Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Why Be Moral?

What Reason Do We Have To Care About Morality?

“Why be moral?”

The amoralist’s challenge strikes at the core of moral philosophy and practice, asking for justification at the most fundamental level. Never mind the complexities of determining right from wrong; the amoralist wants to know why we should bother caring in the first place. Some clarifications are in order if we are to make sense of this challenge. Firstly, it might be objected that the question is senselessly circular, effectively asking “why should I do what I ought?”. But this argument rests on an equivocation. It ignores that there are different senses of ‘should’. Clearly the amoralist is not asking why he morally ought to be moral. Rather, he is asking for extra-moral justification, or grounds for thinking that the demands of morality provide genuine reasons for action. This is a coherent request.

Secondly, the coherence of the amoralist’s challenge rules out certain formal conceptions of morality. One might hold that morality is merely a matter of acting on the best reasons, whatever those reasons might be. Or one might hold that morality is whatever an individual considers to be of overriding importance. By mere definitional stipulation, the amoralist is rendered inconceivable by the latter approach, and incoherent by the former. If we are to take the amoralist seriously, we must reject these conceptions of morality. We should instead define morality in terms of a particular form and content.[1] The rest of this essay will thus understand the ‘moral point of view’ as a universal concern for human well-being. The amoralist’s challenge, then, is for us to show why he is rationally required to adopt this point of view, rather than working within a more limited framework such as self-interest.

Self-interested reasons

One traditional moralist strategy is to argue that moral action is prudent. Since the amoralist is understood to be egoistic, the success of this strategy would rationally compel him to be moral. The Hobbesian highlights the alternative of an amoral state of nature wherein life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”[2] It is in everyone’s interests to live in a more moral society. Real life conflicts often take the form of a ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’, whereby each person can promote their own interests at a greater cost to others. It might be argued that following self-interest cannot be rational in such cases, because it is collectively self-defeating.[3] But egoism does not aspire to be a collectively rational theory. It merely makes claims about what it is rational for an individual to do. And egoism is not individually self-defeating: in Prisoner’s Dilemmas, each individual does better by following self-interest than not, assuming their decision does not affect that of the other parties. So the most we can conclude here is that the amoralist has reason to promote moral behaviour generally – and perhaps even agree to universal moral indoctrination, if need be. If such measures caused him to acquire a more moral character, this ‘cost’ would be more than offset by the benefits of having more moral neighbours. But it remains rational for him renege on his part of the bargain and avoid such indoctrination for himself if possible.

We might instead try to show that it is even individually rational to acquire a more moral character. Virtuous goals are more likely to be supported by the rest of society, and thus more likely to meet with success. One who feels pleasure in sympathetic response to others’ happiness will find more pleasure in a harmonious society than would more vicious or sadistic characters.[4] But cultivating a taste for others’ happiness does not guarantee that the amoralist will see others as ends in themselves. He might try to please them merely as a means to his own happiness. To encourage a deeper moral conversion, we should also point out that the more genuine forms of central human goods – such as love and friendship – rest on “a non-calculating reciprocity” which is not available to the systematic egoist.[5] Further, the amoralist must always hide his repugnant true character from others, thus thwarting the deep human need to share who one really is with a trusted confidant.[6] All forms of genuine social regard and validation are closed to one with such vicious character, which may in turn damage his self-respect.[7] It thus seems plausible that an intrinsic concern for at least some other people is an essential feature of the (prudentially) good life. But this is insufficient to establish the universal concern for others that is characteristic of the moral point of view.[8]

Reasoning about ultimate ends

We have found that prudential reasons alone cannot provide a full response to the amoralist’s challenge. But perhaps we have been looking in the wrong place. As Prichard points out, “we ordinarily think that, whatever it is [that renders an action a duty], it is not conduciveness to our advantage”.[9] The demands of morality are normative in their own right, not parasitic on those of self-interest. We thus require some independent basis on which to adjudicate between rival normative frameworks.

