In the Ethics Series 7.1, we loosely defined ethics as
the point of view that involves taking into account interests/desires others than those of my own
Also, in the previous post, several replies to the question “Why should I act morally?” were given. See the summary of the three replies below:
Reply 1. The question is meaningless because morals are those principles which we assume to be over anything else.
The problem with accepting reply 1 is that it leads to accepting a state of moral anarchy. A genuine state of moral anarchy can be likened to a state of chaos and the emergence of the “the strongest will rule” kind of law. Because of these consequences, reply 1 is seen as unacceptable.
Reply 2. The question is circular like ““Why should I use my reason?”, thus, it can’t be answered without assuming the very object under questioning.
Reply 2 addresses the question as long as “Why should I act morally?” is taken to be asking for moral reasons to act morally. But, the question is simply asking for general reasons to be moral and so it avoids the circularity and should in theory, be answerable.
Reply 3. The most reliable tool we have is reason. So, using reason to justify morals seems like a good idea. A logical argument with 2 premises and conclusion was used.
Premise 1: Universalisability is a property of ethics.
Premise 2: Universalisability is a property of reason.
Conclusion: To say that I would accept as valid the assertion I make even if I was in someone else’s position is to say that my assertion is one that can be asserted from a universal point of view. Both ethics and reason require us to go beyond our personal standpoint. So, acting rationally involves adopting an ethical standpoint in the sense that it involves adopting a universal standpoint.
The first premise is neither true or false (its truth value depends on your personal views on moral and not in some objective criteria). The second premise is true.
The conclusion is false. A rational assertion must be universally valid but it does not necessarily means that it is ethical (see previous post for examples).
The third reply is the strongest one of all the three and the fact that it uses reason to justify the adoption of morals makes it even more important. After all, reason is our most reliable tool. If something as reliable and objective as reason can’t tackle this, what could possibly do so? But before we look for alternatives to reason as moral justifications, let us ask:
“Why can’t reason justify morals?”
The philosopher Hume considered that practical reason ( meaning reasoning in and about life contexts) could not justify morals because it was off-limits. Concretely, he argued that reason only applied to means and not to ends. The ends, he said, were given by our desires. Since morality concerns itself with certain desirable states of affairs (namely those that take into account interests other than my own), it seems fit that we establish certain correlation between morality and desires. As Hume put it, reason and desires are independent, or rather, reason (secondary force) is a means to our desires (primary force). His famous quote is an statement of some of the implications of this view:
`Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. `Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. `Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledge’d lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.
Hume’s view essentially states that desires precede and guide practical reasoning. That is why any attempt to establish an equivalence between reason and ethics in the way done in Reply 3, has to firstly tackle Hume’s view. Three centuries later and there are no successful responses to Hume’s view to be seen. We can wait. In the meantime, let us see alternative ways to rationally justify acting morally.
While we wait, there might still be a way to attempt to to justify “that acting rationally is acting morally” in such a way that it would agree with Hume’s view. What way is that? Self-interest. This approach tries to argue that in acting morally we get something we want.
This approach has an obvious problem. If acting by moral reasons means acting for interests other than your own, then self-interest is by definition amoral since self-interested actions are performed in the expectation to achieve some personal goal. Self-interested actions and moral actions are by definition, morally exclusive.
Are they? It is worth repeating the definition of self-interested actions:
those actions that are performed in the expectation to achieve some personal goal
The criteria used earlier to reject self-interested actions as being amoral was the motive behind the action (i.e. achievement of a personal goal). This is the standpoint of Kant in this matter. Kantian deontology evaluates the moral value an action in terms of the motives behind it. However, we are not tied to this view. Diametrically opposite to kantian deontology, consequentialism evaluates the moral value an action in terms of the consequences behind it. If we just look at the consequences, an action like saving a drowning child because:
a) you would be dumped by your partner if you did not save the child
b) saving the child will increase your social reputation
c) you are being paid for it
d) you care for the child’s well being
has exactly the same moral value because the consequence (the child being saved) is the same. So, those supporting consequentialism would support “self-interest actions that have as result a desired outcome”. So, for consequentialists the question “Why acting morally?” is answered: because you benefit from it.
