Why Be Moral?

I have always felt there was something wrong about the question "Why should we be moral?" or "Why should we care about others?" and I realized today what that is. The question assumes that any valid answer would have to phrase morality in terms of individual self-interest or otherwise the question would remain unanswered. And that is precisely where the flaw is: morality cannot be reduced to self-interest, and the moment it is phrased in terms of self-interest, it ceases to be morality and disintegrates into something low and base. The more we engage in the question, the more we validate the underlying assumption. I believe there is no answer to this question, or if an answer exists, it is of this sort: we ought to be moral because morality is a compelling reason itself for moral beings.

Now, it is true that morality does have certain advantages for an individual. For example, a moral life leads to psychological and spiritual well-being (as claimed by virtue ethics and mysticism, something which I believe myself). But these benefits are not the reasons to be moral; they are not the answer to the question "Why be moral?"; they do not reduce morality to self-interest. It is clear to me that any person who tries to be moral in the spirit of self-interest can only pretend to be moral; genuine morality will always evade him/her. The fruits of morality for an individual can only be tasted if you act morally regardless of self-interest, if you are moral because you find morality a compelling reason in itself.

Morality has nothing to offer to a selfish soul.

Comments

F. said…
" And that is precisely where the flaw is: morality cannot be reduced to self-interest, and the moment it is phrased in terms of self-interest, it ceases to be morality and disintegrates into something low and base."
"It is clear to me that any person who tries to be moral in the spirit of self-interest can only pretend to be moral; genuine morality will always evade him."

Makes all or most religions fundamentally immoral, you know.
:)
'Do you believe in Heaven?'
'No, I'm too moral to believe in Heaven!'

*lol* Two thumbs up.
Butters said…
I'm afraid I disagree. The question may make you uncomfortable, but until you have an answer to it, it is a pertinent question.

From a theistic point of view, there is no morality other than God's will. Manifesting God's will, as a goal, is not a self-interested one, but is one that we are nevertheless innately desirous of, by our constitution as God-lover and people with a Divine soul.
Butters said…
God's will is the only thing that is an end in itself, and that can be experienced as an end in itself. It is maximum bliss, yes, but the bliss is not a reward but a sign of the correctness of what you are doing.

To me pleasure or happiness come from value, not value from happiness. Thus, God having the greatest value, would be the most pleasurable thing. To say we seek God out of self-interest is misleading: we seek God out of God-interest, it just so happens that that leads to our greatest self-interest!
Awais Aftab said…
@ Butters

In that case, manifesting God's will is the goal or the aim of morality, it is the not the reason to be moral. As a reason, it is simply regressive:

"Why be moral?"
"To manifest God's will."
"Why manifest God's will?"
?
If you give another non-self-interested reason X, that X is why we should manifest God's will, then the question would become

"Why X?"

"Why Y?"

"Why Z?"

And the chain of "Why?" would continue until you give a reason based on self-interest, and then you'd be admitting that morality is reductive to self-interest.

Manifesting God's will can very well be the aim and goal of morality, but it cannot be the reason of why we should be moral.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Butters

Or rather, wait.
You are saying the same thing in different words.

here is no morality other than God's will.

Morality is a manifestation of God's will, and you say God's will is an end-in-itself. It is pretty saying that morality is an end-in-itself.

Morality = God's will
God's will is an end-in-itself
Therefore, Morality being a manifestation of God's will is an end in itself.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Butters

Your answer is just an explanation in mystical terms of why morality is an end-in-itself. You are explaining the mechanism. Morality is an end-in-itself because it is the manifestation of God's will, and God's will is experienced as an end-in-itself.
ahish said…
There are efforts to construct a scientific theory of morality. Perhaps you have heard of the book by discredited scientist Marc Hauser-"Moral Minds". Do you think scientific theories could answer questions like the ones you have posed? Could we not have an evolutionary imperative to be moral?
Butters said…
Yes, and thus my answer is a successful answer to the why-be-moral problem.

