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Why be moral?


To: Namet I.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 22 January 2008 14:30

Dear Namet,

Thank you for your email of 9 January, with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

This question is capable of more than one interpretation: it invites you to consider why, in fact, persons are moral -- i.e. what is it that motivates them to perform moral actions -- or the question can be considered as a challenge: 'Why should *I* be moral?'

By the end of the essay, it was becoming clear that your primary concern was the second question, rather than the first. Thus you come to the (correct, in my opinion) view that the first three reasons for being moral -- that it is necessary for the stability of society, that God commands it, and that moral behaviour leads to happiness -- all fall under the heading of hypothetical imperatives which appeal to given desires, while the fourth, Kantian reason is the only one which does not appeal to given desires.

1. Suppose I accept the claim that society will perish if people are not moral. There are, as you point out, problems with defining 'moral' as 'that which is necessary and sufficient for the stability of society'. A dictatorship can be very stable.

I wondered whether there might be a better example than your island of homosexuals, of a scenario where a society perishes as a consequence of being moral. We want a case where society perishes as a result of a decision to be moral, rather than to do an immoral act.

However, leaving those issues aside, it is clear that the individual who asks, 'Why should I be moral?' is not going to be satisfied with any argument which establishes that it is necessary for 'people' to be moral. That merely gives the amoralist reasons for wishing that other persons will be moral, but no incentive to follow suit.

2. There is a radical theological view according to which 'God' is, in effect, a synonym for 'the Good'. The main point of religious practices is to affirm our commitment to the Good. The claim would then be that it is, in some sense, a requirement for having a meaningful life that one's attitude to the world is not merely functional or exploitative but contains at least an element of the 'religious'. There must be something in your world, the person advocating morality might argue, that has 'sanctity'.

The problem with this is that it still relies on a disguised hypothetical imperative. It seems wrong to assume, a priori, that the life of an amoralist cannot be meaningful. This is begging the question, assuming the thing that is to be proved.

3. There is an unclarity in your account of happiness. You seem to be confounding two rather different arguments: the Platonic/ Aristotelian view that morality is necessary for happiness, and the utilitarian theory that the morally right action (for someone who *is* convinced of the necessity for being moral) is the one which leads to the 'greatest happiness of the greatest number'.

The first view is the one that should be considered as a candidate reason for being moral. As you point out, it assumes something which arguably is contingent, not necessary. And in any case, it relies on a hypothetical imperative, 'If you want to be happy then....'.

4. You say, 'an example of comparative imperative is the Golden Rule'. I don't know whether you mean to say 'categorical imperative' or whether you meant that the Golden Rule is close to being a version of Kant's categorical imperative.

In 'Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals', Kant in fact criticizes the golden rule at one point, arguing that it does not suffice to capture the essence of the categorical imperative but is merely a disguised hypothetical imperative, 'If you want people to treat you as you would like to be treated then you should treat them as they would wish to be treated.' -- Maybe Kant is being a bit unfair here.

The problem of conflicting imperatives has been advanced as an objection generally to 'deontic' theories of ethics. The standard response is to talk of 'prima facie' duties (e.g. as in Ross). It is a prima facie duty not to lie, and a prima facie duty not to steal. In the event of these two duties clashing in a particular case, there would be an 'all things considered' duty to do X, whatever X may be, taking into account the circumstances of that case.

Kant seems to have believed that a complete and careful formulation of our moral duties would not lead to conflict, although it is not clear what his reasons were. The formula, 'Act as a lawmaking member of the kingdom of ends', which is the final formulation of the categorical imperative, implies that we formulate the categorical imperative in the light of all the imperatives that guide our conduct, so the situation would be analogous to a state formulating laws which are not inconsistent.

Alternatively, it could be argued that Kant, unlike the deontologist, is not seeking to establish general moral laws but rather offering a formula which ONLY applies to a particular case. So, in the case of the would be axe-murderer, the maxim to be considered is, 'Is it acceptable to lie to a would-be axe-murderer in pursuit his victim?', and his answer is, 'No'. He is not arguing that lying is wrong, therefore it is wrong to lie to the would-be axe-murderer, but rather, arguing directly that it is wrong *in this case* -- which is not an easy thing to prove, as you observe.

All the best,