No such independent basis is possible, according to the instrumentalist’s conception of rationality as inherently relative or internal to some presupposed framework of ends. On this view, we can speak of moral reasons, or prudential reasons, or F-reasons generally for any framework F, but there is no sense to be given to the notion of a reason, simpliciter. We can only reason within frameworks, not between them. But not all frameworks provide genuine reasons for action, as the example of etiquette demonstrates.[10] The amoralist’s challenge thus melds into the more general nihilistic query, “why do anything at all?”. According to what I will call ‘rational non-cognitivism’,[11] there are no intrinsically reason-giving frameworks. Instead, an agent makes an extra-rational commitment to endorse some framework as binding or reason-giving for them. Most of us accept the frameworks of prudence and morality, but the amoralist need not, and demonstrates no rational flaw in so abstaining. Or so the rational non-cognitivist claims.

However, that view rests on an impoverished conception of rationality. We can go beyond mere means-ends reasoning, and assess a framework of ends itself for its internal consistency and coherence. A normative framework is open to rational criticism insofar as it makes arbitrary distinctions and fails to treat like cases alike.[12] Thus an agent’s values might be made more “systematically justifiable” were he to adopt a further general principle that justified and explained the more specific values that he held.[13]

Is egoism inconsistent?

We tend to consider it irrational for an agent to disregard their future interests.[14] If we are right about this, then that would support rational altruism. For note that the ‘aprudentialist’ might argue, along non-cognitivist lines, “I don't care about my future self - I only care about me now. So why should I take my future self’s interests into account?” It seems likely, given the close formal analogy between the indexicals ‘I’ and ‘now’, that whatever answer we give will apply, mutatis mutandis, to the amoralist too.[15] After all, practical reasoning is relative both to an agent and a time, effectively asking “how should I now act?”. But rational egoism is “incompletely relative”.[16] It allows time-neutral reasons, but not agent-neutral ones. Such inconsistency is troubling, if no grounds are given for holding that personal but not temporal differences have rational significance. If we hold that prudence is rationally required, parity of reasoning would suggest the same for morality. The amoralist must thus retreat to the fully-relative theory of rational non-cognitivism, according to which even aprudentialism is beyond rational criticism.

Although rational egoism is thus ruled out, rational non-cognitivism would still allow the amoralist to adopt egoistic values as a contingent personal choice. However, they remain vulnerable to another charge of inconsistency. Once we recognize (1) that our own interests matter; and (2) that other people are relevantly similar to ourselves; then consistency would seem to require us to conclude that the interests of other people matter too. No-one could seriously deny premise (2). When asked to imagine ourselves in the position of a victim of our cruelty, we do not respond, “Someone doing that to me, why that would be terrible! But then I am me, after all.”[17] We all recognize that something is no less terrible, objectively speaking, merely because it happens to someone else. The consistent amoralist must thus deny premise (1). He could reply that his interests only matter to him. He can generalize this and conclude that other people’s interests likewise matter to them, without such recognition providing him any reason to care or act morally. This position may indeed be made consistent, but at great cost.

If we reflect on the quality of our pain, trying to see it from an impersonal or more objective standpoint, it seems natural for us to judge not merely that we want it gone, but also that it should be got rid of. As Nagel notes, “The pain can be detached in thought from the fact that it is mine without losing any of its dreadfulness.”[18] This lends support to the agent-neutral view, which sees our pain as really bad, and not just bad to us.

The consistent amoralist, however, cannot grant any of this. When considering his own suffering impartially, he must be entirely indifferent to it. He must hold that there is no reason for anyone else to alleviate his pain. It must be a puzzlement when anyone does helps – he must wonder, “why would they do that?”. He could never justifiably resent others – he knows they cannot truly wrong him, because he is in no respect entitled to their help; they have no reason to help him unless it happens to suit their personal whim.[19] This is not an attractive position. Indeed, it would seem quite a psychological feat for the amoralist to retain his passion for life and deep concern for his own interests all the whilst believing that none of it really matters at all. Even if theoretically consistent, such nihilism fits ill with human nature. The amoralist’s actions would reveal his practical commitment to the objective view. Every felt resentment, every expectation of co-operation and consideration from others, every judgment that his suffering ought to be got rid of, betrays the amoralist’s practical inconsistency. His is not a theory that one can live by.