But the atheist cannot produce a successful answer to this problem. If they can, show me how.
Awais Aftab said…
@ ahish

Yes, there could be an evolutionary imperative to be moral, but that would only explain how we got our moral sense, it wouldn't tell us why we ought to be moral. Why ought we care for the evolutionary imperative?
Awais Aftab said…
@ Butters

Yes, I agree. Atheists cannot explain the mechanism of why morality is an end-in-itself. Therefore the mystical answer is superior in this regard. The mystical answer is superior, but it doesn't contradict the view that morality is an end-in-itself. It embraces it, and takes it a step further. So when an atheist claims that morality is an end-in-itself, he is not saying anything that stands in contradiction to mystical morality.
Butters said…
But the atheist cannot justify his view. The mystic can, since he can say that God is an end in itself, and that in turn can be justified by the nature of God as the thing of greatest value.
Butters said…
The point is not to explain the mechanism, but justify the position (that morality is an end in itself). The atheist cannot do that, so it is not rational for him to believe it.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Butters

Yes, an atheist would then have to accept that morality has no rational justification. One can easily hold the view that the basis of morality is independent of rationality.

And if asked "What's the proof?", one can say "That's how it appears to be."

And there would be nothing wrong with the statement 'That's how it appears to be' because that is how it is. The only difference is that Atheist can't explain why it is this way, and the Mystic can.
ahish said…
As you have demonstrated in one of your comments attempts to find any explanation other than a teleological one will lead to epistemic regress. But I am not convinced that teleological explanations are satisfactory. Surely one could argue from evolutionary standpoint that morality is one of the many mechanisms developed for survival. We ought to care for morality as it helps us survive as a species. Certainly this is as good an explanation as the intrinsically teleological one you proffer.
Awais Aftab said…
@ ahish

Ok, there are several answers to this.

1) To be able to care for the survival of human species, it presumes a certain moral development. A selfish person could still say that I don't care about the survival of species, I only care about my individual well-being. What then?

2) It only explains why we should care for other humans. It doesn't explain, for instance, why we should be kind towards other animals.

3) The survival of species on the whole is unaffected by all acts of violence that do not happen on the scale of extinction. Hitler massacred millions of Jews, and yet the Holocaust hardly affected the odds of survival of human race. Why would the 'survival of human species' hinder a murderer from killing a particular person. Or why would 'survival of human species' prevent a thief from stealing. Or why would it prevent a person from inflicting cruelty on another human being. The simple fact is, our individual acts bear no relevance to the survival of species, so what incentive does an individual have to not be immoral?
Awais Aftab said…
@ ahish

And here I am reminded of a perfect example.

Evolutionary psychologists are arguing that rape might confer an evolutionary advantage, and that is why it has been perpetuated. I am not saying that it is true, but suppose that it is, would this 'evolutionary advantage' that rape confers make it moral to rape? Clearly not.
Awais Aftab said…
@ ahish

In fact, it is in the benefit of the species that we kill all the mentally retarded people, and all the people with hereditary diseases, so that these genetic diseases will not be transmitted, and the human gene pool would improve. But this clear cut evolutionary advantage is also clear cut immoral. How would you explain that?
Butters said…
Awais,

Interesting point, and good answer. I agree with what you're saying.
Alec Lindsay said…
I seem to leave the same opinion on all of your posts. Essentially you only ever discuss morality, and morality is a construct. You can believe that there are innate things in humanity but there is no way to validate them - in fact the only 'evidence' tends to disprove the idea that morality, for instance, is something other than a collection of rules to govern conduct. The fact that in some societies morality is not necessarily self-interested tends to show that self-interest may not necessarily be the motivation to be moral. It might be nice or even uplifting to believe that morality might be innate, but such beliefs aren't proofs. And it's no use denigrating proof. Spiritual people are inclined to substitute belief or faith for proof. An exclusive diet of the superstitious creed 'I believe something, therefore it is true' doesn't seem like a feast on which the intellectual life of man can flourish.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Alec

I don't think that I have tried to "prove" that morality is anything more than a human construct. I don't think there is any strictly rational proof of that. There is no rational proof of showing that morality is metaphysically "objective". Atheist philosophers who are moral realists have no rational proof of that. It is just a view they hold because that is how the matter seems to them.

