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Introduction to Ethics and Political Philosophy

Term 1, Lecture 1

Why be Moral?
The question Why be moral? can be understood as an attempt to illuminate a deeper, more fundamental philosophical concern: namely, that of fixing the conceptual boundaries of morality of understanding what morality is. However, What is morality? seems a very difficult question to tackle head-on. We might try saying that morality is a set of practical rules and considerations governing the social interactions of rational beings. But then another question arises: what distinguishes these practices and considerations from other practical concerns, such as prudential reasons, the rules of etiquette, or legal obligations? Can we fix the boundaries of the moral province in a way that would set moral matters apart from these other considerations? It seems preferable to try to circumscribe morality by focusing on the idea of character. (The etymology of our word morality is evocative in this sense: the word comes from a Latin term meaning character or temperament, a term coined by Cicero in order to translate the Greek ethikos, which also had similar connotations.) The question would now be: what sort of dispositions does one need in order to get inside the province of morality? A good way of understanding moral character is to imagine people lacking it, and then ask ourselves: what sort of dispositions would such people need to acquire in order to become moral? Thus, consider a personage called the amoralist. This is not to be confused with the immoralist that is, with a kind of Miltonian Lucifer, who knows the good but purposefully does evil; also not to be confused with Nietzsche who, despite his rejection of conventional morality which he saw as an attempt to tame human beings, animated by feelings of resentment did propose another type of morality in its place, based on the ideal of the superhuman and on considerations to do with the will to power. The amoralist is just someone who is totally oblivious to any moral concern, someone who makes plans and has aims, but is not willing to acknowledge the interests of others in his deliberations. Is there anything we could say to this character to convince him to enter the sphere of morality? And what does he lack if he fails to be persuaded? Answering these questions will help us gain a better understanding of morality. You may be wondering, is the amoralist a real-life character, as opposed to a philosophers bogeyman, a half-baked figure from the philosophical Madame Tussauds? After all, social psychology never ceases to remind us that sociability is not just an accidental feature of human beings - rather, it is hard wired into our brains. Ad from sociability to morality there seems but a small step: all we need to assume is that human beings have a strong tendency to conform to the rules of their societies and to refrain from harming others, so that others in turn refrain from harming them. Since nature seems to have endowed all of us with such tendencies, is it even possible - one might ask - for humans to be amoral? Notice, however, that psychology itself provides good examples of people who come close to our description of the amoralist. One such example is that of people suffering from an Antisocial Personality Disorder (commonly known as sociopaths): these are people showing an apparent lack


of remorse or empathy for others, persistent lying or stealing, poor behavioural controls, and inadequate control of anger and temper. Another example is that of people suffering from severe cases of autism: unlike sociopaths, they are not driven to do bad things, but simply lack the capacity to understand other people as having minds, and therefore are not capable of empathising. 1. Whats at stake? 1.1. Sentimentalism vs Rationalism Thinking about such people suggests that what they would need in order to get inside the sphere of morality is the capacity to regard other people as their equals, and therefore to acknowledge that the interests of those people should e taken into consideration. But is this a rational capacity, or an emotional one? In other words, is the amoralist irrational, or merely emotionally deficient? This brings up the contrast between sentimentalism (the view that morality is based on sentiment or passion) and rationalism (the view that morality is based on reason). Sentimentalism has come to be closely associated with Hume, rationalism with Kant (though, of course, many other philosophers defended each of these views before and after the 18th century). Sentimentalism places morality under the sign of Dionysus, rationalism under the sign of Apollo. According to some philosophers (e.g., Bernard Williams, John Mackie), the character of the amoralist shows us that sentimentalism is the correct view of morality: what the amoralist lacks, and would need in order to get inside the sphere of morality, is an emotional disposition (altruistic feelings), not rational argument. 1.2. Is the Amoralist Irrational? Some rationalists have tried to resist this conclusion, and have sought instead to show that the amoralist, i.e. the person who is not willing to consider other peoples interests, is guilty of a rational (not just emotional) shortcoming. Two purported arguments against the amoralist: (A) Platos argument in the Republic that justice is always better than injustice, even when the former is counterbalanced by pain and dishonour and the latter supplemented by pleasure and honour. Platos argument is premised on a particular view of justice that takes it to be a healthy state of the soul, conducive to happiness just in the same way as physical health of the body is conducive to well-being. Moreover, the argument assumes a tripartite view according to which the soul is composed of three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. Reason seeks truth and wisdom, spirit seeks courage and honour, while appetite is the seat of basic instincts like hunger, thirst, sex, etc. According to Plato, a human soul is happy only when its harmonious, and a harmonious soul is one ruled by reason. Moreover, a harmonious soul is just, because a human being whose soul is in harmony will always act for the sake of the good. BUT: Difficulties accepting the tripartite view of the soul. Moreover, why accept that all people whose reason is in charge are going to be moral? (B) A Kantian argument: by ignoring the interests of other people, the amoralist is committed to the view that those peoples lives lack any intrinsic value; but by pursuing his own interests, he is committed to his own life being intrinsically valuable. Therefore, he must think that he is somehow


