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Why be moral?


To: Ricco L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 14 June 2001 10:26

Dear Ricco,

Thank you for your e-mail of 5 June, with your third essay for Possible World Machine, 'Why be moral?'

I am pleased with this piece of work. The examples are well chosen, and you raise some difficult questions. A lot of thought has gone into writing this essay.

At the heart of your essay is your awareness of the 'dilemma' that while the members of society benefit from the fact that each chooses to be moral rather than immoral, this need not count as a compelling consideration for the individual faced with the choice, 'Shall I be moral or not?'

A similar dilemma faces nations. We would all benefit if every nation respected limits to the emission of greenhouse gases. Yet if any nation goes back on the agreement, while the others stick to the agreement, that nation stands to benefit even more. The result, however, of one nation ignoring the agreement is that the agreement breaks down, and everybody is worse off than they were before.

The immoralist would not very much like a situation where morality completely broke down, and it was every man and woman for themself. Unlike agreements negotiated between nations, however, that is not going to happen. To be immoral appears to be a rational choice, because the immoralist can count on other members of society to continue to be moral.

That disposes of one self-interested argument for being moral. Another self-interested argument, which you discuss is the idea that being moral will make us happy. That argument goes back to Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Yet there is overwhelming evidence that it just isn't true. As you say, immoral people are happy and prosper, while moral people are miserable and wretched.

I think there is an argument that can be given which shows that it is rational to be moral, and irrational to be immoral, which does not appeal to self-interest. I am not going to try to repeat that argument here. (The argument appeals to fundamental metaphysical considerations concerning the nature of truth and the relation between self and other. You will find one version of the argument in my online notebook at: .)

Your two examples - of the man who does not make an effort to save the boy from the speeding truck, and the boy who does not see what is wrong with stealing - are especially interesting because the question they raise is not only, 'Why should I be moral?' but also, 'What is moral?'

To murder is immoral, because we are depriving someone of a right to life. However, we do not therefore have a moral obligation to save every life that can be saved. Otherwise, it would be immoral not to give all that one could afford to give to famine relief. Yet, surely, in your story it was morally wrong for the man to refuse to lift a finger to save the boy.

To steal is immoral. But is it always immoral, in every case? I would question whether there can be absolute laws of morality which would never permit stealing, under any circumstances. To provide for one's family is a moral consideration which counts for something. I do not see any reason why, in principle, it should not outweigh the prohibition against stealing. The problem illustrated by your story is that in practice, you have to 'join a gang'. In other words, you throw your lot in with immorality. However, that need not be the case. For example, the story of Robin Hood and his Merry Men. These are people who do what they do, not out of self-interest, but for moral reasons.

In my view, there are moral reasons of different strengths. If I have lost my wallet, and you return my money to me, you do so for a moral reason. If I am begging in the street and you give me money, again you do so for a moral reason. Philosophers will point out that in the first case, I have a *right* to be given what is mine, whereas in the second case I have no *right* to be given charity, it is your free choice. However, I see the difference between the two cases as one of degree. There are indeed cases, for example the case of Robin Hood 'robbing the rich to give to the poor', where reasons of the second kind outweigh reasons of the first kind.

All the best,