Morality and Rationality: The Big Why

In the absence of any objective moral values, the most obvious haunting question is "Why be moral?" There is, as yet, no satisfactory answer to this question. Psychological observation, however, indicates that people do not cease to be moral just because they lack a philosophical justification to be moral. Most likely this is because we possess an inherent disposition towards moral behavior. A moral person cannot help being moral. A person who makes use of the argument 'Why be moral?' to do something contra-morality is probably already somewhat deficient in that moral disposition.

A question that almost appears analogous to this one is "Why be rational?" There is, as yet, no satisfactory answer to this question either. Rationality cannot justify itself using itself. Again, rational thinking seems to be an inherent disposition, something we cannot help doing. Of course, this disposition, like the moral disposition, is stronger in some than others, but those who have this disposition, they cannot stop being rational just because they can't justify rationality, because even as they ask the question 'Why be rational?' they are already committed to the notion of acting on the best reasons available. Rationality, in this sense, seems to have an instrinsic value for us. There seems to be something worthwhile about preferring truth over falsehood.

The two questions are almost identical, and yet it seems to me that people/philosophers are far less bothered by the question 'why be rational?' than they are by 'why be moral?'. Shouldn't the same answer suffice for morality too? That morality has an intrinsic value, that it is worthwhile to be moral for it's own sake.

Perhaps the justification for rationality and morality lies not in philosophy, but in psychology.


Butters said…
Interesting insight. I suppose you could say that being (pragmatically) rational is just another way of accomplishing goals, with accomplishing goals being necessitated by facts of our body; basically just the fact of our need to survive. Since we fulfill goals by our very nature as creatures who need to survive, rationality is just a way of doing it well, with the 'wellness' of it determined by observable facts (e.g. how quickly or safely we obtain the food we desire).

Now as for being epistemically rational, this is a tricky concept. We pursue truth rather than falsehood because knowing true facts will help us act on them. Or, truth could be defined pragmatically. If it made no difference to our survival whether we knew the truth or not, or whether we took one course of action rather than another, then you could ask: why be epistemically rational? The same goes for pragmatic rationality.

I suppose this is the reason that 'why be rational?' is not as intuitive a question as 'why be moral?' Because our needs and goals can be taken for granted by us in a way that other people's needs and goals can't.

The answer to the 'why be moral?' problem cannot lie in psychology. It's a philosophical problem, and cannot in principle be answered psychologically. You can learn facts about human nature from psychology, but not the relationship between those facts and morality, or the nature of morality. That is a question at a higher level of abstraction.
Uzair said…
Rationality is different from morality in the sense that a person who is being rational will actually be putting himself at an advantage and its in his favor to be rational.

Lets use the wikipedia definition of rationality where "rationality is the exercise of reason". Take the example of a person who needs to go from city A to B. Rational approach will be to take the shortest path between them. And he will be rational here because being rational will save him time (and possibly travelling cost and so on).

However its different from why he should be moral. Being moral does not help him individually. It might help the society but not him personally. He could steal from others or cheat and be more successful. So he has incentive to be immoral, just like in the previous case he had incentive to be rational.

My main point is the two questions "why be moral" and "why be rational" are not analogous. And hence your argument does not quite apply here.

Throughout this argument, I am assuming every person wants to optimize his own personal success or happiness. If that assumption is true, then my points do not hold.
Abdullah_Khalid said…
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Abdullah_Khalid said…
The answer to the question, 'why be moral?' does lie in the domain of philosophy, but the question of 'why are humans moral?' - which is clearly a different question - does lie in psychology - particularly evolutionary psychology.

Now, I am not much read in the field, but my guess is that it will work in the following way. Being more moral creates an evolutionary pressure that tends to less promote your genes, but at the benefit of promoting the survivability of your community. The two effects will balance out, and you will get some moral behavior in humans without making them.. ummm.. 'saintly'.

@Uzair.. Remember that helping society does help you too.
Uzair said…

If we assume everyone else is being moral and you decide not to be moral, then you will certainly gain more personally than what society will indirectly give you.
Bea said…
morality i agree is more intrinsic.. like kind of rooted in a personality.. being or not beaing moral depends more on our circumstances
and ya defination varies for people too.. something moral for one person might not be moral for the other one.. so ya it depends on psycology too
sarah farooq said…
I find discussing morality pretty difficult because I don't think we've come to agree on an exact definition of morality.

However, ignoring that for time being. If I were to apply my own very rough definition of objective morality it would be: whatever code, or principles that allows for the progression and prosperity of living things (plants/animals/humans).

The way I see it the reason we may inherently feel that stealing, lying or murder are wrong, is purely because we realize that if we were to condone these acts, we too are likely to become victims of the same.

I.e, its not a purely philosophical or psychological issue, but one steeped in biology (or ‘evolutionary psychology’ as Mr. Khallid puts it). Our basic sense of survival comes into play. By abhorring ‘immoral’ activity, we are only trying to protect ourselves; because if you apply evolutionary theory, we are programmed with the sole purpose of reproducing, and to reproduce, we must of course survive.

Even our concern for humanity is purely selfish in that sense. Those of us, who are intelligent enough to realize, know that our survival is dependent on that of our environment and our fellow human beings.

So from where I see it, morality is just another form of rationality.

If life is a journey from A (A-= being birth) and -B (B= long, healthy reproductive life, and survival of our genes) than the safest journey to B, would be a moral life without threat to our survival, well-being and health.

Forgive the over-simplification but perhaps morality is then reduced to only a kind of self-preservation instinct.

In response to Uzair: yes, you would gain an advantage if you bypassed morals whereas everyone around you abided by them. BUT the key is realising that if everyone thought selfishly and tried to gain that advantage we'd be in total chaos and destruction.

I guess me must all remember that "the bell tolls for thee" :)
Abdullah_Khalid said…
@Uzair and assorted.. What you are saying is essentially the result a simple game theoric prisoners dilemma.. However, you need to realize is that model is not correct.. The correct model is an iterative prisoners dilemma, where a players decision is also based on the actions of other players in past games... In simple english, if you choose to immoral today to gain an advantage at the expense of others, tomorrow others will have a reason to be immoral too.. Which will lower everyone's individual and total benefit.. Consequently, the best option for you is to be moral...
Uzair said…
Lets assume a simpler case. Lets assume for the sake of this particular example that we know for sure that other people will continue to be moral regardless of whether i act immorally or not.

Now in this situation where my being immoral would not eventually result in a chaotic society, should I still be moral? Remember now there is no prisoner dilemma or element of uncertainty since we know that everyone else will continue to be moral even if I choose to be immoral.
Abdullah_Khalid said…
Of course, you should definitely be immoral, because it's the best option for you.