superior to other people, if his life is valuable but theirs is not. However, absent any good grounds to assume that he is indeed such a special person (and what sort of arguments could these be?), this view is simply irrational. BUT: Again, there is no need for the amoralist to think in these terms. Perhaps he would be irrational if he thought he was special. However, he might just be someone who believes that, from the point of view of the universe, all human life (including his own) is devoid of any objective value. He might nevertheless think that each persons life is subjectively valuable (i.e., valuable to him or to her), and therefore that it is rational for each person to value their own life however they want. He values his, other people value theirs. Theres no irrationality in that. In addition, consider the case of depressed people: they often think that all human life is devoid of any value. Can we argue them into valuing life again? Its unlikely. What they need is not argument, but emotional impetus. (The example of Maria von Herbert, a student of Kants experiencing just such a case of depression. Kant attempted to give her reasons against thinking that life is devoid of value, by appealing to the categorical imperative. Her reply was: Ive read the metaphysic of morals and the categorical imperative, and it doesnt help a bit. Kants failure may be illustrative of how rationalism fails, more generally, in its attempt to provide a viable entry point into morality.) So perhaps we should conclude, with Williams (1976), that the amoralist can be rational. Still, he isnt a very likeable character, devoid as he is of any real empathy or altruistic disposition. At this stage, however, a worrying thought might arise: arent we all really like the amoralist in this respect? Do we really have genuine altruistic inclinations? 2. The Doctrine of Psychological Egoism The thought behind this doctrine is that, when our true nature is unmasked through careful analysis of our psychological motives, we will all be revealed for what we really are: egoistic agents, selfishly trying to satisfy our own desires and acting morally only when it is in our interest to do so.
The economy of nature is competitive from beginning to end. Understand that economy, and how it works, and the underlying reasons for social phenomena are manifest. They are the means by which one organism gains some advantage to the detriment of another. No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for co-operation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation. The impulses that lead one animal to sacrifice himself for another turn out to have their ultimate rationale in gaining advantage over a third; and acts for the good of one society turn out to be performed to the detriment of the rest. Where it is in his own interest, every organism may reasonably be expected to aid his fellows. Where he has no alternative, he submits to the yoke of communal servitude. Yet given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain him from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering his brother, his mate, his parent or his child. Scratch an altruist, and watch a hypocrite bleed. (M.T. Ghiselin, The Economy of Nature and the Evolution of Sex)

If this view of human nature is true, what follows about morality? The answer depends on whether or not we think that altruism is a necessary condition of morality: (i) if we take altruism to be a necessary condition of morality, then since altruism is impossible, so is morality this seems to have been Ghiselins thought; it is also the position defended by Thrasymachus in Platos Republic; (ii) if we dont take altruism to be a necessary condition of morality, then we might still think that morality is possible; philosophers who embrace this view typically try to show that morality and cooperation can emerge from purely egoistic interests (see Gauthier 1986)


3. Is the Doctrine of Psychological Egoism Correct? According to PE, even when we do things that prima facie seem altruistic (like donating to charity, saving someones life by endangering or even sacrificing ours, etc.), the real motivation behind those acts is selfish: we are seeking our own pleasure, or satisfying our own desires e.g., what we really desire is that others think highly of us because weve done something good, or perhaps what we want is to feel good about ourselves. Joseph Butler raises a number of strong objections against this view: (i) firstly, he points out that the pleasure we derive from thinking that weve done something good and which the egoist thinks is the ultimate end of our actions could not be explained if our action (e.g., donating to charity) was not really good; but the judgment that an action such as donating to charity is really good doesnt make sense unless egoism is false. (ii) moreover, he adds:
That all particular appetites and passions are towards external things themselves, distinct from the pleasure arising from them, is manifested from hence; that there could not be this pleasure, were it not for that prior suitableness between the object and the passion: there could be no enjoyment or delight from one thing more than another, from eating food more than from swallowing a stone, if there were not an affection or appetite to one thing more than another (Butler 1726)

In other words, if I desire an apple, then that apple is the external object of my desire. According to PE, what I really want is not the external object, but the internal sense of pleasure or satisfaction that I would derive from it. In that case, however, that internal sense of satisfaction could be achieved by other means: through, hypnosis, for instance, or by getting a pill that would make me think I had an apple; or I could make my own desire go away by swallowing a stone, or by punching myself in the stomach. None of these things really satisfies my desire for an apple. Therefore, what I really desire is not the internal sense of satisfaction, but the external object (in this case, the apple). Applied to altruistic desires, this argument goes as follows: imagine I want to improve the life of a child in Africa, and therefore I donate to charity. The egoist might say what I really want is my own satisfaction. But I could achieve this satisfaction in other ways: I could be made to think, through hypnosis for instance, that I saved the life of a child in Africa by donating to charity, when in fact I havent. Yet, this wouldnt count as having my desire satisfied. Therefore, what I want is not just my satisfaction, as the egoist would have it, but the external object of my desire: in this case, I want the money to go to that child. Bernard Williams (1976) builds on this and proposes the following test for altruistic desires: Imagine that you desire p (e.g., you want your child to do well in life). Someone then gives you a choice between two options: (A) p, but you falsely believe that not-p; or (B) not-p, but you falsely believe that p. If for any of your desires you would choose (A) over (B), then thats a genuinely altruistic desire.

References Butler, J. 1726. Fifteen Sermons Preached at the Rolls Chapel, London: Bell & Sons, 1953. Gauthier, D. 1986. Morals by Agreement, Oxford: O.U.P. 1986. Williams, B. 1976. Egoism and Altruism, in his Problems of the Self, Cambridge, C.U.P., pp. 250-265.