In holding to his theory despite all these problems, the amoralist also leaves himself open to charges of theoretical irrationality. Michael Smith argues that the amoralist’s assumptions about rationality constitute a form of “intellectual arrogance”, and criticizes the amoralist for ignoring “the force of arguments that come from others”.[20] But this success of this argument depends on our prior success in casting doubt on rational non-cognitivism. If the amoralist can reasonably reject our prior arguments, then this one will have no force on its own.

The final challenge, then, is to show that some theoretical inconsistency is involved in the amoralist who accepts a fully-relative rational non-cognitivism. We have seen that the relativistic view is an unattractive one, and likely to lead to practical inconsistencies, but we must grant that, as a theory of rationality, it is consistent in its own right. Nevertheless, even from within the relativistic theory, we may criticize the amoralist’s contingent desires for their general incoherence.

We have already established that self-interested reasons would force the amoralist to develop an intrinsic appreciation of at least some other people as ends in themselves. But it would seem arbitrary to recognize only some people as having intrinsic worth or even agent-relative worth to him. We can ask the relativistic amoralist why others do not also have worth to him. It seems plausible to hold that his overall desire set could be made more unified and coherent by adding in a more general desire for human well-being. This would contribute to explaining and justifying the more specific values the amoralist holds in valuing himself and his friends.[21] We thus have rational grounds to criticize his desire set, in that it fails to exhibit such a degree of internal coherence. Given the rational pressure towards coherence, we may thus conclude that even the amoralist has reason to care about morality.

Bibliography

Darwall, S., Gibbard, A., and Railton, P. (eds.), Moral Discourse and Practice. New York : Oxford University Press, 1997.

Foot, P., ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’ in Darwall et al, Moral Discourse and Practice.

Frankena, W., ‘Why Be Moral?’ in T. Beauchamp, Philosophical Ethics (2nd ed.). New York : McGraw-Hill, 1991.

Fumerton, R., Reason and Morality. Ithaca : Cornell University Press, 1990.

Gauthier, D. (ed.), Morality and Rational Self-Interest. Englewood Cliffs : Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Hobbes, T., ‘The Natural Condition of Mankind and the Laws of Nature’ in D. Gauthier, Morality and Rational Self-Interest.

Korsgaard, C., ‘The Sources of Normativity’ in Darwall et al, Moral Discourse and Practice.

McDowell, J., ‘Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?’ in M. Smith (ed.) Meta-ethics. Aldershot : Dartmouth, 1995.

Nagel, T., ‘The Possibility of Altruism’ in Darwall et al, Moral Discourse and Practice.

Nagel, T., The View From Nowhere. New York : Oxford University Press, 1986.

Nielsen, K., Why Be Moral?. Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1989.

Parfit, D., Reasons and Persons. Oxford [Oxfordshire] : Clarendon Press, 1984.

Prichard, H., ‘Duty and Interest’ in D. Gauthier, Morality and Rational Self-Interest.

Railton, P. ‘Moral Realism’ in Darwall et al, Moral Discourse and Practice.

Smith, M., ‘In Defence of The Moral Problem’ in Ethics and the a priori. New York : Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Smith, M., The Moral Problem. Oxford : Blackwell, 1995.

Van Ingen, J., Why Be Moral?. New York : P. Lang, 1994.



[1] K. Nielsen, Why Be Moral?, pp.21-26. Note that nothing but clarity rests on these definitions. If one prefers the previous definitions, the “amoralist” will instead ask why his morality should take a particular form and content, i.e. “why should I care about other people?”

[2] T. Hobbes, ‘The Natural Condition of Mankind and the Laws of Nature’, p.135.

[3] See D. Gauthier, Morality and Rational Self-Interest, p.19, for such an argument. D. Parfit, Reasons and Persons, p.55, defines a ‘directly collectively self-defeating’ theory T as follows: if we all successfully follow T, we will thereby cause the T-given aims of each to be worse achieved than they would have been if none of us had successfully followed T.”

[4] Cf. R. Fumerton, Reason and Morality, p.144: “Sadists who satisfy their sadistic desires often end up in prison, where it is notoriously difficult to maintain a hedonistic lifestyle.”

[5] Nielsen, p.294

[6] J. van Ingen, Why Be Moral?, p.171.