Mystics, at least the ones I hang out with, are not presenting their beliefs as a rational "proof" of anything, though it may seem so sometimes. To you it may seem just a belief, but for mystics it is a belief grounded in their mystical experience, and it is that mystical experience that provides the basis for those beliefs. These views are not matters of "faith" in the traditional sense of the world. They are grounded in an experience, which is as real for them as this physical world is for you. Of course, i also genuinely believe that people who have no mystic experience or people who doubt the validity of mystic experience have no obligation to accept these beliefs, because as i said, they are not meant to be expounded as "faith". So, you have no rational obligation to accept them, believe them, or agree with them, and I respect that.
Alec Lindsay said…
Thank's for your 'answer', but I don't actually think you have 'tried to "prove" that morality is anything more than a human construct'. That wasn't really what I said, nor was that the point I was trying to get across. I'll try a bit harder.
Mystical experience is at best (and worst) personal. It isn't measurable in any way, so such experience, for those asked to believe in another's mystical experience, is a matter of "faith" in the 'traditional sense of the word'. But the fact that mystics can retreat behind statements which have no measurable validity, often, worryingly, when the going gets tough, would lead me to hesitate to 'believe' in morality based on such 'experience'. I'm sure mystic experience is real to those who experience it. I have no problem believing that, but it's the nature of mystic experience that I think it's possible to be worried about.
It's kind of you to say that I have no rational obligation to accept the statements of mystics, although I do believe I had already spotted that option :)
Incidentally, my mind is not closed either to the notion that the physical world may not be real, or even that it might be. I hope you'll move on to the nature of reality. I enjoy your blog, not just because you are the handsomest of bloggers. Sorry. That might be irrelevant.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Alec

Mystical experience is at best (and worst) personal. It isn't measurable in any way, so such experience, for those asked to believe in another's mystical experience, is a matter of "faith" in the 'traditional sense of the word'.

Yes, I agree mystical experience is an extremely personal experience. And yes, I agree, there is no measurable way for a non-mystic, and when confronted with a mystic's confession of an experience, it is a matter of "belief" for a non-mystic whether to believe the truth of it or not. But there is one crucial point: mysticism is open for all. The only way to judge the veracity of mysticism is to practice mysticism for yourself. A mystic would not say "Believe in my experiences". He would say "This is what I experienced. I invite you to experience for yourself." If a nuclear scientist reports the finding of an experiment, you could essentially doubt his word for it. But the only definite way to confirm would be to do that experiment for yourself. The laboratory is open; the practice of mysticism is not exclusive. If you are not even sufficiently convinced and motivated to engage in mystic practice for yourself, then it is your choice. You are at liberty to disagree and disbelieve, but you can't blame a mystic for speaking out aloud for what he considers to be something real and genuine, when he is not even asking you to accept what he says simply as a matter of faith.

Secondly, even though you have chosen to criticize the issue of mysticism, the blog post that i wrote is almost entirely secular. The reasoning that I used in tackling the question "Why be moral?" makes no use of mysticism. I only discussed mysticism in response to the questions of a mystic, while maintaining that the secular reasoning I used remains compatible with mystic morality. You can ignore those parts, and simply focus on the reasoning in the post which is essentially secular.

You have mentioned that you believe morality to be a human construct. I am curious to know how would you answer the question "Why be moral?" What answer would you give to a person who only cares for his self-interest and cares for nothing else? And also, does you belief in morality being a construct imply that you believe in moral relativism?

