Why act morally?

(Being a sequel to an earlier paper on rationality)

A (weak) defence of morality

A question sometimes asked of the moralist is "Why act morally?" This question is difficult to answer, at least partly because it is not entirely clear what the question means - or what it is asking for. For instance, the question "Why should I act morally?" is often asked in the place of it. I find this quite funny: "should", in common usage, is a moral "should" - to answer would therefore have to be to give a moral reason for accepting moral reasons, and this is absurd. Like "why be rational?", it is asking for a reason to accept the existence of reasons - the question can therefore neither be asked nor answered without assuming the validity of the point in question (i.e. that there are reasons (or moral reasons) for doing things). Alternatively, and perhaps in a slightly different sense, we could answer "Why should I act morally?" with "Because 'act morally' is, by definition, what you 'should' do".

However the question has often been interpreted differently, along the lines of "what's in it for me (if I act morally)?". I cannot see that an answer to this question does indeed answer the original question of "why act morally?" Why? It fails because it assumes that an answer that appeals to self-interest (or present-aims) is rational, and it may not be - the nature of rationality is the issue under discussion. So to assume that the only ultimate reasons are self-centred reasons is a very questionable assumption, and many different positions are possible (see my attack, later). For illustration, let us assume that a self-centred reason for acting morally is given (which may be logically impossible, but nevermind that now). So "why act morally?" has been answered "because it is in your interests, or meets your present aims, to do so". Has the question been fully answered? Surely not: it just begs the question "why do what is in my interests, or meets my present aims?" It might be good for me, but why do it? The amoralist may have to resort to the self-sufficiency argument.

The self-sufficiency argument

Has the rectitude of this principle been ever formally contested? It should seem that it had, by those who have not known what they have been meaning. Is it susceptible of any direct proof? it should seem not: for that which is used to prove every thing else, cannot itself be proved: a chain of proofs must have their commencement somewhere. To give such proof is as impossible as it is needless. (J.B. on Utility)

The self-sufficiency argument can arise in this way: a reason for something is asked, and then a reason for that reason is asked, and then a reason for that reason, and so on. Now it seems to me that, in following a chain of proofs or reasoning, only a small number of situations could conceivably obtain:

  1. The chain could extend indefinitely - each reason is supported by another reason, ad infinitum ("it's elephants all the way down"). This situation must be at least a little odd, for surely no human is capable of following an infinitely long chain of reasoning. Is this situation even really conceivable then? No matter.

  2. The chain could be followed in a cycle, each reason holding on the assumption that all the others also hold. Again, this is an odd position - for to show that someone's arguments assume the validity of their other arguments is usually taken as finding a fault in their reasoning, and surely any number of absurd positions can be made to hold if we are allowed to assume the validity of absurd arguments to support it.

  3. There is some final (ultimate) reason, for which no support can be found: this is the reason for which there is no reason. Again this is a little odd, because to show that someone has no reason for a reason is generally taken to show that their concern is unfounded, baseless, worthless. But of the three situations, only this last offers a solution to the problem of providing a complete explanation, though it does require that - at some point - a reason is simply accepted as is... it is sufficient of itself, and requires no further explanation.

So going back to the amoralist, he may say "I do not need to give a reason to act self-interestedly, or to meet present aims - this reason is self-sufficient." Now if we are going to accept an answer of this form, that there are some reasons for which no reason can be given, we may quite reasonably ask why it was that the question "why act morally?" was felt to need an answer in the first instance - could not "because it's the right thing to do" be our final unsupported reason? Answering it self-centredly does not prevent the need for a final reason, it only puts it back - and not, I say, onto firmer but to weaker ground.

A (weak) attack on amoralism

A man comes to me and says "I'm a Present Aim Theorist. That means I decide how to act based on my goals at the time." "Fine," says I, "but how do you decide which goals to have at any time?"

There are any number of theories of rationality that are something like the self-centred position, in that they focus on the interests or aims of an individual. Instead of taking the position that it is rational to focus on your own aims, or further your own interests, you could - for instance - take the view that it is supremely rational to further the aims or interests of (my mum's dog) Bob. But obviously this is ridiculously arbitrary, to pick out one individual to the exclusion of others. Yet this, it seems to me, is exactly what the self-centred position involves.

Why act in my own interests? How could I take "because it is in your interests" as a final answer, if I would not take "because it is in the collective interest" as one? If general happiness is not a good enough goal to direct my action - if the suffering of any number of others amounts to nothing in this consideration - why on earth would I take the happiness or suffering of one specific being to be sufficient? Because it's me and mine? So what? Everything or nothing, everybody or nobody, is worthy of consideration. These are the only two positions that make sense to me.