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Why be moral?


To: Lillian K.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 11th March 2009

Dear Lillian,

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

The question, 'Why be moral?' is admittedly vague, because one could either be asking, 'Why, in fact, are human beings moral (when they are)?' or, 'Why should a person be moral?' (or, more pertinently, 'Why should I be moral?').

I agree that the question of the definition of morality is relevant. If your idea of morality entails being teetotal and always going to bed before 10 pm then I have every right to question whether I should be 'moral'. The question, 'by whose definition' does indeed become crucial when, as you say, we consider the political dimension.

However, the main challenge -- as addressed in the program which you are currently taking -- is why we should do any action for a moral reason. You describe yourself as a person who believes in 'individual morality'. One can argue over what is or isn't 'moral' but there are certain things which no-one could endorse.

But why? This isn't a question about your upbringing or the kind of person you are, but rather about reasons which can be given to someone who lacks these endowments. That might seem a very strange question -- almost bordering on science fiction An alien comes to earth from a planet where aliens get on perfectly well without morality. It's a tough place, to be sure, but you learn to stay alert and well armed at all times. The alien world is ruled by despots. Misery and suffering are the lot of the many who are not strong enough to defend or assert themselves.

What are these aliens missing? Are they missing the opportunity to live an Aristotelian 'good life'? That would be one possible approach. The problem is that the aliens you are likely to meet in the street or the marketplace would laugh in your face. They lead a 'good life' all right. As for the poor disgusting unfortunates denied a good life, who cares about them?

As you would probably begin to suspect this point, the description is not so far off being a description of our world.

My starting point for a definition of 'moral' would be the Jewish injunction to always take care of 'the widow and the orphan'. The basic starting point is 'responsibility'. To see that leading the good life entails responsibility is by no means an easy thing to do. I personally don't think the argument works. So much the worse for Aristotle.

The alternative approach would be to argue that the individual who fails behave responsibly towards others (in the sense I have described) is missing something which is there to be seen, an objective fact or truth, a claim of reason. Kant believed this (hence, the 'categorical imperative'). And so do I, in a way.

The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas -- arguably one of the most important 20th century philosophers -- held that metaphysics in fact requires ethics, the recognition of one's responsibility towards 'the other' as a starting point. Metaphysics without ethics -- the untrammelled worship of 'reason' -- was the recipe which led to the concentration camps. This turns the Kantian project upside down: not a metaphysical basis for ethics, but an ethical basis for metaphysics.

However, I am not so ready to give up on reason. In my view, someone who attempted to embark on the project of being an amoralist -- refusing to acknowledge any moral claim whatsoever -- is in fact denying the very thing that makes it possible to believe in a world outside one's own conscious existence, a world of facts and truths which are not made by me.

The view that 'the world is my world' and that 'truth is my truth' is the theory of solipsism. Solipsism has long since been a scandal in philosophical circles -- no serious philosopher would own up to being a solipsist. Yet (as I will argue) the solution is not to embrace a philosophical view in which we are all ultimately 'the same'. I am not 'the same' as anyone else. Each person is an 'I' confronting a world which is 'not-I'. The very uniqueness of the human predicament points to the need for a philosophy which recognizes (as indeed Levinas does) the 'absolute otherness' of the other as the only possible basis for their ethical inviolability.

All the best,