Why should I be moral?

Linda asked:

Why should I be moral?

Answer by Craig Skinner

You ask for what has been called the Holy Grail of Moral Philosophy: an argument that will convince an amoralist or egoist that she should be moral. Alas, no such argument has yet been found, although great philosophers have tried, and I will sketch some attempts.

By moral I take it that you mean acting for the sake of others rather than purely selfishly. And I take it that you accept it is best for an amoralist to live in a society where others are moral, all the better to exploit them, rather than in a society of each against all in which life is ‘solitary, violent, nasty, brutish and short’ as Hobbes puts it.

In short, you ask why shouldn’t I be a ‘sensible knave’ as Hume puts it, acting morally when it suits me, even gaining a reputation as a moral person, but acting immorally if it’s to my advantage and I think I can get away with it.

Of course morality is the norm. Rather like language, it comes naturally to us with exposure to instances in childhood reinforced by teaching. But to give an account in terms of evolved human nature is to explain it. What concerns us here is to justify it, to find good reasons for being moral.

Three main arguments have been put forward to justify morality.

1. God commands it
2. Happiness requires it
3. Acting immorally is irrational

1. God commands it.

But we have no good reason to believe in God, or that God must have moral rules, or that we can know about these. Even if they existed, why should we obey them? God’s being our creator, or loving us, don’t seem good reasons. Hope of heaven or fear of hell appeal to expediency or self-interest, not to morality. We might follow the rules because they are good rules. But then appeal to divine command is redundant — God (if good) commands the rules because they are good, rather than the rules being good because God commands them, as Socrates famously argues in Euthyphro. Even for monotheists, divine command is an unsatisfactory basis for morality. Thus Aquinas held that the moral law, albeit God’s law, stands up on rational grounds alone. Despite its philosophical shortcomings, divine command is given as a reason for being moral by many monotheistic religious persons, some citing fear of God as the incentive. But it cuts no ice for everybody else, including the amoralist.

2. Happiness requires it.

This is the answer of Aristotle and of modern virtue ethics. Having regard to human nature (as rational, social, child-rearing mammals) we identify the chief good for humans as ‘eudaimonia’ (flourishing, living and doing well), achieved in a community, and characterized as ‘rational activity of the soul in accordance with virtue’ (Aristotle). A virtuous life is the most fulfilled one — most of the virtues are centred on others’ welfare, and the fulfilled life is not one of (only) self-interest. Whether virtue is necessary for eudaimonia is arguable. Socrates thought so. In Plato’s Republic, in response to the challenge of Glaucon/ Adeimantus, he argues for the extreme position that the just (moral) man, even if considered unjust, reviled and rejected by society, is nevertheless happier than the unjust man with a reputation for justness who is respected and lives comfortably. Here, Socrates goes too far, but there is much in the view that the villain who appears to flourish as the green bay tree is not really happy. A view forcefully put by the late Phillipa Foot and with which I have much sympathy. Here we hold, with Plato, that the ruthless, wealthy mobster, surrounded by minders, forever alert for attempts to deceive, ruin or kill him, is ignorant of what constitutes real happiness. Eudaimonic considerations can provide justification of the moral life to some people. To me, for one.

3. Acting immorally is irrational.

This is one strand in the above eudaimonic argument, but is a view particularly held by Kant: the moral law is what we legislate for ourselves as rational autonomous beings, so that, as rational agents, we follow it, and to do otherwise is irrational. The argument essentially is as follows:

P1: my interests matter
P2: others are relevantly similar to me
Concl: others’ interests matter as much as mine

But the amoralist can simply interpret P1 as ‘my interests matter to me’, and P2 as ‘others’ interests matter to them’ which does not entail that others’ interests matter to me. But now, if the amoralist holds that her pain is really bad (as opposed to bad for her) or resents others for not helping her, she would show practical irrationality.

In conclusion, there is no knockdown logical argument that can convince a determined egoistic, amoral, ‘sensible knave’ to be moral. But, here, we are no worse off than trying to convince the determined sceptic that the external world exists. As Hare said, ‘Ask not ‘how do I convince the amoralist to be virtuous?’, but rather ‘how do we mostly bring up our children?”. Most of us accept that we have reason to be moral (as we accept the existence of the external world), otherwise why would we teach our children to be so. It is the best way to a fulfilled life, though bad luck can ruin things, and avoids practical irrationality that intellectually honest persons would wish to avoid.

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