[7] W. Frankena, ‘Why Be Moral?’, p.99, suggests that self-respect involves “a conviction that one’s character and life will be approved by any rational being who contemplates it from the moral point of view.” P. Railton, ‘Moral Realism’, p.156, likewise notes that “in public discourse and private reflection we are often concerned with whether our conduct is justifiable from a general rather than merely personal standpoint”.

[8] Nielsen, pp.295-296, demonstrates this through the case of a “classist amoralist”, who forms deep and genuine connections to others within his elite class, but ruthlessly exploits the lower classes without a twinge of guilt. It seems difficult to deny that such behaviour could really be in his best interests. Whether it’s inconsistent will be examined later in this essay.

[9] H. Prichard, ‘Duty and Interest’, p.116.

[10] P. Foot, ‘Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives’, p.315. We do not consider someone irrational for dismissing “reasons of etiquette”. Consider also the framework of anti-morality, which takes the general promotion of suffering as its end. The mere fact that one thus has “evil-reason” to commit murder surely does not count as a genuine reason in favour of such action!

[11] Not to be confused with moral non-cognitivism, though there are certain similarities.

[12] Cf. M. Smith, ‘In Defence of The Moral Problem’, p.265: “the only decisive point we can make about normativity is that arbitrariness, as such, always undermines normativity.”

[13] M. Smith, The Moral Problem, p.159, makes this point about desires.

[14] Cf. J. McDowell, ‘Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?’, p.107: “It is not clear that we really can make sense of the idea of someone who is otherwise rational but cannot see how facts about his future can, by themselves, constitute reasons for him to act in various ways.

[15] Parfit, pp.140, 163-164, offers an extended argument for this claim.

[16] Ibid. Note that ‘Rational Egoism’ is the claim that it is always and only rational to advance your own best interests. ‘Rational Altruism’, by contrast, claims that we must take everyone’s interests into account.

[17] C. Korsgaard, ‘The Sources of Normativity’, p.400

[18] T. Nagel, The View From Nowhere, p.160.

[19] Ibid. See also T. Nagel, ‘The Possibility of Altruism’, pp.335-337.

[20] Smith, The Moral Problem, pp.195-196.

[21] Cf. note 13 above.

19 comments:

  1. he knows they cannot truly wrong him, because he is in no respect entitled to their help; they have no reason to help him unless it happens to suit their personal whim

    Wouldn't it be the case, that an amoralist would only be surprised is another amoralist relieved his suffering? Isn't he justified in expecting a rational moralist in helping him, if they are to be consistent with their view of the impartiality of suffering?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Yes, their help is unsurprising given their contingent values (or "personal whim"). What I was trying to get at is the idea that we generally take virtuous action as the 'default' -- it needs no further reason. Viciousness, by contrast, seems to stand in need of further explanation. But the amoralist must see them as rationally equivalent - there is no more reason for someone to wish you well than ill. Generosity stands in need of explanation, and thus any instance of it is more "surprising" than it would be on the agent-neutral view.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with your explanation. However, that we generally take virtuous action as the default can be seen as the general ability of most people to empathise, rather than there being a general reason for people to empathise.

    I think that generally we also expect only a certain level of virtue, we would expect the motorist to stop and help the man bleeding to death on the side of the road into his car and drive him to a hospital, but we don’t expect (at least not yet) the man to donate half of his income to charity. We don’t expect people (generally, utilitarians, might) to be moral saints.

    You’re right the amoralist must see virtue and vice as rationally equivalent, I don’t think he’d have a problem with this.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Note, that when I say virtue and vice, I mean the decision to empathise or not. It isn't rational for someone who empathises with other people, who cares about their interests as if they were their own (in a sense), to then in the same breath completely disregard their interests.

    ReplyDelete
  5. We tend to consider it irrational for an agent to disregard their future interests. If we are right about this, then that would support rational altruism.

    I agree with this, it would make the amoralist who doesn't care about the consequences of his actions irrational. Or as I said in the other post, "the amoralist who wants to be happy, and is happy to go around chopping people’s heads off, knowing full well that he will suffer the consequences if caught."

    However the problem with this, is that possible consequences resulting from my moral judgements are empirical and not a priori. If I love spending time in prison but not being executed by lethal injection, then my amorality may be deemed rational or irrational depending on which country I'm in. It is arbitrary.

