Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Why be moral?

To: Foo L.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why be moral?
Date: 24 September 2007 11:20

Dear Foo Weng,

Thank you for your email of 15 September, with your third essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Why be Moral?'

You start off by posing the question, Why are people sometimes not moral? why do we do wrong?

The Biblical story of Adam and Eve is an allegory (unless you hold fundamentalist beliefs) about man's finitude. We are beings who are not perfect. We are selfish, irrational, weak willed; and what sympathies we have are limited so that the further away the consequences of our actions are from us, the harder it is to care if those consequences are bad for someone else.

Yet at the same time we also (and this is your second point) have a in-built sense of right and wrong, a 'conscience', which is amplified through our culture into laws and precepts. Whether this 'moral sense' is natural, i.e. part of our genetic inheritance, or alternatively a product of culture, the end result is the same: in many situations, the question, 'Why be moral?' does not arise because we *are* moral. Generally, we do the right thing - provided the cost is not too high.

However, there lies the biggest problem:

Take the example of the 100 Pound note. Imagine you are penniless and unemployed, and in desperation you have taken out a 'doorstep loan' which is due to be paid back tomorrow. You have been threatened with physical violence if you don't pay. - This is just one of many examples where the cost of being moral seems to be a lot higher than its benefits.

Yet that is the very question we are asking: are we moral because we have done a cost-benefit analysis and decided that on balance we are better off? If that is the case, then 'moral' just means a kind of self-interest. It is prudent to be moral. Morality just *is* prudence.

Without doubt society would be a lot better off if everyone was moral. Whether there would be no wars is a moot point, because one problem we have to factor in is the fact that not everyone has the same moral beliefs. There would still be conflict and war between peoples of different faiths, each side fervently believing that they are fighting for God against the 'infidel'.

But even if I accept that things would be better if everyone was moral, that still leaves me in exactly the same situation that I was in before: it gives me a good reason for hoping that other people will be moral. But it still leaves the question why *I* should be moral. If I can count on everyone else being moral (and their false belief that I am moral!) then I can commit immoral acts and still gain all the benefit.

Plato dramatized this point in a story which he tells in his dialogue Republic, about the 'Ring of Gyges' which confers invisibility on the wearer. If you had the Ring of Gyges and could do whatever you wanted, while people believed that you were a moral person and a fine upstanding member of the community, would you *still* be moral? (The movie 'Hollow Man' raises this question in an entertaining way.)

Your answer - which is also the answer which Plato gave - is that 'being moral will help us to live a satisfied life'. Plato argued that it is impossible for an immoral man to be truly 'happy', because to be immoral is to give up all that makes a human life worth living.

I respect this answer, even though it is not my answer. The problem is that it could be argued that Plato is still relying on a cost-benefit analysis. I look at the two possible lives that I might lead, the moral life and the immoral life, and decide that I would be happier being moral. But that is contingent on the circumstances. Not everyone would make that judgement, or not in every case. (Imagine the case where the hood from the Mafia 'makes you an offer you can't refuse'.)

My answer would be that the cost of being immoral cannot be evaluated simply in terms of happiness or unhappiness. There is a deeper, metaphysical question at stake. The person who has abandoned morality has also given up the world and substituted his own private dream. In my own private dream world, I am king and everyone else is just a 'character', a piece on a chessboard for me to manipulate at will. But if the world is merely my dream, then any benefits or riches that I gain in this world are merely dreams too.

All the best,

Geoffrey