Sunday, May 6, 2012

Why should I be moral?

To: Mark H.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Why should I be Moral?
Date: 15 August 2007 12:59

Dear Mark,

Thank you for your email of 7 August, with your first essay for the Associate award, entitled, 'Why be Moral?'

On the whole, this is an excellent piece of work, although it strays from the topic to some extent (as I will explain in a minute). At over 4000 words it is also somewhat above the target length of 2000-2500. However, the length can be easily reduced by removing the parts of the essay which do not directly address the question (which can easily be used as the basis for another essay).

I very much like the opening, where you give a very careful and illuminating explanation of how one would approach this question, on the assumption that 'why should be I moral' presupposes a prior goal which we may assume that everyone wants (or, at least, sufficiently many want to make the considerations sufficiently powerful, given that it is not reasonable to seek absolute 'proof' in such matters).

However, a criticism that could be made here is that you have not considered the strategy adopted by philosophers who dismiss the view of morality as based on 'hypothetical imperatives'. You don't have to discuss this strategy in detail, but you do need to give a reason why you are not discussing it (it is sufficient to say, 'I have chosen to explore the view that morality is based on etc. etc.').

The tactic in question is explained in Kant's 'Groundwork for the Metaphysic of Morals', where the categorical imperative is presented as a basic constituent of human rationality. As it happens, I favour a similar (although non-Kantian) rationalist approach - see my 'Naive Metaphysics' Ch 13 (downloadable from One has to be sensitive to moral considerations, on pain of giving up the notion of 'truth', and the idea that one exists in a world alongside others. As I said, it is not necessary to engage with this view; you just have to explain to the reader that you are taking a different tack.

Philippa Foot has a well-known article, 'Morality as a System of Hypothetical Imperatives' Philosophical Review, Vol. 81, No. 3, 305-316. Jul. 1972., which is criticised by John McDowell in his paper, 'Are Moral Requirements Hypothetical Imperatives?', Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume lii (1978), 13-29. In his article, McDowell outlines his 'moral values as secondary qualities' thesis, according to which our ability to make moral distinctions cannot be divorced from the motivational force of such judgements. Thus, for example, 'Why be kind?' invites the response, 'If you know what it is to be kind, then you don't need to ask.' There is a basic irrationality in the idea that I know what kindness is, but don't understand why I should be kind.

Apart from this, the essay goes fine until you get to the Ring of Gyges problem. This is where you get side-tracked into discussing the Prisoner's Dilemma. The remarks you made earlier on about morality being necessarily about 'co-operation' don't justify the claims that you make here. The Prisoner's Dilemma is a problem that you need to consider if you were answering the question, 'How can we co-operate?', or, 'How can we be moral?', or 'How is a political system possible?' Suppose that I was fully prepared to be moral, suppose I was fully persuaded by your argument, it wouldn't necessarily help me with the Prisoner's Dilemma if I didn't trust the other person sufficiently.

The 'correct' answer to the Ring of Gyges problem (for someone who appeals ultimately to 'self-interest' as you do) is one you give further on: it is basically the answer given by Socrates/Plato in the Republic, and later developed by Aristotle in his Nichomachean Ethics. You present to the person deliberating two possible 'lives': the life he would live if he gave into his immediate impulses and misused the Ring, and the life he would lead if he did not give into his immediate impulses. It is the attractiveness of the former over the latter which serves as the ultimate, 'trumping' factor. Whatever immediate benefits I might gain by misusing the ring, my life will eventually be impoverished. I will have no real 'friends', because every human individual is reduced to a means to my selfish end. Without friends (as Aristotle argues) it is impossible to lead the Good Life. And so on.

Despite this criticism, which is something that can be fixed, I was impressed by the quality of this essay. You don't have to cover eight different topics. It is probably best to choose four, and submit each essay twice. For your next essay, you can do the revised version, or the next topic (e.g. the Prisoner's Dilemma).

All the best,