    But you admit that the argument from prudence is hardly the strongest one. It is worth considering though that it may be common in psychopaths to have the false belief that their immorality won’t cause negative consequences for themselves when living in a ‘moral’ society who punishes immoralists (there may be studies done on this, I don’t know). If this is true, then they clearly are irrational, (providing they are interested in avoiding such consequences) and the philosophical debate is about an imaginary amoralist.

    Still, such an argument would mean that it is not irrational for the amoralist to commit immoral acts in which he knows (or believes) he won’t get caught. Hardly a pleasing conclusion.

    The amoralist must thus retreat to the fully-relative theory of rational non-cognitivism, according to which even aprudentialism is beyond rational criticism. I think this is right, "tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the world to the scratching of my finger" (only if I don't desire to continue living)


    It seems plausible to hold that his overall desire set could be made more unified and coherent by adding in a more general desire for human well-being.

    This is the part, I think your argument hinges on and I am unconvinced by. Surely by liking dogs just as much as cats I would be making my desire set more unified and coherent. You're saying it is irrational to have arbitrary desires. Why?

    BTW if you agree that moral judgements are ultimately reducible to desires, how are you also rejecting non-cognitivism?

    Perhaps you think like I do that non-cognitivism, understates the role reason plays in assesing moral judgements. If so do you know what, (if there is one) the name of this doctrine of morality would be?

    ReplyDelete
  6. "Surely by liking dogs just as much as cats I would be making my desire set more unified and coherent."

    Not necessarily. There are non-arbitrary reasons why I prefer cats to dogs, and I assume the same is true of you. Perhaps it would be arbitrary to only care about the welfare of cats but not dogs, but that's quite a different matter from preferring the company of one or the other creature.

    Michael Smith discusses a similar objection to yours, which is of someone complaining that it's absurd to hold that, because they desire coffee ice-cream, so they ought to desire all flavours of ice-cream. Smith denies that this is what coherence requires. Instead, as I describe here, what would be incoherent is to fail to desire a food you admit you would enjoy eating just as much, unless some further reason can be given for the differential treatment.

    As for why it's bad to be arbitrary, that's just the same as asking why it's bad to be irrational. Arbitrariness just is a form of irrationality (on this conception). Cf. note 12 above, quoting Michael Smith: “the only decisive point we can make about normativity is that arbitrariness, as such, always undermines normativity.”

    ReplyDelete
  7. what would be incoherent is to fail to desire a food you admit you would enjoy eating just as much, unless some further reason can be given for the differential treatment.


    I think there are cases where arbitrariness is not equivalent to irrationality. I talk about this in my essay.

    However I absolutely agree with you in that there is a definite place for reason in assessing our desires as I talk about here.

    Let’s say I love guitars except red guitars. (Which happens to be true)

    For our desires to be rational that must cohere or accord with our beliefs about the world. So if I believe that red guitars are actually the best guitars in the world, it is not rational that my desire doesn’t accord with my belief, (unless there was some other reason why I didn’t like red guitars).

    To whatever extent we can know, the beliefs which our desires are based on should accord with the world to be considered rational.

    So if I believe that painting the colour red on a guitar actually alters the sound of the instrument and that belief is false (which I think it is) then my aversion to red guitars is irrational.

    But what about the idea that our desires and moral judgements are reducible or entailed by first order principles. In order for them to be rational they must accord with those principles (which is similar to a coherent desire set).

    So if my aversion to red guitars is derived from a aesthetic aversion to all red ‘status symbols’ then it is coherent. (I don’t like red cars either but I don’t mind red T-shirts).

    If I did like red bass guitars then there would need to be a reason why I regarded lead guitars and bass guitars as meaningfully different in this context. Otherwise my desire is not in accord with my principle (i.e. the belief or desire about red status symbols).

    Of course the aversion to red status symbols may itself by reducible to a further belief or desire, but as long as it is consistent that the desire is rational. And yet it is arbitrary in the sense that it might have been any other colour were it not for the cultural and perhaps physiological associations with the colour red.

    But I don’t think you are using arbitrary in this way, you are right to use it in terms of inconsistency.

