims of others is a rational, metaphysical necessity.

I fully accept that it would still not follow, even if my argument is sound, that an individual is necessarily obliged to recognize this 'rational necessity'. My aim will be merely to show that the cost is much higher. The amoralist, according to my argument - the individual who fails to recognize that there are any moral constraints on their conduct - inhabits a world of their own creation, a world where there is no truth of any kind, not even factual truth.

- A good piece of work. Well done!

All the best,