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Why be moral?


To: Andy R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 12th February 2010 12:59

Dear Andy,

Thank you for your email of 3 February, with your third essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

You start off by describing morality as a 'theory' which offers a 'universal' and 'naturalistic' response to questions of behaviour and value.

This is quite a claim in itself:

A 'theory' would normally be understood as a consistent system of moral rules or laws, which one uses in order to make a moral judgement in a particular case (i.e. you see what rules or laws apply, how the individual case fits the theory). As you go on to talk about Sartrean or existentialist ethics, I'm not sure that this is what you believe. Existentialist ethics takes particularist view of every moral challenge: each situation is unique, so there is no general moral recipe for being good.

The claim that morality is 'universal' is also contentious. Here, you make a rather surprising leap from Sartre to Kant, and the idea that moral judgements are universalisable. But what, exactly, are we universalising, given the uniqueness of every situation? Let's say that you decide to tell a lie to one of your lecturers in order to get yourself out of a difficult situation where you promised something you could not deliver. (The classic case: 'The dog ate my homework.') You tell yourself that this is morally justifiable when ALL the circumstances are taken into account, even though lying is prima facie wrong. (Kant would of course reject this outright, but we are not being Kantian about this.)

It is trivial to make your judgement consistent with the principle of universalisability, simply by including every single detail. If ever the exact circumstances were repeated, then the same action would be morally right. By the same token, you do not have to allow that it would be right for your lecturer to lie to you, because the circumstances are different.

Is morality 'naturalistic'? That's one of the big debates in ethics. G.E. Moore is famous for his contribution to this debate: the 'naturalistic fallacy' is the idea that you can define what is good, or a morally right action, in terms of empirical (natural) facts. Existentialist and Kantian ethics are both non-naturalistic, because they recognize that from a given factual description, one cannot deduce what is the right thing to do. That effectively sets the problem of 'Why be moral?' Hume started it all with his famous example, ''Tis not against reason that I should prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.'

Well, does existentialism have a sufficient answer to the question, 'Why be moral?' Why couldn't Hitler be 'moral', on the existentialist view, provided that he was consistent in applying his 'moral' beliefs? This is not a pointless speculation given that the existentialist Heidegger was a member of the Nazi party, accepting a professorship while his Jewish colleagues were being removed from their posts.

To bring this down to more practical questions, consider how one responds, e.g., to a destitute beggar in the street. Some people take the view, 'There but for the grace of God go I' and drop a few pennies in the hat. In other words, the universalised proposition is, 'When someone is destitute and begs for money, they ought to be given some.' In that way, should you ever find yourself in the position of the beggar, you could accept money from passers by with a clear conscience. 'Do as you would be done by.'

On the other hand, suppose that you are strongly opposed to begging, and brusquely walk on without turning your head. If challenged on your behaviour, you would say, 'I would expect the same treatment if I were in his position.' In other words, on a point of universal principle, you think begging is wrong, whether someone else does it or you do it.

OK, you will say, people do have different ethical views. All that matters is that you are consistent, i.e. are prepared to 'universalise'. But we have already seen that there are no limits to how one frames the 'universal' propositions in question, in other words, no limits to what you can (permit yourself to) do, while formally satisfying the requirement for 'being moral'.

There is a great short book by Iris Murdoch, 'The Sovereignty of Good' which tackles the existentialist view, arguing for the need for a more Platonic view of moral values, which I can strongly recommend. Murdoch traces the connection between existentialism and English-speaking moral philosophers such as R.M. Hare who make universalisability the central feature of their account of ethics. (Murdoch later wrote a much longer book, 'Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals', which is a lot harder going.)

All the best,