Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Morality; What's in it for Me?

It has occurred to me that in many of the metaethical discussions that I've seen and participated with online a point of contention is always about the justifications for morality. Why should I be moral? Yet what underlies that simple phrase in so many times is really a selfish "What do I get out of being moral?" There lies a selfish self-centered conception of morality where one will only act morally if there is some benefit to themselves.

This, naturally, is seen in its purist form when it comes to the religious carrot and stick conception of morality. If I do good I will go to heaven and enjoy eternal bliss. If I do bad I will go to hell and suffer forever. Some religions have a more subdued metaphysical equation. Perhaps it's not eternal suffering, but simply a ceased existence. And perhaps it isn't 'heaven' or physical pleasures, but a higher unison with the Almighty. Whatever the equation is for each particular religious tradition (at least Western religions) it invariably levels with it being in the individual's best interests to live morally.

And this isn't found solely in religious traditions. Objectivism and even some forms of Utilitarianism can be seen as arguing for an 'enlightened self-interest' which is simply saying that being moral eventually leads to you being better off. Again, we see morality being put to the service of oneself.

Now in any of these cases, the justifications for moral activity may be very effective and people may act very morally, but I think that their moral theory is rotten.

Morality should not be about bettering one's own state. For if it is then it really is not distinct from making a sound fiscal investment or making friends with powerful people. It becomes a tool and not an end in itself. This is a rotten moral theory that has not gotten past the 'What's in it for me?' conception of life.

As I see it, morality has to be about what is right in a sense that transcends the personal. If I act morally, it shouldn't be because I get something out of it - though I might. Morality is about the other, for the other people in involves, for the other ends for which it increases value. One's own desires and goals should be only secondary to moral principles. If morality is about 'what it does for me' then it ceases to be a discussion of morality at all.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great topic!

Just a thought:

Had Odom HaRishon been convinced that the Pri Etz Hada'as was not evil, but bad (as physical poison to his biological self), neither Chava or the Nachash or all the Serafim together could have persuaded him to eat from it.

Spinoza retells the tale of the Gan to illustrate how self serving understanding can be a good thing. (Hobbes sees it as a negative.) I tend to agree that putting concepts, either moral or ethical, into practical and useful terms is easier for people to grasp. Is manipulating the self interest of human beings the loftiest way to get the job none? Hell no. But we have to work with what we have.

If you were to ask me if I am a moral man, I would deny having any morals. I simply have a self-interest that includes improving my intellect (what little I possess), artistic pursuits, fidelity, and strong work ethic. Morality is what you do when no one else is watching.

Anonymous said...

In real life, morality probably has more to do with avoiding punishment than anything else. Imagine that all law enforcement officers would disappear for one week. What would the United States look like?

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure there is a well established moral theory which advocates that. I can't remember the name though.

Anonymous said...

I actually believe pretty strongly that there is no such thing as pure altruism. Each and every single action that any of us do is motivated (on some level) by self-interest.

What about something like giving charity? We do it either to avoid guilt, or because it makes us feel good about ourselves. Heck, give me any action and I'll show you how it's ultimately done for "selfish" reasons.

What, then, differentiates a "good" person from a "bad" one? It has to do with the things I mentioned above. A "good" person is one who would feel guilt for hurting another, or who would feel rewarded by helping others.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: Objectivism and even some forms of Utilitarianism can be seen as arguing for an 'enlightened self-interest' which is simply saying that being moral eventually leads to you being better off.

That's right. But behaving in a moral fashion not only helps you (sometimes in the short term and sometimes - hopefully - in the long term) but also helps other people too. There might *ultimately* something in acting morally 'for me'... but I won't always see that come to fruition and it isn't always the only reason why I would be moral/ethical in any particular situation. You have to take into account our culture, our upbringing and our genes to explain why people act in a moral fashion - whatever that means to people.

Orthoprax said...

Shlomo,

"If you were to ask me if I am a moral man, I would deny having any morals. I simply have a self-interest that includes improving my intellect (what little I possess), artistic pursuits, fidelity, and strong work ethic. Morality is what you do when no one else is watching."

That would be the honest approach. If you believe morality is about self-interest, then just talk about self-interest and leave morality out of it.


JP,

"In real life, morality probably has more to do with avoiding punishment than anything else. Imagine that all law enforcement officers would disappear for one week. What would the United States look like?"

And that's a real shame. Though I believe I can speak for myself, that if I was in such a situation I still would not harm anyone else for my own good. I might park illegally but that would be the extent of it.


Anon,

"I'm pretty sure there is a well established moral theory which advocates that. I can't remember the name though."

Sure, any moral theory of the deontological persuasion. Kant is a classic.


It,

"I actually believe pretty strongly that there is no such thing as pure altruism. Each and every single action that any of us do is motivated (on some level) by self-interest."

You may be right - though I would ideally see one's 'self-interest' being identified with some other greater interest by which our actions would be guided.

But I would also suspect that if a person trains himself to act altruistically as a matter of course the selfish motives won't even come up.


Cyber,

"but I won't always see that come to fruition and it isn't always the only reason why I would be moral/ethical in any particular situation."

