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Why be moral?


To: David S.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 27 October 2004 13:38

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 15 October, with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

You've had a really good go at this.

It might have helped if you'd made it a bit clearer who is asking the question. You mention 'the immoral person', as well as the nihilist and the psychopath. So, one construal of the question would be, 'What arguments would be sufficient to convince someone who had no prior stake in morality, no moral feelings or intuitions?' This of course implies that the individual in question is capable of reason, but dropping that requirement would set a pretty hopeless task.

You and I are gripped by the question because we can reason. We have moral feelings and intuitions, we have a stake in morality (we benefit from living in a moral society etc.) yet all those things combined do not suffice as a compelling reason to be moral in *any possible case*, regardless of the cost of being moral, or the benefits of being immoral.

That is the challenge. Now let's look at cases.

Your account of Hobbes is a bit shaky. It is crucial to his argument that it is directed to the individual. Why should *I* be moral? The mere fact that society requires moral rules might explain why one society survived and another society failed to survive. However, the argument, directed towards the individual, 'If you want society to survive, then be moral', presupposes a moral interest - in the survival of society.

Hobbes' absolute monarch is the absolutely central point of his system. It is because of the (alleged) impossibility of appealing to the 'group interest' in trying to persuade a group of people to maintain an agreement (e.g. not to hunt whales, not to increase C02 emissions) that Hobbes argues that the only stable political system, the only system that solves the 'prisoners dilemma', is a monarchy.

So, from a Hobbesian perspective, we must ask, not, 'Why would it be good for a society to have a monarch?', but rather, 'Why should I obey the monarch?' There may be strong self-interested reasons, but these reasons are not compelling to everyone, all of the time. That is the problem which Hobbes' theory does not solve.

You say, 'It would be good to agree with Socrates and Mill... that the "good life" includes an essential moral component. Some such as Kant tried to show that this was true from a-priori principles.' - I don't think this is right about Kant. Kant's distinction between 'hypothetical' and 'categorical' imperatives is the essential point. A categorical imperative is 'a priori' in the sense that it does not presuppose any prior interest. Arguments of the form, 'If you want to live the good life then you should be moral' appeal to a hypothetical imperative. It is always open to the amoralist to say, 'I don't want to live the "good life" in your sense.' If, on the other hand, Kant's a priori notion of the good life is just a life where one always follows the categorical imperative, 'Act on the maxim that you would will to be a universal law', then the appeal is not to a life one finds 'a priori desirable' (whatever that would mean) but rather to reason itself. If you are rational, then you have to agree with me, Kant thinks. To be rational is to be moral.

If we fail to find that claim persuasive, then, as you say, the alternative would be some sort of demonstration that other persons demand, - or command - respect. Why should recognizing that other persons exist, or recognizing that I am just one person amongst many persons, logically or rationally entail that I act morally towards them? Where's the link?

I will try to show in this program that a link can be demonstrated. - A tall order, you might think!

Alluding to the Lascaux cave drawings, your answer, finally, is that 'Humanity excels at finding the meaning in perception and recognizing the value of that meaning. Morality is about discovering what it means to be a person other than oneself and about recognizing the unique value contained in that meaning.'

- In other words, ethics is founded on aesthetics? would that be fair?

The view that all values are ultimately aesthetic values goes back to Nietzsche, who agrees with you, at some level, that our conduct towards others depends upon our 'recognition of a value'. The problem is that Nietzsche rejects the idea - essential to any recognizably 'moral' view - that every person is necessarily equal in deserving our respect. In Nietzsche's world, we owe respect to *our* equals, not to those beneath us.

All the best,