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Why be moral?


To: Willem V.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 22nd July 2010 12:25

Dear Willem,

Thank you for your email of 13 July, with your first essay for the Pathways Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

As a piece of writing, this is well structured and you express yourself articulately.

However, my concern is not primarily with the quality of writing but rather the quality of thinking. How strong a case have you made? How successfully have you unpacked the implications of the question? Does your analysis cut the topic under discussion 'at the joints' so that a clearer understanding can be obtained?

In my experience, it is difficult to write badly if the thought is clear. On the other hand, it is possible to produce work which has the appearance of being 'well written', where the thought is muddied.

The question, 'Why be moral?' is intentionally ambiguous, allowing different possible interpretations. For the purposes of a short essay, it is not necessary to explain them all, provided that you state clearly how you interpret the question.

You start off by making a distinction between two readings of, 'Why be....?'. On the first reading, one is looking for something that compels: 'What is it that forces us to be moral from which there is no escape?' On the second, alternate reading, one is looking for reasons why one might prefer being moral to not being moral, in a less compelling sense which you illustrate with the example of loving music.

I have two problems with this. First, it is not clear from what you say what the idea of being 'forced' means. If I construct a logically valid argument from premisses A, B, C to conclusion D, then one can say that anyone who accepts A, B, C is rationally forced to accept D. It doesn't follow that they will accept D because they may not be very good at following a logical argument. On the other hand, there are things which we feel psychologically compelled to do, because it is in our nature. I cannot help but feel sympathy for another human being in distress -- a point which David Hume emphasized. There is no logically compelling argument why I 'ought' to feel sympathy, I just do.

But this takes us to the second issue. As a music lover, can you imagine *choosing* whether to love music or not? You can choose to switch the radio on or off, or whether or not to go to the concert, but the things we love, the things that move us are experienced as 'compelling' in Hume's sense.

When do we feel free to choose one way or another? When you order a meal in a restaurant you don't feel compelled to choose your favourite dish every time. You can choose whether you want to listen to Radio 3 or Classic FM. We enjoy the sense of freedom in being able to choose one way or another on different occasions. Then there are cases where we conduct a cost-benefit analysis prior to making a choice. The final decision is not experienced as compelling because there are too many variables involved. It is our best judgement, all things considered.

Let's apply this now to the original question, 'Why be Moral?'

Hume (in the 'Treatise of Human Nature') says that our sense of morality is part of our human nature, and in that sense 'compelling'. But no reasons can be given for being moral. ('Reason', he famously said, 'is, or ought to be, the slave of the passions.') This firmly places Hume in the subjectivist camp. Your point that being moral is part of what it is to be human, would be fully acceptable to Hume.

A very different view of this was taken by Immanuel Kant: it is an essential element of rationality, that one makes judgements according to the categorical imperative, 'Always act on that maxim which you would wish to be a universal law.' This is diametrically opposed to Hume's account of 'natural sympathy'. What is given to us as part of our 'nature' is merely contingent. But ethical commands are necessary. It is irrational to ignore them.

The question didn't ask for a historical analysis: I'm merely using the examples of Hume and Kant to illustrate the difference between a 'subjective' and an 'objective' approach to the question 'Why be moral?'

I don't know whether you've seen the 'Alien' films (with Sigourney Weaver). Aliens, we may suppose, have no Humean 'natural sympathy'. Imagine a group of Aliens discussing moral philosophy. 'Why be moral?' What an absurd idea! The argument, 'It is human to be moral' is obviously not going to cut any ice. Why be 'human'? I am asking this in a sense which you intend, where it would not be a logical contradiction to say, of an Alien, that they act like a 'human being'. Or a better way of putting this would be to say that a moral Alien would be a *person*, would be 'one of us'. What you are talking about is what it is to be a person.

I agree broadly with what you say about 'being human', when this is interpreted in the sense of 'being a person'.

We are not merely, as natural scientists, looking for an explanation of the phenomenon of morality. The question isn't just, 'Why are human beings moral?' but why should *I* be moral? Plato in the 'Republic' fully grasped the import of this question. Suppose you were given a magic ring of invisibility (the 'Ring of Gyges'), so that you could do whatever you liked, and still be thought of as a fine, upstanding member of the community. Why not take advantage of the opportunity? Plato's answer, briefly, is that amassing riches and power is no substitute for having a 'disordered soul'.

From this perspective, the argument that everyone in society benefits from mutual moral respect is a non-starter. I think you've seen this point, because you home in on the question, 'Why shouldn't I make an exception of myself and rely on the moral behaviour of others?' But then you lose the thread again because you immediately go on to say that if everyone did this, society would fall apart. That may be true, but that isn't the question. The question is what compelling argument, if any, can be given to the individual who doesn't care two figs for society.

I apologize for going on at greater length than I intended. Your essay is not at all bad, all things considered. But I hope that these comments have enabled you to see more deeply into the question.

All the best,