Morality tells us how we ought to behave, if we want to do the right thing. But is there a reason why we ought to be moral in the first place?
This week we're asking the question: Why Be Moral? But what kind of question is that? Morality is a good thing. Immorality is a bad thing. A person should always do good things and never do bad things. Doesn't everybody agree?
Well, judging by people's behavior, not necessarily. But we also have to be careful not confuse 'ought' and 'is'. People do behave immorally. But they shouldn't. Everybody knows that - at least in their heart of hearts.
That implies that immoral behavior is irrational or insincere or hypocritical or something. Couldn't there be situations in which a person fully weighs the pros and cons, and sincerely and rationally decides that the best thing for him to do, all things considered, is precisely what morality forbids? In other words, what do we make of situations in which morality tells you to do one thing, and self-interest tells you to do something different?
Many people are psychologically inclined to elevate their own self-interest above all else - including morality. For people like that, when morality and self-interest come into head-to-head conflict, morality loses out. But rationally speaking, that's not how it should be. Rationally speaking, morality should always trump self-interest.
But imagine there's an open, unguarded bank vault, with lots and lots of cash, staring you in the face. You could really use that money. And ther's an iron-clad guarantee that if you take it, no one will ever know. Where's the rationality in not taking the money?
If you take the cash, you're a moral skeptic, someone who believes there are no facts of the matter about right and wrong. Sure, that would make us free to do whatever we want, without having to worry about morality. But denying that there's any objective right and wrong seems pretty desperate.
There's actually a lot to be said in favor of moral skepticism. But for the sake of our argument, I'm willing to stipulate that it would be morally wrong to take the money in the situation we just imagined. I'm even willing to stipulate that that's an objective and inescapable fact. So: does the bare fact that something is objectively morally right or morally wrong, automatically give you a reason to do it or not do it?
That question presupposes that the only thing we ever have reason to do is pursue our own self-interest. But surely there's more to rationality than calculations of naked self-interest. For example: when I go to my doctor and he sees I have an illness that's treatable with certain medicine, he gives me the drug. Why does he do that? Because he cares about my well-being and wants to cure me. He's acting in my interest, not in his own interest - at least not exclusively. And he's acting rationally. So no -- behaving rationally doesn't just mean acting in your own self-interest.
So now we've come up with a distinction between two different kinds of reasons: self-regarding or egoistic reasons, and other-regarding or altruistic reasons. Self-regarding reasons are rooted in considerations of naked self-interest. Other-regarding reasons are rooted in our concern for others. Morality may not always give us self-regarding reasons to do what it commands, but it does give us other-regarding reasons to do so. Problem solved.
Or not: how do we balance self-regarding reasons against other-regarding reasons, when the two conflict? Who says that altruistic reasons always trump the selfish ones? Many people believe moral considerations always override selfish concerns. But why do they? There are also people who just don't care a whit about the well-being of others. They might be selfish in the extreme -- but is that really irrational? If you can be totally self-regarding, and still be rational, won't the other-regarding considerations that morality depends on just fail to move you?
Tune in to hear what our guest, James Sterba from the Univeristy of Notre, and an audience of young philosophers at Pacific University's 16th annual Undergraduate Philosophy Conference, have to say on these issues and more.