On ethics and reason

Mehran asked:

If iI don’t believe in god and afterlife why should I help people or put my life in danger for them? and if I help a human that he/she can live why do I do that when I am going to be dead and be nothing?

Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

There was a time when I would have attempted to answer your question by an appeal to reason. You will find this in Pathways to Philosophy Program E. Reason, Values and Conduct. I won’t repeat the argument here, as I no longer have much confidence in its validity. Instead I will answer your question in a different way. You ask for a reason but there is no reason that logically compels me to act, beyond the plain statement of the facts of the case.

In Sheffield UK, where I live, there are now increasing numbers of homeless people sleeping in doorways or begging for coins to pay for a bed-and-breakfast room for the night — or for drugs or alcohol. In one of the Bridget Jones movies (I forget which one) Bridget gives a brilliant answer to a rich Yuppie who asks this question. Why help these people when they are capable of work? Why are they so pathetically idle? There are various explanations why a person might end up on the street, and Bridget enumerates them. The last one is that they are simply ‘helpless and pathetic’. In other words they have lost the ability or will to improve their situation. Instead of seeing this as an excuse for contemptuously refusing to give money, that is precisely why they need our help.

When I go to the city centre, I usually have two or three fifty pence pieces in my back pocket to give to street musicians if I like what they’re playing, or to a homeless person who appeals to my sympathy. Aren’t I just allowing myself to be manipulated? Yes. The philosopher David Hume argued that ethics is based on sympathy, on the ability to be moved by another person’s plight. It is an essential part of human nature. As we would now add, only a psychopath is incapable of being moved at all. But why fifty pence, and not ten pence, or a pound? It’s a judgement call, or, equally, a measure of how much I care. Other persons might care more, or less, or have more or less to give.

Sympathy is not the only factor here. Human beings are also tribal, caring for other members of their tribe or family but not others, and at times malicious in responding to a perceived hurt or offence, or just for the heck of it. So you could ask, why are some natural inclinations ‘good’ while others are ‘bad’? Why should we promote altruistic actions while resisting those that are malicious?

The answer is that the great majority of human beings have altruistic impulses. Instead of looking for a reason or justification, you need to see that the alleged ‘reason’ for resisting altruism has no more force than the alleged reason for being altruistic. The American thinker Ayn Rand notoriously held altruism to be a ‘vice’, but her argument is no stronger than those that have been given by moral philosophers in favour of altruism — by Kant, or in recent times by Thomas Nagel.

It is not ‘rational’ to care, nor is it ‘irrational’. It is simply the way we are. Even Adolf Hitler cared for animal welfare and loved his dog, despite being full of hate. There are also circumstances that would require our self-sacrifice for a greater good, for example resisting torture in order to save the lives of comrades, on the grounds that one ‘could not live’ knowing that you have betrayed them.

To experience altruistic impulses is normal. As I have indicated, it is one of the aspects of psychological health. But that is not the same as being totally altruistic, supposing such a thing to be possible. It is also normal to care more for ourselves, or our family, or for fellow nationals than for peoples or persons whom we don’t know. Caring less is not the same as not caring at all. On the other hand, the more we are acquainted with the facts, the more we see, the more we are likely to care, because our sympathetic feelings are aroused.

It is irrelevant what may or may not happen in an afterlife. I personally don’t believe in a heaven or hell. but if these did exist, then arguably there would be no such thing as altruism because seemingly altruistic actions would be motivated by the prudential desire to receive a reward or to avoid punishment. However, one could say the same about prudence. There is no logically compelling reason to be prudent, apart from our natural inclination for self-preservation.

In short, the belief that one day you will be ‘nothing’ is not grounds for ethical nihilism. Nor is the prospect of heaven or hell a reason to be ethical. In stating this, I am giving a reason for resisting the impulse to search for logical ‘reasons’.

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