Why should I be moral?

Gladys asked:

‘Why should I be moral?’ through philosophy in ethics.

Answer by Stuart Burns

Excellent Question!!

It is also one that stumps a lot of philosophers who should know better.

One of the issues the question raises, is just what is it to ‘be moral’? But I am going to side-step that particular take on the question you asked, and try to give an answer that would be neutral to however you choose to understand the notion of ‘being moral’.

Clearly, the question you ask is not the moral question of ‘what moral reasons do I have to be moral?’ but rather the question ‘what extra-moral reasons to I have to be moral?’ The first question is trivially answered by ‘One ought to do what one ought!’ But the second one seeks an answer outside of the strictures of morality.

Both Plato and Kant believed that morality is dictated by reason and so a fully rational person is automatically a moral person too. But that leaves open the question of why I should follow the dictates of reason. Theists believe that morality is dictated by God. But again, that leaves open the question of why I should follow the dictates of God. Utilitarianism believes that one should seek the greatest good for the greatest number. But fails to provide an answer to the question of why I should follow the dictates of Utilitarianism if they conflict with my own interests. Other notions of morality hold that being moral is being concerned with the welfare of others, and being moral is being altruistic. But this also fails to provide an answer to your question – why should I care about others? There is also a social conception of morality that thinks ‘being moral’ is thinking or acting in the interests of the society at large. But again, your question asks why I should be concerned about that.

The bottom line is that unless the particular system of morality in question can provide an incentive to be moral based on enlightened self-interest, that particular system of morality has no answer to the challenge of why anyone should be moral according to its lights. The only motivating reason for anyone to do anything has to be based on enlightened self interest. We are, after all, an evolved survival machine engineered by natural selection for the purpose of ensuring that our genes survive and flourish. We are, in other words, designed to pursue our own (in a genetic sense) self-interest.

Of course, the details of any particular response in terms of self-interest will depend on the system of morality in question. For Theistic morals, for example, it is the reward of Heaven and the threat of Hell that provides the motivation to be moral. Each different ethical theory will provide its own attempt at providing a self-interested motive to be moral. Not all are successful. Plato and Kant, for example, singularly fail. Not many people are consistently rational. Most let their emotions rule their lives. So it is a vain hope that defining morality in terms of reason will convince people to be moral.

Only variations of Ethical Egoism start off with the self-interested motivation. But then, Ethical Egoism is not very well understood, and is therefore not a very popular system of ethics.


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