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Why be moral?


To: Howard D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 4 February 2002 14:14

Dear Howard,

Thank you for your e-mail of 23 January, with your second essay for the Introduction to Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why be moral?'

I found your essay on scepticism very helpful in stimulating my own ideas. A week ago last Friday, I gave my talk at University College School on the topic 'Sceptical Arguments'. A revised version of the handout can be found on the Glass House Philosopher site, at:

By pure coincidence, my next assignment is a paper for the Shap Conference towards the end of February, which this year is looking at the question, 'Is Morality an Illusion?'

The title of my as yet unwritten paper is 'In Pursuit of the Amoralist'.

Why be moral?

It is not a bad idea to start off, as you do in Part I, defining what it is to 'be' moral. You say, being moral involves certain thoughts, certain actions and certain feelings. An individual can have a 'morality' or set of moral beliefs and so can a community.

The obvious problem with this is that it would serve just as well for a definition of immorality. What *is* the moral, as opposed to the immoral, thing to think, do or feel? To be 'moral' cannot mean merely to accord with a given code of conduct, without any reference to the content or purpose of that code.

If you say that the purpose of a moral code is to enable society to function effectively, then you have still not distinguished a moral code from Conan the Warrior's "Destroy your enemy. Watch them flee before you. And hear the wailing of the women!"

This takes us to the second Part of your essay.

Different moral philosophies have addressed the question, Why be moral? and also the question, What is the morally best action in a given set of circumstances? Now these are two different questions. If we are looking for a reason to persuade us to be moral rather than immoral, then we want to be told, not only that this action rather than that action would be the "moral" thing to do, but also why we should choose the moral, or more moral option, so defined, from the two alternatives.

Arguably, the 'natural law' theory and 'categorical imperative' theories do offer a rational argument why one should choose the moral option. However, in your essay you give little indication in either case of how the argument against the moral sceptic would go, or what it would appeal to. The third theory, utilitarianism, was notoriously defended by Mill on the grounds that each of us seeks our own happiness, 'therefore, each should seek the happiness of all'. In defence of Mill's essay, 'On Utilitarianism', it could be said that he is only concerned with how one decides what is the moral thing to do, assuming that the reader already has a stake in morality.

So where do we go from here?

I do accept that ethics is 'situational' in the strong sense that each of us, on each occasion, has to decide the morally right action taking everything into account. So there will be, as you say, occasions when the morally right thing to do is go against the moral views of the community. But this begs the question of what principle decides 'right' or 'wrong' here.

I also believe that it is not acceptable to say that morality is a ultimately matter of subjective attitude or free choice, which cannot be given any deeper foundation.

In other words I disagree with Kant about the role of moral laws. It is impossible to formulate moral laws, because each situation is unique. But I agree that morality must have a logical basis in the nature of rationality itself, so that failure to recognize the claims of morality is a failure of rationality, and not just an example of having attitudes that differ from the attitudes 'we' happen to hold.

In the Moral Philosophy program, I propose the following principle as definitive of morality: "Every individual counts for something and not nothing". In other words, whether we take another individual's interests into account when we act does not depend on how we happen to feel about that individual, but simply and purely on the fact that as an individual they are an 'end in themself' in Kant's terms. A warrior or Nazi code that said, "Some individuals count for something, while others do not" would not qualify as a morality by this definition.

The question is how one proves this. It is impossible in a relatively small space to justice to the argument against the amoralist. The idea is that the amoralist assumes something - that there is such a thing as a factual judgement's being true or false - which they have no right to assume if they also adopt the principle, "Only my needs count."

The second step involves showing why it is irrational to allow some people to "count" and not others. There is no legitimate basis, I argue, for making such a momentous distinction.

It follows that moral scepticism entails scepticism about the very existence of truth as such. All that remains for the amoralist is their own private 'dream'.

- Wish me luck!

All the best,