Saturday, November 26, 2005

Why Be Moral?

In comments to an earlier post, Dee Jay challenged me to provide an answer to the question, “Why be moral?”

I believe that an answer can be found in the twin posts “Ethics without God”, Part I and Part II. However, it may not hurt to answer the question more directly.

Why Do Anything?

If we are going to look at what it takes to get somebody to do the right thing, we first have to look at what is involved in doing anything.

I use the theory that all intentional action aims to fulfill the more and the stronger of the agent’s desires. Intentional actions follow the formula:

(Belief + Desire) -> Intention -> Intentional Action

Where ‘desire’ identifies our goals, and ‘belief’ tells us how to reach them.

This does not mean that everybody is selfish. People can desire a lot of different types of things – including the well-being of others. On this model, it is quite possible, for example, for a parent to be willing to sacrifice a great deal to keep her child healthy and happy. She does so because she values (desire) the well-being of her child, perhaps even more than she desires her own well-being. It is still her values (desires) that guide her actions, but those desires (values) can be for the well-being of others.

Of these two entities, beliefs and desires, beliefs are mapped to truth, and desires are mapped to value. This is where the “fact/value” distinction comes from. It is also where we get the “descriptive/prescriptive” distinction.

Beliefs aim to describe the world accurately. A true belief exists when a person believes something, and the thing believes happens to be true. If there are no gods, than the belief that there are no gods is a true belief. It is a false belief if there is at least one god.

Desires prescribe possible worlds. A desire that one’s child is healthy and happy is a mental state that says, “Make the world one in which your child is healthy and happy.” A desire for chocolate ice cream is a mental state that says, “Make the world one in which you are eating chocolate ice-cream.” Desires do not describe the world; the motivate agents to change the world in ways that fulfill those desires.

Doing the Right Thing

So, how do you get somebody to do the right thing? If we want to change a person’s behavior, and beliefs are mapped to truth, then the only thing we have left to change are desires. We get people to do the right thing by causing them to have desires that they can best fulfill by doing the right thing. A person with such desires will do the right thing because he wants to.

The tool that we use to get a person’s beliefs to better map to truth is reason. Reason allows an individual to see when his beliefs are incoherent, when they do not match observation, and when they are and are not supported by the evidence. Philosophies that tell people to abandon reason also tell them to abandon the most useful tool to getting beliefs matched to truth.

However, reason has no effect on desires. If a person likes chocolate ice-cream, then there are no reasons that we can give him – no arguments – that can change this fact. We can tell him that too much ice cream with threaten his health, but our arguments will have no effect unless his health is useful to him in some way.

This fact identifies a problem with in one interpretation of the original question, “Why Be Moral?” The person asking the question might want to know, “What reason can you a give a person whereby, no matter what he desires, he will want to do the right thing?” The answer is “None can be provided; reason does not affect desires.”

Affecting Desires

Yet, we do have tools for affecting desires. We can affect them through the use of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment.

We condemn and punish the child who hits his sister. Hopefully the child will acquire an aversion to hitting his sister. If he does, then we do not need to worry even about instances where he is alone with his sister. With such an aversion, he is as likely to hit his sister if left alone with her, as he is to eat raw liver if left alone in a room with raw liver (assuming that he does not like raw liver).

We praise and reward the child who does his chores in a responsible manner and, as a result, the child learns to like doing his chores in a responsible manner. He becomes averse to careless and shoddy work, and acquires a sense of pride that will continue to drive him to do his work well. Even if he finds himself in a situation where he can get away with being lazy, he will not do so, just as he will not eat the raw liver.

Laws and Other Social Sanctions

Failing this, we have a “backup system” for getting people (those who have not been raised well) to act as a morally good person would act. This is through social praise and sanction, backed up where useful by legal rewards and punishments. Through these systems we say, “You may not have been raised well enough to want to do the right thing, but you certainly do not want what we will do to you if we find out that you did the wrong thing.”

Instead of aiming to change the target’s desires, this tool accepts those desires as they are and tries to motivate the agent to do the right thing anyway. I wrote about this relationship in the blog entry on “Legislating Morality”. A vital function of law is to get people to do the right thing or to not do the wrong thing by using promises of reward and threats of punishment. For the good person, these laws are not necessary. However, not everybody is a good person.

The Noble Lie

Our “backup system” only works when we discover that a person has not acted properly. This means that we are at risk of suffering the harms that an evil person will inflict when he thinks that he can get away with it. How do we get a person to do the right thing under these types of circumstances?