    So if the amoralist cares about the welfare of his friends but not anyone else, there may be a consistent explanation for this. The amoralist may only care about the people who are loyal to him et al. If he doesn’t care about family member who are also loyal to him, just because he is related to them (and no other reason) then we can charge him with irrationality.

    However an intelligent amoralist (a sociopath like Hannibal Lecter) may very well avoid these inconsistencies in his desires and beliefs. Certainly even the most moral people may have irrational desires in some aspect of their lives.

    So if the amoralist is consistent in his application of a lack of empathy, (and perhaps his disregard for his future self) then how is his immorality irrational?

    ReplyDelete
  8. If "the amoralist is consistent in his application of a lack of empathy", then he's probably acting against his own best interests, as argued here. If he doesn't care about his own best interests, then he's not human and can't be reasoned with. (But, granted, if you truly care about nothing at all then there is nothing to ground one's rational criticisms upon.)

    P.S. Be sure to include the 'http' bit or your links don't work.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Blogger was misinterpreting my quotation marks:

    I think there are cases where arbitrariness is not equivalent to irrationality. I talk about this in my essay.

    However I absolutely agree with you in that there is a definite place for reason in assessing our desires as I talk about here.



    It is clearly not in people’s best interests to be amoral. However the argument that we should be moral as it is in our interests extends only so far.

    I should be moral and not lie to my friend because I want him to continue to be my friend and be honest with me, do favours for me etc.

    But if I don’t want that friend around anymore it’s ok if I do hideous things to him. But then there are the consequences that come from the breaking of law. But if I think I can get away with it, then reason doesn’t compel me not to cut up his body and bury it in my backyard.

    This account isn’t giving amoralist a reason to be moral but to obey the law, and manipulate everyone else so as to suit his interests. This may mean conning people and being minimally decent as many psychopaths usually are.

    If the amoralist cares about his own best interests this gives him just as much reason to not get caught being immoral as he does to not be immoral.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I cover all of that in the linked post (and indeed the appropriate sections of my essay above). If you read them, you will see that part of my argument is that the prudent person will be forced to cultivate an intrinsic (rather than merely instrumental) concern for others. Once he does so, the grounds are open for the inconsistency attack, as you granted in your previous comment.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Richard, have you considered that answering the amoral person is really not about giving the various possible reasons for being moral? These reasons are valid for the convinced anyways. (And IMO would be more honest and effective if they were given as "these are my own reasons for being moral, as much as I understand them, which is probably imperfectly.)

    Have you wondered why it is that philosophers spend so much effort to pour into the tauntings of the amoral? Should they not rather put those energies into the moral community and its concerns?

    The amoral should be told to work out the reasons for themselves; the answers cannot be given them on a silver platter, nor should they be. The decision of being moral has to be worked out by each human being for him/her self -- it's one of the Big Hard Questions in life.

    It is NOT the job of the moral philosopher, IMO, to keep thinking up reasons to be moral for those who are not interested, or who have flat out decided to align themselves with the immoral. It's almost a sort of co-dependency... all the amoral have to do is taunt, and the philosopher springs into action, working hard, thinking for them, and they have to do nothing. It takes no work to just keep saying "nope, not good enough."

    Just a few thoughts. Cheers.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi Vera, thanks for the comment. I think you are misunderstanding the philosopher's motives. You ascribe to him the practical goal of getting amoralists to behave morally. But that's not really what we're about. At least in my own case, I'm more interested in the theoretical question of whether there really do exist reasons for someone to be moral even if they don't want to be. I just want to know if those reasons are there. I'm not necessarily going to make use of them.

    Further, so long as we are convinced that the reasons we find are good ones, it does not matter (to us) whether the amoralist listens. If he just keeps saying "nope, not good enough," then he is being irrational. I would simply stop talking to him.

