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Why be moral?


To: Gordon F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 7 November 2006 12:40

Dear Gordon,

Thank you for your email of 28 October, with your essay for units 7-9 of Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

The title of the essay is deliberately ambiguous between, 'Why are people moral?' and 'Why should be people be moral?', or, more particularly, 'Why am I moral?' and 'Why should I be moral?'

I was very glad to get a glimpse into your life and your motivation for taking an interest in this topic. I had a look at your web site (thank you for the link to Pathways!). Although I mentored a student for the Associate Award, Mary Jennings who wrote two of her essays on Heidegger ( I find the topic of Heidegger very difficult. But I will go back when I have time and look at your article.

You express scepticism about the prospect of trying to 'justify morality in the way one justifies saying that a mathematical theorem is true'. However, there are two aspects to this question - which you might appreciate given your interest in existentialism. The first aspect is completely general and (unless you believe in the possibility of deriving all morality from Kant's Categorical imperative) leaves open the question, 'Why do A?' or 'Why do B?' where A and B purport to describe actions which are 'moral'. As I would express this, the general question is, 'Why should others count in my deliberations?'

Some would regard this as begging the question whether there are moral duties one owes to oneself (as Kant believed). For example, Kant gives as an example of the categorical imperative, 'You ought to develop your natural talents.' But I wonder whether this is in fact, a purely self-regarding question.

Leaving that aside, I argue in the Moral Philosophy program that no particular moral rules can be derived from general proposition, 'Others should count in my deliberations.'

(My argument for the general proposition is based on a two stage critique of the theory of solipsism, leading to a recognition of the necessary asymmetry between 'I' and the 'other', where recognition of the claims of the other becomes the basis for there being a 'world' for me.)

In the light of this, I would question whether, in fact, you 'decided' to be moral, as such. In a similar way I would question whether anyone decides not to be moral as such.

What you decided was to do, A, B and C (e.g. not lie, not steal, not murder). However, if you had had the opportunity to decide whether or not to do D (which some regard as immoral) you might have said, 'D is OK, I don't see anything wrong with it.' On pain of being a hypocrite, it could be argued you ought to allow others to do D also. I'm not so sure about this, however.

What I am trying to say is that you were already 'moral' when you made the decision. You were prepared to allow others to count in your deliberations. But that still left open a number of different possible future lives. One set of possibilities was what we would describe as the 'moral life', while the other set was not. A third set was maybe on the borderline.

Suppose you had decided on a life of crime. That is not so bad. Four of my Pathways students are - more or less deservedly - behind bars (one is undeservedly on death row in San Quentin). Most criminals are not evil. 'There is honour amongst thieves.' This is not the same as 'deciding not to be moral' in my sense, i.e. never allowing others to count in one's deliberations. In other words, deciding to behave like a psychopath.

Behaving like a psychopath is only possible for a psychopath. For anyone else, even the hardened criminal, there are circumstances which will motivate him/ her to take the interests of another into account.

Hume famously argued that the basis for morality was a sentiment, the feeling of 'natural sympathy'. This would be consistent with your view that some people are naturally inclined to be moral while others are not. Whether this is actually from birth is a moot question, but there is plenty of evidence that some people find it easy to decide to be moral, upright citizens while others just as easily embrace a life of crime, and this tendency seems to be apparent at quite an early age. The ones who go for the life of crime have some 'natural sympathy', if only in an attenuated form.

So, why be moral? I don't think that the question is that easy. I would put it this way. Consider the Godfather, 'I'll make him an offer he can't refuse.' Most people are lucky never to have been made this offer (it has never been made to me). But with a little imagination you can ramp up the example sufficiently to make most 'moral' people question whether on this occasion being moral carried too high a price. But a moral outlook which allows you to opt out when the going gets too tough is not truly 'moral'.

It is in the face of examples like these, that I believe that only a logical argument is a sufficient basis for morality.

All the best,