Ultimately, I believe that this is the real question that a theist is asking when he asks for an answer to the question, “Why be moral?” The real question is, “How do we get a person who does not have good desires to do the right thing when he can get away with doing a wrong thing?”

One option is to tell each person that some omnipotent entity with a perfect sense of justice is always watching him and, though he may get away with his evil in this life, he will not escape his just punishment in the next life.

On the surface, this looks a reasonable answer. However, it has serious drawbacks.

First, it is not true. As a matter of fact, there is no such entity. This is an option that Plato called, “The Noble Lie”. Plato was in favor of the “Philosopher-Kings” (the people who were raised well and who could handle the truth) coming up with useful lies to tell the common citizens in order to get them to behave. However, the “Noble Lie” is still a lie, and the “Philosopher-Kings” are not always noble.

Second, since it is a lie (or, at least, it is not true), what happens when the people who invented this lie use it to tell people to do bad things? We are told that we are not permitted to question the rules. We are not allowed to use any other standard to evaluate what we are being told, but to simply obey without question. What happens when the person who made the rules – a human, subject to error, pride, and ambition – makes bad rules?

What if he says that the “divine entity” wants us to attack his rivals by telling us to condemn all who do not accept his “truth,” denying to them any position of authority or trust in society, in order to reserve those offices for his entities and allies?

What if he has grown up in a society that accepts slavery, and thus tells us that his “divine entity” has no problem with slavery as long as we do not treat our slaves too harshly and enslave only foreigners?

What if he has a personal dislike for homosexuals and tells us that this “divine entity” wants us to attack their interests when we should really be living with them in peace?

What if he simply makes a mistake and claims that it is wrong to charge interest when, in fact, doing so is an essential part of a viable economy?

The “Noble Lie” has some merit, but it is ultimately a trap. It is as useful for promoting evil as it is for promoting good. This evil may be intentional (to advance the ambitions of those who created a particular version of the Noble Lie), or unintentional (because, what the inventors of the Noble Lie thought was a good idea, was not such a good idea).


The Noble Lie is not a good way to get bad people to do the right thing when they are alone. We need to use real-world tools. The process starts with focusing our attention on making sure that children learn good values so that, even when we leave them alone, they will do the right thing, because they want to. It continues with having fair and just laws that reinforce good moral values, and the tools to enforce those laws.

Most importantly, we need the freedom to question those values, and to change them when we discover that what we once thought were good values were not so good after all. These rules were not made by a “divine entity”, but by humans. We do not need the errors and potential corruption of people living thousands of years ago who were substantially ignorant of the world in which they lived, carved into stone and put outside the realm of rational inquiry. We will pay a heavy price if we do.

1 comment:

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Belabor to your heart's content. I assume that you are asking questions that millions of others would be asking. Only, you get to do it for them.

You know . . . I read this and my first response was, "Why don't you read what I wrote?"

Then, I realized that you had not read it because I had not posted it. Tonight's blog entry, which I wrote this morning before checking my mail, is about moral facts.

Yes, I believe that there are moral facts.

I believe that morality is objective and universal. However, I do not believe that it is absolute or unchanging.

Moral facts are like scientific facts. "John is taller than Jane" is a scientific fact. It is objective (the statement is either true or false). It is universal (anybody who denies that John is taller than Jane is mistaken). However, it is not absolute (the fact that John is taller than Jane does not imply that John is the tallest person that ever has or ever will exist). Nor is it unchanging. (Since John is Jane's child, there was once a time when John was shorter than Jane, but that changed over time.)

Am I a moral relativist?

I am in a sense, but not in the sense that I suspect that you are asking a question.

Is "n > 3" a true or false statement? It depends on what 'n' is. If n = 5 then, yes, n > 3. If n = 0 then, no, n is not > 3.

Now, if you believe this, are you a mathematical relativist or a mathematical absolutist? After all, the only right answer to the question, "is n > 3" is "It depends". Is this relativism? Or is this absolutism? Or is this a little of both?

My view on morality is that it is a little of both. Those who insist that morality must be absolute, or it must be relative, will never resolve their differences, because they are both wrong.

Anyway, I do not think I missed your point about "why be moral?" The reason to be moral is because one wants to be moral. This is the only reason we do anything. We choose the action that best fulfills our desires, given our beliefs.

This then leads to the question, "How do we get people to want to be moral?"