    To reiterate: my aim is not to persuade, but to find theoretical reasons. The task is to show whether morality has any rational grounding. This would be worth examining even if no amoralists actually existed. I examine the question for my own sake, not for theirs.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Richard, good to meet you in person. I appreciate your response, and only hope that there are many other philosophers who ARE applying themselves to the challenge of the amoralist. This is not an idle challenge, as many more people nowadays are quite open in their mocking of morality, as one prof teaching ethics to business majors recounts online. After all, if all or most mathematicians had no interest in actually offering math that works in the world, then I think they should support their discipline by selling cookies, not by expecting public and private largesse! :-)

    Are there reasons for someone to be moral even if they don't want to be? Certainly, just as there are reasons for people to wear clothes even if they don't want to. I think the real question is, are there Reasons? Meaning ironclad rational constructs conveying a high measure of certainty. And in that, I think the philosophers are chasing a chimera, and giving weapons to the amoralist.

    Going naked is a valid choice, despite all the good reasons to wear clothes. So is being amoral/immoral. That's the whole point of morality -- people needing to summon their inner resources to make the choice to be moral, in the absence of Certainty, Reasons, or Proof. It's an existential choice, whether or not to be moral. It's not about the advantages it conveys (sometimes it conveys disadvantages, how come philosophers don't talk about that?), it's about who we choose to be in the world. You know, one of the Big Hard Choices of each person's life.

    Does morality have any rational grounding? A large question, which I do not think hangs on having to show somehow that choosing immorality is not valid.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I'm not sure what you mean by a "valid" choice. If one ignores "good reasons" then one is, by definition, being irrational. At least in many situations, it's fairly clear that wearing clothes is the better option (given how other people would react) -- and, indeed, it could be downright irrational not to.

    My essay above tried to show a similar thing for morality: that one who rejects it would thereby be demonstrating a particular form of irrationality.

    When you suggest that it is merely an "existential choice", you seem to be implying that there is no reason to prefer one option over the other. One could pick either option and be above rational criticism. But you haven't given any argument for this position, you've merely asserted it. And it's precisely the claim which is in dispute. I presented arguments which suggest that it is not merely an existential choice. There are reasons to favour morality. The amoralist is vulnerable to rational criticism. (You might disagree, but in that case you'll need to refute the arguments I made.)

    ReplyDelete
  15. Richard, I look at it this way. The main reason people tend to overlook your or mine good reasons is that they have good reasons of their own. The nudist has them, and the amoralist has them too. There is nothing irrational about it, agreed?

    I have met 2 kinds of amoralists: one is the disillusioned student who has just discovered that none of the reasons given for being moral are Reasons, that is, ironclad. So he goes around mocking morality. The other amoralist is for real. This is the person who is trying to survive in a high-competition environment, and he or she understands that morality can put them at a disadvantage. For example. One athlete has moral qualms about taking performance enhancing drugs. Another athlete does not. All other things being equal, who has the advantage on their side? It seems to me that any full acount of “why be moral” should look at the flip-side of it, and honestly spell out and discuss the disadvantages of being moral.

    I did not mean to suggest that the choice I was speaking of as existential was somehow inferior (link to your “merely”) – quite the contrary, I see is as one of the most important choices a person makes in life. Perhaps a better term is “fundamental”. A fundamental choice is a premise that cannot be further rationalized without infinite regress. Whether or not to be moral is one such point. Descartes’ cogito ergo sum is another such point. At some point, you have to stop the flow of reasons and make up your mind in the absence of certainty. I think all such fundamental choices are made on trust; they are neither rational or irrational. Rationality cannot illuminate them any further, and a choice must be made. Descartes’s choice is something he was willing to trust and build on. (And frankly, it is no more rational than “I milk this cow therefore I am.”) Same with the moral decision. Does that make sense?

    You ask whether there is a reason to prefer one fundamental assumption over another. I will give this more thought.

    ReplyDelete
  16. So? Any further thoughts?

    ReplyDelete
  17. Hi, I was just out blog surfing for detailed info on self esteem when I ended up on your page. Obviously I ended up a little off base, but I am certainly glad I did. If you wouldn't mind, I would like to post your link on my "favorites" page. Should you ever need it, there is valuable information on my site about self esteem.

    ReplyDelete
  18. Why be Moral?

    Because, it is the right thing to do. The greatest Moral teacher that ever lived was Jesus Christ. The Bible is chock full of Moral issues. We could debate about Morality till the cows come home. But, what if the Cows don't come home,Where did they go? Vegas, my Friend Vegas! :>D

    Madniteowl2007

    ReplyDelete

Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)