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Why be moral?


To: Bendson C.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 17 May 2006 12:22

Dear Bendson,

Thank you for your email of 4 May with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

To complete the Moral Philosophy program, students normally write five essays, one for each group of three units, selecting one of the essay questions from the sheet which accompanies each third unit. However, there is nothing to stop you choosing your own essay titles if you prefer.

The question, 'Why be moral?' is deliberately vague ('Why should be moral?' is not good English) because I wanted to highlight different kinds of response: 'Why, as a matter of fact, are humans motivated to act morally?', and 'Why, irrespective of what motivates human beings to be moral, should I be moral?'

The question, 'Why should I be moral?', which you correctly identify as the crucial question, is not necessarily a request for reasons to be moral (I will take you up on this in a minute). There is an alternative way to persuade someone to be moral which involves 'working' on them, appealing to their emotions.

The question of reason and emotion is a complex one. I fully agree with the criticism which is often levelled at Kant's moral theory, that it is not the case that we regard action done out of moral duty as the only truly 'moral' action. On the contrary, it could be argued that it is more praiseworthy, from a moral point of view, e.g. if I visit my sick aunt in hospital out of a sense of sympathy, than if my motivation is purely from a cold sense of duty.

However, I also have some sympathy for Kant, who believed that it ought not to be a matter of fate or luck whether a person is moral or not. A man with a naturally cold temperament, who is not 'moved' by the suffering of others is surely capable of being moral. (The 'misfortune of a stepmotherly nature' I think Kant calls it.) At the same time we do feel that it is legitimate to criticize someone for the way they feel.

Moral judgement involves emotions because these guide us to what is relevant or important, enabling us to 'see' aspects of the situation which we would otherwise not have seen. So I don't accept that a rigid distinction can be made.

Every judgement, everything we do, is potentially justifiable by citing a 'reason'. This reason can be self-interested (as in, 'I was hungry') or moral (as in, 'he was hungry'). So the crucial question is why should moral reasons take priority?

I am not persuaded by your arguments against the possibility of answering that question with a rational argument, a reasoned response to the question, 'Why should I be moral?'

First, it doesn't follow from the fact that a person acts 'rationally', that they must be morally rational. It is possible to be rational and irrational, to act rationally with respect to one set of considerations (the most efficient means of killing human beings) and irrationally in respect of other considerations (whether it is right to kill a human being).

But shouldn't we expect a reason, if it is a compelling reason, to be capable of being appreciated by any rational person? Again, I don't agree. The fact that you are not able to accept my proof of Pythagoras' theorem does not cast doubt on the credentials of that proof.

I am fully aware, that there are many philosophers who would agree with your position. I am merely responding to your arguments.

In the moral philosophy program I give an argument which claims to establish an 'objective' basis for moral conduct, in my recognition of 'the other'. The cost of failing to recognize the claims of the other is a world without 'truth', where other persons are merely characters in the story of my solipsistic dream world. Now this is a 'metaphysical' argument which would probably make little impression on Pol Pot's prison guards. But why should that be relevant in deciding whether the argument is valid or not?

However, strong support for your view comes from the Fellowship dissertation by Rachel Browne, 'Ethical Relations' which I strongly recommend you to read. The PDF file is downloadable from the Pathways Essay Archive

To fully pursue your line, that the ultimate basis for moral conduct is feeling rather than reason, one needs to have a story about 'normal' psychological functioning which implies that actions which are immoral arise from 'abnormality', from some interference in the 'natural' inclinations of human beings to care about the impact of their actions upon others.

Given your response to the question of the basis of moral motivation, the question arises about the place of rationality in ethics. Here, your position seems to be that rationality is concerned merely with (a) acting consistently and (b) determining the appropriate means to a given end. If it is feeling rather than reason that ultimately drives us to adopt a disinterested view, then we need to appeal to reason in order to decide what the disinterested view requires.

You will gather from the moral philosophy program that I don't accept the equation of morality with the disinterested view. So here, it appears that you are taking a stronger view than mine, or setting the standard for morality higher. Whereas I would argue that 'recognition of the claims of others' is consistent with preferential treatment, e.g. of friends or family, the strictly disinterested view would say that this is merely disguised 'self-interest'.

I look forward to reviewing your next essay.

All the best,