Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Why Be Moral?

The day will come, for most of us, when what morality commands, obliges, or recommends is hard: that we share decisions with people whose intelligence or integrity don’t inspire our confidence; that we assume grave responsibilities to which we feel inadequate; that we sacrifice our lives, or voluntarily relinquish what makes them sweet. And then the question –why? –will press, and rightly so. Why should I be moral?Christine Korsgaard, The Sources of Normativity, 1996. 18th parting, 2013
Seriously, it seems that morality demands quite a bit from us. Yet, even when the price is high, people often obey.

Yet, at other times, people shrug off the demands of morality at a thought. One would think that a person approaching the subject of climate change would adopt the attitude, "Given the potential harm that could be brought about, I should really understand the subject before I make a recommendation." Yet, people make recommendations concerning policy regarding climate change who clearly have made no effort to understand what they write about - using clearly invalid inferences friends from false data - on matters where their ill-informed advice will contribute to the deaths of millions. Note that this intellectual recklessness is not judged by the specific conclusion that the person draws. It is determined by judging the soundness of his premises and the validity or strength of his inferences from those premises to conclusions.

I should include in this people on the political left who assert that morality demands taking from the very wealthy to provide them with benefits, but who scream in protest at the "unfairness" when those who benefit are those in extreme poverty, whose income might have risen from an average of $750 per year to $3,500. Extreme global poverty over the past 30 years has dropped from 2 billion out of 4 billion (50%) to 700 million out of 7 billion (10%). Yet, we still have people screaming in protest that the economic benefits should have gone instead to those in the $15,000 to $50,000 income range rather than those in the $0 to $750 income range.

So, what are these demands of morality and how strongly are they motivating agents to make hard choices?

These different attitudes towards morality can exist in the same person. A person willing to risk his life in the defense of a moral principle can be just the type of person who drives home drunk from the bar without a thought.

This suggests that the so-called demands of morality might be a little too convenient. People tend to see the demands of morality pushing actually them down the very roads they already want to travel - all things considered.

This "want to travel " does not imply any type of eagerness. The soldier in the foxhole on a cold winter night certainly wishes that circumstances were such that he could be someplace else. But not so much that he could abandon his buddies in the field. Even here, the demands of morality tells the soldier to be where the soldier actually, all things considered, prefers to be.

Of course, some people do have a desire to do that which is right. If this gets combined with a belief that “X is right” then this manifests itself as a desire to do X. If the desire is strong enough it can actually tilt the balance in favor of doing X. However, this leaves open the question of whether and how the proposition, “X is right” is actually ever true – whether anybody can ever do anything that is actually, really, right.

This may sound like a cynical understanding of morality – that it only rationalizes what we want to do all things considered. However, that would be a mistake. It respects the fact that people are always going to do what they want.

(NOTE: This is not ‘egoism’, which also says that people always do what they want but adds the claim that they only want their own well-being or that which is a benefit to them. A person who only does what he wants can still want others to be safe and healthy – even to the point of sacrificing his own well-being to bring health and safety to others.)

From here, we can ask what it is we can do to shape what people wants. The problems with intellectual integrity and economic justice mentioned above rests in the fact that we have done a poor job of instilling in people as much concern with their intellectual integrity, for example, as they seem to have with being caught naked in public (for example). What we need to do is to promote a stronger aversion to intellectual recklessness. Then, the “demands of morality” regarding intellectual reckless will actually motivate a person to take care that their premises are well supported by evidence and their logic is valid.

This casts morality not as a rationalization of actions but as an evaluation of the sentiments (desires) that motivate actions.

In doing so, it answers the question, “Why be moral?” quite easily – because the moral thing is the thing that the (properly motivated agent) most wants to do.

As for the agent who is not properly motivated . . . well, that is why we call them “evil”.

Sent from my iPad

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