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Why be moral?


To: Graham H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 7th July 2011 14:28

Dear Graham,

Thank you for your email of 25 June, with your third essay for the Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Why be moral?'

This is a thoughtful attempt to answer the question, which does not avoid the difficulties facing any attempt to define what it is to be 'moral' or the various motivations which might lead one to acknowledge or reject the claims of morality.

There is, as you have seen, a distinction to be made between the question of how one decides a moral question -- whether as a deontologist, or utilitarian, or etc. -- and the question why one should consider the claims of morality at all.

Corresponding to utilitarian and deontological morality, you could contrast utilitarian and deontological prudence. In pursuing my self-interest, do I perform a hedonic calculation, or do I act on some principled ground? However, as a matter of historical fact, both Kant and Mill seek to give an argument why we should be moral deontologists or hedonists.

For Kant, the claim is that the categorical imperative is constitutive of human freedom and rationality. (But why care about being 'free' or 'rational' in Kant's sense?) For Mill, the fact that each person desires his or her own happiness leads us to acknowledge the importance of the happiness of others (although Mill is famously unclear about the status of this 'inference').

Interestingly, although Plato held that the forms embody objective moral values, he bases his argument for 'justice', in the Ring of Gyges thought experiment in Republic, on the desire, which he assumes that each of us possesses, for an 'ordered soul'. In other words, it is enlightened self-interest that leads us to be moral. This is really not so far away from the case of Hobbes, where our enlightened self-interest leads us to appoint a monarch who will enforce the rule of law.

Contrary to the popular picture, Hobbes does not assume the truth of psychological or moral egoism. In a way not so dissimilar to Hume, he recognizes that we have natural ethical impulses. But we also have other desires (the reasonable desire for self-protection, the desire for 'honour' or recognition from others) which lead us to compete with one another and fall into conflict. In other words, even if our first impulse was an ethical one, we find ourselves in a situation where you can't trust that the other person will act ethically if you do (the 'Prisoners' Dilemma'). The purpose of the rule of law is to establish a framework where trust and co-operation become possible.

The Good Samaritan is a nice example to use. In a real-life situation, the question is what would *be* the right or moral thing to do. And if I decide not to help, that doesn't necessarily show that I 'can't be bothered to be moral', but perhaps of my perception of the risk involved. Maybe the question should not be, 'Why be moral?' but rather 'How far should we put ourselves out to be moral?' You acknowledge this point when you talk about the need to recognize both 'the importance of egoism and what we intuitively believe is right'.

In other words, in a real-life situation, those who say (or seem to say) that that they 'can't be bothered' to be moral, are more likely to be questioning (a) whether the demands being made on them are fair or reasonable, in the light of their own legitimate needs, or (b) whether those who loudly proclaim what is or is not 'moral' have the right to legislate for the rest of us.

It could also be argued that in order to truly get the point of the question, 'Why be moral?' one needs to take a step back and recognize that, as a matter of fact, we *are* moral. (Even those who talk about 'not being bothered' have a moral viewpoint, a sense of what is right or wrong. There are things they would not do.) The only one who can raise the question is the amoralist (or 'sociopath', or 'psychopath').

In the story, Bill Clegg discovers 'what it is like' to be a psychopath but fortunately recovers from his episode. During the episode, the things we normally regard as sufficient reasons for acting morally lose all their force. Arguably, it is too strong a requirement to ask moral philosophers for arguments which would convince a psychopath. And yet, there is a sense that we are looking for a characterization of what it is that we *see* that the amoralist fails to see.

It is a further question whether 'looking for arguments to convince the amoralist' or 'seeking to characterize what it is that the amoralist fails to see' is the most fruitful way of pursuing an investigation into the foundations of ethics.

All the best,