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Why be moral?


To: Harry D.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 10 March 2005 11:53

Dear Harry,

Thank you for your email of 3 March, with your third essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

You have taken this question in exactly the way that I intended it, as a question concerning the justification for choosing to be moral (rather than as a question concerning the factual explanation of why human beings tend to be moral rather than immoral.) However, this idea of 'choosing to be moral' can still be understood in different ways. One can ask, 'When faced with the choice on a particular occasion between acting morally or not, why should I choose to act morally?' Or one can ask, 'Why should morality concern me at all, or at any time?'

There is an answer to the first question, which ought to be sufficient. When faced with a choice on a particular occasion, I do what I conceive to be right according to my moral view. The articulation of that moral view, into duties, prohibitions etc justifies - in the only sense in which talk of 'justification' makes any sense - the particular moral decision which I make. It is the second question, why be moral at all, or at any time which leaves one speechless.

As you recognize, the problem becomes particularly acute if one adopts a subjectivist account of ethics, according to which my judgement that to do A would be 'moral', whereas to do not-A would be 'immoral' is based purely on my own subjective attitudes. There is nothing in reality which the judgement corresponds to, in the way that 'This is a tree' corresponds to a tree existing out there which I perceive.

Why should I obey a law which exists purely in my own mind? What could 'obey' even mean here? Let's suppose that before I open the front door, I always switch the hall light on and off six times. You ask me, 'Why do you do that?' and all I can answer is, 'I just feel I have to'. What I have told you is not an 'explanation', but rather evidence of my obsessional neurosis.

Yet when we help the old lady who has fallen in the street, that is exactly what we feel: 'I just have to.' What is the difference?

As you observe, Aristotle has something to say here. The best way to make the case for Aristotle in the context of a subjectivist view of morals is to imagine that we could have the choice between different lives that we might lead, or different persons we might become. When comparing the moral life to the life of the person who rejects morality, we see, from our subjective point of view, that the moral life is 'better' in all sorts of ways.

Kant strongly repudiated a subjectivist view. For Kant, the ultimate ground of morality is not in our subjective attitudes, nor in 'facts' existing out there (like the tree) but in the basic structure of human reason itself. Kant argued that there is an inherent 'contradiction' in any intention towards an immoral act. So we can be immoral only at the cost of being irrational. Of course the big question now is how one establishes this claim. It is not at all easy to see how one could prove (rather than just stipulate) that morality is equivalent to rationality.

Now you say something about Kant which I do not altogether agree with. 'Kant argued that it was the painfulness of doing good that is the real mark of virtue.' What Kant actually said was that it can be very hard to discover the true motivation for a person's actions. For example, if you visit your ageing Aunt in hospital because you love her, that is not a moral choice according to Kant. However, it may very well be the case that you would have visited her out of duty even if she had been an unpleasant old hag whom you never got along with. So it is possible that when you visit your aunt you are in fact acting for a moral reason, even though it is very difficult for others, or even you yourself, to discern this. (However, your actions in other circumstances might give the clue to your true motivations.)

You make two claims at the end which did not seem to quite fit what you said before. 'Human conditioning has evolved to universal awareness of a concept of right and wrong,' and 'We act morally because the consequences of not acting in a moral [way] would result in a worsening of the human condition.'

There is a theory popular in some quarters that morality is based on evolution. We ought to behave in the way that evolution has programmed us to behave. The problem with this is that it is not at all clear that this entails being moral, as opposed to obeying the rule 'you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours'.

If I am asking the question, 'Why be moral?' the fact that my not being moral would result in a 'worsening of the human condition' would only concern me if I already had a stake in morality. As an amoral man, I might be quite content to see a worsening of the condition of all human beings apart from myself.

All the best,