Ok. What other reasons are you thinking of? The goal would be to move onto those reasons to justify moral actions rather than focusing on personal betterment.

dbs said...

I think that everyone is selflishly motivated to behave morally. (With rare scociopathic exceptions.) We want to be 'good' because it makes us feel more worthy as people, becouse we seek the acceptance of others, and because we know that we need community to survive. We behave becouse we do not want to lose the standing which we have both with ourselves and with others. Sometimes we do good deeds because we want to, and all of these feelings are in harmony. And sometimes we have a problem with doing something, and our emotions are in conflict.

Sure, you can act on a philisophical conviction - but that is internal as well.

But that this fact exists does not diminish the objective value which morality has for humanity.

From a functional perspective, being moral l'shma, has the same effect (at least on the other person) as lo'lishma.

But, more importantly, the concept of being self-less is not a healthy concept. You shouldn't be striving to lose you're own feelings and conflicts - you should be paying attention to them and learning from them.

alex said...

Judaism has some interesting statements that need to be -- and can be -- reconciled: "And faithful is your Employer that He will pay you the reward for your labor." -- and -- "do not serve Him in order to receive reward."

Orthoprax said...

DBS,

"But that this fact exists does not diminish the objective value which morality has for humanity."

Ok, see, here we are already taking a step away from the personal. If this is the cause of the action then it could be considered a moral one. If the cause of the action is for any of the previous reason you gave, then in what sense is it moral?

Is making a good investment a moral action? Is looking both ways before you cross the street a moral act? Is eating healthy food a moral act? They have nothing to do with morality.


Alex,

"Judaism has some interesting statements that need to be -- and can be -- reconciled: "And faithful is your Employer that He will pay you the reward for your labor." -- and -- "do not serve Him in order to receive reward.""

I like it when Judaism has things like that. Obvious conflicts that somehow coexist.

I also like the one with the pockets and in one side thinking that "for my sake was the world created" vs the other side which is that "I am but dust and ashes."

Anonymous said...

Perhaps there are behaviors that have mistakenly become elevated to a 'moral' standing that should not be, and this is where the problem lies. In other words, the moral base or compass that we use is driven by another's need for us to behave in a particular manner, no matter what the circumstance.

The reason why such a behavior was encouraged or discouraged doesn't matter. It could something as simple as "the King hates the color orange". So the wearing of orange becomes a stigma as people avoid orange and use the color to identify things they hate. Wearing orange doesn't cause hate, thinking that orange is evil cause others to react to those who wear orange in a negative way.

Herein lies the problem of morality. The cause and effect of the behavior does not necessarily stem directly from the act itself. Morality is about symbolism and not substance.

Anonymous said...

Let me add this thought:

Cause and effect in terms of direct consequences have no soul or conscience. They are or are not based upon cold, hard reality. Reality has a predictable pattern.

Morality is capricious and arbitrary. If I wear orange and the King never finds out, will I injure myself? What if I wear orange in a country where only magenta is outlawed?

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: What other reasons are you thinking of? The goal would be to move onto those reasons to justify moral actions rather than focusing on personal betterment.

As I said in my previous statement:

You have to take into account our culture, our upbringing and our genes to explain why people act in a moral fashion - whatever that means to people.

The 'problem' in talking about morality is that what is/is not a "moral action" depends upon culture, uprbringing and life experience. Therefore, it is quite reasonable for you and I to have different ideas of what a moral action is. That makes any kind of discusion of morality rather difficult I think.

Orthoprax said...

Shlomo,

"Herein lies the problem of morality. The cause and effect of the behavior does not necessarily stem directly from the act itself. Morality is about symbolism and not substance."

Well, perhaps in some cases. But I don't think arbitrary conditions meet a proper definition of morality. I do not believe all 'oughts' are based on capricious grounds.


Cyber,

"Therefore, it is quite reasonable for you and I to have different ideas of what a moral action is. That makes any kind of discusion of morality rather difficult I think."

While that may be true, it is not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the motives behind one's actions and how the act can classify as a moral one vs an amoral one.

As I understand it, if you act out of self-interest then it is not a moral act as far as you are concerned.

CyberKitten said...

Orthoprax said: I'm talking about the motives behind one's actions and how the act can classify as a moral one vs an amoral one. As I understand it, if you act out of self-interest then it is not a moral act as far as you are concerned.

Does the motive behind the act particularly matter? If I help someone for ultimately selfish reasons I have *still* helped them. As long as I am not using them for exclusively for my own ends (something *I* consider to be immoral) does the reason I acted in a moral fashion really mean much?

An act can be classified as a moral one by the person performing the act, those on the reciving end, society as a whole, other societies (with different ideas of morality) or historians looking back on the act. All those people can judge the act in different ways - many not even being aware of the motivation behind the act.

Orthoprax said...

Cyber,

"Does the motive behind the act particularly matter?"

Of course it does. That is key for a moral theory. Suppose you mean to harm someone but it accidentally helps them instead, is that a moral act?

The same act in exactly the same circumstances can be moral or immoral based on intent. A person is sick and asks for food. If you give him an apple because he is hungry, that is a moral act. If you give him an apple because you know his throat muscles are weak and you think he'll choke, that would be immoral.