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Why be moral?


To: Penny R.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 2nd February 2011 11:40

Dear Penny,

Thank you for your email of 20 January, with your first essay for the Moral Philosophy program, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

Well, this is a tough one isn't it. You've interpreted the question in the way that I would take it, as, 'Why should I be moral?' rather (as some of my students do) as primarily a request for explanation of why, as a matter of fact, human beings choose to be moral (out of self-interest, or maybe because some kind of evolutionary pressure). You do point out that (as a matter of fact) we feel the pricks of conscience, that most of us most of the time do not behave like psychopaths etc. But the question is why *should* we behave that way? If God doesn't exist (say) what reason is there for going along with this practice, rather than trying to resist it and liberate oneself from the illusion of morality?

Interpreted this way, the question assumes the possibility of choice, the choice to abandon morality; even if that choice would be very difficult to make in practice, given our natural inclinations. And so one is led to the idea of the 'amoralist', the individual who deliberately rejects morality because they 'see through' it. It's an illusion, a confidence trick perpetrated on us by society, and the only way to become truly free is to be amoral. When moral philosophers use this device, they don't need to assume that being truly amoral is common, or even psychologically possible for most people.

From this perspective, what arguments would you give against the amoralist? What do *you* see that the amoralist somehow fails to see?

You suggest two reasons for being moral: The first reason is that there are things we don't (or do) want to be done to us, therefore we don't (or do) treat others in a similar way. I.e. Do as you would be done by. The second reason is that 'behaving ethically gives us peace of mind and makes us happy.'

I would guess that you know already the objections that the amoralist will make.

To the first argument, the amoralist says, 'I don't want to be murdered or raped, so I will make damn sure that if any murdering or raping goes on, it isn't done to me.' (Do unto others before they do unto you.) To the second argument, the amoralist says, 'Acts of selfishness or even self-sacrifice may make you happy, as they did me once, but I learned to get over it.' This is Aristotle in reverse, and with a vengeance: true human self-fulfilment consists in training oneself to resist succumbing to lying appeals to our alleged 'altruistic nature'.

(Digressing: the second objection is Ayn Rand's view of the 'virtue of selfishness'. However, Ayn Rand is not advocating the rejection of morality, but rather the adoption of a different moral code. She would fully the principle, 'Always respect the rights of others.' That's why murder, rape and theft are wrong. But others do not have the right to our compassion or to demand that we sacrifice our own interests for theirs.)

Why does it matter? Here's an argument which I don't use in the program. The point of philosophy is to emancipate ourselves from illusions. If morality is an illusion, if moral behaviour is just the result of brainwashing (however fancy the explanation), then we ought, as rational beings who value our rationality and our freedom, to liberate ourselves from that bondage.

In a way, this turns everything upside down. We started with a picture of the moralist as the one who is excessively rationalistic (e.g. Kant). Now it turns out that it is the amoralist, or would-be amoralist, who puts all their faith in 'reason', to the exclusion of everything else. Nietzsche is not totally innocent in this regard, for all the claims made on his behalf that he was trying to hold the threat of moral nihilism at bay rather than advocating it.

Getting back to the other issues which you raise: Kant says somewhere in the Groundwork (in a passage that puzzles many readers) that the decision to enjoy a glass of port, even though it will worsen my gout, can be a moral decision (to take care of one's own happiness as the Categorical Imperative requires). So 'trading my future well-being for present enjoyment' is in no way inconsistent with knowledge of the effects, e.g., of smoking, *if* this is a clearly thought out decision. It is not weakness of will, and therefore no challenge to the claim of knowledge. In a similar way, if I decide that on this occasion my well-being is more important than helping someone else (who I've helped too many times before), that can be a moral decision, based on knowledge. It doesn't mean that I will always decide in favour of myself.

Regarding the theory of evolution, I have a student, Stuart Burns (who regularly writes answers for Ask a Philosopher) who regards himself as an 'evolutionary ethicist'. The theory of evolution provides the basis for morality, he believes, because all moral judgements are ultimately based on survival and self-preservation. Going against morality can benefit my in the short term, but is not consistent with my long term interests.

In relation to the principle of universalizability and 'fanaticism'. According to R.M. Hare, preference utilitarianism is the only 'non-fanatical' morality because I grant each person the same right to their evaluation of the consequences. (In other words, I don't make judgements about where your 'true' happiness lies.) I discuss this in the program. You just add up everything that everyone wants, without attempting to evaluate the 'goodness' or 'badness' of these preferences.

All the best,