P.S. Thank you for the compliment.
Alec Lindsay said…
How do you 'set it up' the mystic experience for those who haven't had one? Do you study mystics and what they say and wait for it to happen? Sit in a desert and wait for revelation? Open your mind for enlightenment to flood in? Such things bear no relation to a scientific experiment which starts with things which are known and uses them to act on each other to reveal things which are unknown, and they in turn become the things which are known and are built on in their turn. Mysticism has nothing but the beliefs of those who have had a mystic experience, to offer as a starting point for the neophyte.
I don't think I asked the mystic to keep stum. They can talk as much as they choose with no hint of hindrance from me. It is idle curiosity that motivated my enquiry, because in the final analysis what a mystic believes doesn't matter. Or, I would say that but for the fact that mystics are often moved to insist that others accept their beliefs and live by their rules. Mysticism carries dangers for the non-mystic.
'Why be moral' is easy. Morality is nothing more than learnt rules. We, in our social state, create morality as a means of maintaining a cohesive society, and it's imperative for our social cohesion that individuals observe this common 'morality'. Where social cohesion breaks down and the force maintaining the 'morality' has been removed, individuals sometimes continue to order their lives by the morality they learnt in the old society. They quickly have to learn to abandon that 'morality' if it proves inadequate for living in whatever social grouping emerges after the breakdown of the society whose rules they had been observing.
You will appreciate that I believe that morality and law are closely related. In practice law usually lags behind 'morality'; it doesn't immediately reflect the way society's view on things changes. In most societies this is a cause of friction, but generally law does catch up with morality.
Investing such rules with mystic force is a device for improving their observance. Some of us find it more comfortable to believe in morality if we are convinced it come from a 'higher authority' and is not the work of men. To the individual who only believes in his own self interest I would say you must be prepared to suffer the consequences of our wrath if your individual self interest conflicts with our collective self interest. You will have gathered that naturally I believe in moral relativism.
I apologise for pursuing the mysticism route and not the secular aspects of your post. At the moment, fortunately, we in the west have to pander only tangentially to the claims of mysticism, so see no need to make secular reasoning compatible with mystic morality. It is a sadness to me that the forces of superstition are starting to make headway again in the west and that such pandering has begun even here. I see the end of this path as giving power to narrow minded fanatics.
Awais Aftab said…
@ Alec

No, that is not correct. Mysticism does have a method. True, its not a 'scientific' method, but a method nevertheless. I am not qualified to discuss it, but if you are interested, this book is a good introduction:
http://www.aurobindo.ru/workings/satprem/adventure_of_consciousness_e.htm

mystics are often moved to insist that others accept their beliefs and live by their rules. Mysticism carries dangers for the non-mystic.

That is the religious mentality, not the mystic mentality. I disapprove and disagree with any person, mystic or otherwise, who would insist on such a thing. My stance is very clear on this. I believe in complete freedom of belief and practice.

'Why be moral' is easy. Morality is nothing more than learnt rules.... I believe in moral relativism.

So you mean to say that no morality is essentially 'right' or 'wrong', and all moralities are essentially social rules. How would you respond to a society that endorses slavery and preaches that it is okay to rape your slave at your will? Would you say that there is nothing essentially "wrong" with this morality, and that it is on an equal basis with the morality of human freedom, both being mere social constructs? Would you have any reason at all to condemn the practices of such a society? Would you even condemn it?
Awais Aftab said…
* correct link:

http://www.aurobindo.ru/workings/satprem/
adventure_of_consciousness_e.htm
Alec Lindsay said…
I am forced to say, being logical, that if a society endorses slavery etc. then such rules can't be called 'wrong'. Personally I wouldn't like such rules, and if I lived in such a society I hope I would take action against them. I think, however, this is not a response born of an innate morality (although I would have to recognise that something of a belief in innate morality inevitably rubs off on one if one has spent one's life living in a moralistic society). I would 'explain' my objection to these practices by saying that some things are antithetical to a well ordered society - lack of justice, random acts of violence, discrimination, and others being among them. It would be for those reasons that I wouldn't condone the acts you think immoral.
Thanks for the corrections and the information. I'll follow up your suggestions :)
Awais Aftab said…
@ Alec

Yes, that is the logical conclusion of moral relativism. I find it unacceptable, not only because of its impotence in the face of culturally-endorsed human rights violations, but also because I find it so intensely counter-intuitive that i was not a moral relativist even when I was a genuine atheist. I have always been a Moral Realist, because I have strong intuitions of morality, and moral relativism has always seemed inadequate to me in the face of that. Then again, I am not presenting my intuitions as a rational "proof" of moral realism; it is just how things appear to me to be. Of course, they don't appear to you to be that way, and that is where our genuine disagreement lies.
Alec Lindsay said…
I won't keep on. I think I've said all I need to, except to add that intuition, like morals, only exists as a fiction. I've enjoyed your post and the resulting comments very much.
Guy Pursey said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Guy Pursey said…
I too enjoyed this post and the resulting comments especially. I have mentioned it on my own blog and added a few thoughts.