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. 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.
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.” 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. 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. 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. 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. All forms of genuine social regard and validation are closed to one with such vicious character, which may in turn damage his self-respect. 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.
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”. 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. 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’, 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. 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.
Is egoism inconsistent?
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. 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. 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”. 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.” 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.” 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. 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”. 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. 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.
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Van Ingen, J., Why Be Moral?. New York : P. Lang, 1994.
 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?”
 T. Hobbes, ‘The Natural Condition of Mankind and the Laws of Nature’, p.135.
 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.”
 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.”
 Nielsen, p.294
 J. van Ingen, Why Be Moral?, p.171.
 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”.
 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.
 H. Prichard, ‘Duty and Interest’, p.116.
 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!
 Not to be confused with moral non-cognitivism, though there are certain similarities.
 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.”
 M. Smith, The Moral Problem, p.159, makes this point about desires.
 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.”
 Parfit, pp.140, 163-164, offers an extended argument for this claim.
 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.
 C. Korsgaard, ‘The Sources of Normativity’, p.400
 T. Nagel, The View From Nowhere, p.160.
 Ibid. See also T. Nagel, ‘The Possibility of Altruism’, pp.335-337.
 Smith, The Moral Problem, pp.195-196.
 Cf. note 13 above.