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Why be moral?


To: Mark H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 15 October 2007 13:13

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 5 October, with the revised version of your essay for the Associate Award, 'Why be Moral?'

This time, you have kept to the topic very well. It is clear what you are setting out to show, and what your arguments are. The essay is well structured and readable.

In terms of the Associate, this might be enough to satisfy the Board. However, there are issues that I would like to raise. I leave it to you to decide what changes, if any, are needed before you submit your essay portfolio.

The first issue concerns the question of 'standards of proof'. I fully agree with you and Aristotle that one does not expect an answer to the question why one ought to be moral to have mathematical rigour. However, there is a significant distance between the different kinds of proofs offered by someone who takes Kant's (and my) view that morality is part of rationality, and someone who takes Aristotle's view that morality is (as a hypothetical imperative) necessary for the 'good life'.

My argument for morality would be that one must recognize the claims of others, on pain of giving up the notions of an objective world and of truth. Suppose that the would-be amoralist accepted the argument. The amoralist could still embrace the conclusion that an 'objective world' and 'truth' were worth giving up. These notions are just abstractions, whereas the benefits one gains from giving up morality are palpable.

As philosophers who understand what is meant by giving up such notions, we can 'see' where the amoralist goes wrong, even though our arguments fall on deaf ears. (I am overlooking for the moment the fact that this claim would itself be debated by philosophers.)

Contrast now the argument you would give. One must recognize the claims of others, because the sense of friendship and solidarity and the emotions that these involve are a necessary psychological condition for human well-being. In order to resist the argument, the amoralist need not dispute any philosophical claim. All the amoralist needs to say is, 'I don't feel the emotions that you allege other persons feel. I am perfectly content doing what I do.'

I got the distinct impression from reading your essay, that you thought that the acceptance that the standard of proof is not mathematically rigorous is equivalent to giving up the idea that morality is part of rationality or the idea of a 'categorical imperative'. However, as you can see from above, this does not seem to be the case. The fact that there is no way to compel a person to be moral through argument does not point either way. Both the 'objectivist' and 'subjectivist' have to accept reduced standards of 'proof', albeit for different reasons.

The second issue concerns the considerations that you give, in the spirit of an Aristotelian/ Platonic argument why, e.g. one would choose to be moral, even if one was guaranteed immunity against punishment or being found out.

It is agreed that not everyone is capable of being 'reached' by such an argument. However, both Plato and Aristotle make an attempt to show the necessity for friendship and solidarity. I would have liked to have seen a more extended discussion, e.g. of why friendship matters. Your view seems to differ from Plato and Aristotle in that you accept the desire for friendship and solidarity as a purely contingent 'given'. It is just a fact that certain emotions are aroused in the brain when we do certain things. This seems to me to be giving up too much. The 'meat' of this essay ought to be a persuasive account of why these things are important, why, in other words, the life of the amoralist would be necessarily impoverished and not something that any clear thinking person would want. That is what Plato and Aristotle believed.

What is so bad about being an amoralist? One can try to describe a coherent 'life plan' for someone who has no interest in anyone except as a means to one's own end. What is worth wanting, and why? What projects are worth pursuing? What kinds of things give pleasure? You will have succeeded in the stated aim of your essay if you can get the reader to see what is wrong with that idea, that is to say, if you can at least make the view credible that a principled amoralist, one cannot have a coherent life plan, one can only live 'for the moment'.

All the best,