However, when we put the question and the consequentialist answer in a real-life context, even for consequentialists that answer is only partial. Self-interest can lead to morally good outcomes, but sometimes (especially in critical times and maybe when it is most needed) it is unlikely to lead to morally good outcomes.
Conscientiousness means acting for the sake of what is right. Acting morally. This is the ideal trait long sought after by moral philosophers and this is the popular ideal of a “good person”, namely, he who does something because it is the “right” thing to do. Unlike self-interest, conscientiousness does not seem to stand on rational grounds, in other words, reason is unlikely to make anyone a conscientious person and conversely, a conscientious person is unlikely to be moved away of his moral standpoint by the use of reason. In this sense, the ideal “good man” is essentially a product of a non-rational choice so to speak. This is relevant to every society (actually, pretty much to all societies in this planet) that wishes their citizens to be “good people” for the sake of it, or because being “good” is the “right” thing to be.
If the assumptions in this post are true, then no amount of reasoning will make the citizens to be “good people” where “good” is synonymous with “conscientious”. Reasoning will definitely make “good citizens” which simply means “law-abiding citizens”. The reason behind being a “good citizen” or a law-abiding citizen is simply a reason of self-interest (committing crimes will lead to me being jailed thus I won’t commit crimes because I don’t want to be jailed), as opposed to the reason behind being a “good person” or a conscientious person which is simply a reason of desirability (I desire to do the right thing, thus I do the right thing for the sake of it).
As we can see in our society, self-interested actions are quite effective and since you can’t “reason someone into being conscientious”, reasoning about the benefits of abiding by the law by appealing to rational egoism or/and self-interest seems to be a very good alternative.
Modern popular ethics and conscientiousness
So far, these are some of the conclusions that can be derived:
– Morality and reason are separate
– Being conscientious is not a rational choice
– Being self-interested is a rational axiom
Despite these conclusions, we can observe the following things that are reflective of the popular ethics:
– Individuals are tried to be “reasoned in” conscientiousness. Personal benefits of being a conscientious person are offered which defeats the point in being conscientious as was already explained. Conscientiousness can only be encouraged for its own sake.
– An act A with good morally outcome is considered of less moral value if the person did act A with some personal interest in mind. The same act done “because it is the right thing to do” is considered of more moral value.
Modern popular ethics has a mix of kantian-flavoured deontology and moral absolutism as one of its core properties. There is a strong emphasis on motives. On doing “what is right”. Personal motives lower the moral value of the action. This leads back to the earlier point that conscientiousness is a valuable asset for society and thus it makes sense that having this trait is encouraged. However, for our modern rational societies, there is something irrational about encouraging people to adopt a view which is essentially non-rational. After all, as was pointed in the first half of this article and in the previous one, there has not been showed any rational justification of adopting the ethical point of view. Furthermore, Hume’s withstanding view seems to make any such justification very unlikely.
A self-contained system is simply an euphemism for “closed system of thought”. It is also an alternative way of referring to a formal system, as well as an alternative way to refer “theistic religious faith”. Henceforth, I will be using “self-contained system” as synonymous with “closed system of thought”, “formal system” and “axiomatic system”. An example of a self-contained system is sentential logic. Self-contained systems are as the name indicates systems that are bounded. These boundaries are called assumptions, axioms or dogmas depending on the system. The difference between self-contained systems such as sentential logic or other kind of mathematical and philosophical systems and self-contained systems such as religious faith is the fact that the mathematical self-contained systems show some internal consistency (absence of contradictions) and they correlate to certain extent with the physical world. And they are open to rational debate. Theistic religious faith is arbitrary but neither accurate, internally or externally consistent. Kantian deontology-flavoured ethics belong to the same category as theistic religions. Modern popular ethics is arbitrary (moral worth for its own sake), sometimes contradictory (reasons given for being conscientious) and is not open to rational debate. It is however as self-justifying as religious faith. That being said religious faith is largely a matter of personal preference so those properties are not relevant to the faith oriented. However, ethics is a social matter and thus, it can’t afford to be contradictory, arbitrary and being closed to rational debate. We can safely conclude that modern popular ethics would do well in abandoning this Kantian flavoured ethics. Morality, it seems, is a matter of choice rather than pure or practical reason.
So what do we do next?
I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end.