Why be moral? It’s a question that keeps philosophers up at night, perhaps even more so than questions about what morality demands. This question is difficult to answer because of the seemingly contradictory natures of morality and rationality. It seems fair to say that, regardless of its particular principles, a plausible moral theory must demand self-sacrifice of individuals. This is simply obvious. It also seems intuitive that the proper account of rationality is one that is based on self-interest. That is to say, the reasons that motivate us are ones that accord with our self-interest. This claim is more controversial and many philosophers argue that it is the wrong account of rationality. I hope to defend the account of rationality as founded on self-interest, and to offer the beginnings of a possible answer to the question “Why be moral?” within the framework that this account of rationality entails. To illustrate my point most effectively, I will argue the latter claim before the former.
First, let’s just assume that our rationality is based predominantly on our self-interest. How do we reconcile morality’s demand of self-sacrifice and rationality’s demand of self-interest? One might be inclined to give the Big Stick Solution (henceforth, BSS): it is rational to be moral because the individual will be punished if he cheats the moral system. Since it is not in his self-interest to be punished, he must adhere to the moral system. This solution relies on the assumption that there exists an omniscient and omnipotent enforcer who has the power to both perfectly know and punish those who cheat the system. The legal system of a society might be such an enforcer. For instance, society punishes individuals who commit murder by taking their freedom taken away and placing them in prison. Even ignoring practical questions of the possibility of an adequate enforcement, there is a significant problem with this approach: it subordinates morality to self-interest and defines self-interest in terms of personal well-being. The solution suggests that morality should only be valued insofar as it affects our personal well-being. People shouldn’t commit murder because they will get caught and punished. This account of morality seems obviously false because morality should be valued in and of itself. In other words, morality should considered as an end, not simply as a means to promoting our well being. Given that the BSS relies on an account of morality that is so implausible, it does not give us the best answer for the question “Why be moral?”
The BSS also employs the wrong account of human rationality for two reasons. The first reason is that it defines our self-interest negatively by claiming that humans desire not to be punished. It is insufficient to portray our rationality in terms of what we want to avoid. Of course we want to avoid physical and emotional harm, but our rationality strives for more than just ensuring our safety against what we fear. I acknowledge that nevertheless, avoiding harm is indeed a goal of rationality. But in answering the question, “Why be moral”, we must look at the complete account of rationality. Morality does not only relate to rationality through the one desire to avoid punishment. Our rationality gives us both long and short term ends that we pursue in order to better our lives. It seems better to define our rationality positively, in terms of striving to live the best life possible and fulfilling the goals that rationality determines. Thus, in discussing the relationship between morality and rationality, morality does not simply matter insofar as the failure to obey its rules might bring us harm. To give a satisfying account of why acting morally is also acting rationally, morality must be discussed as it pertains to fulfilling the goals that our rationality sets.
As I mentioned before, the BSS makes the mistake of defining self-interest solely in terms of well-being. For the BSS theorist, what’s in our self-interest is what promotes our own well-being. Thus, the problem of treating morality merely a means arises because this view commits the BSS theorist to value morality only insofar as morality affects well-being. But self-interest is clearly not the same as well-being. An action can promote my self-interest but be harmful to my well-being. Conversely, something can promote my well-being without promoting my self-interest. For instance, I can choose to donate one of my kidneys to my brother. This would be in my self-interest because I care about my brother’s health, but it would not be promoting my well-being because I am giving away my organ. The concept of self-interest can be explained more coherently by basing it on rational desires. A rational desire is a desire that is based on the reasons available to the individual at that time. A psychopathic desire to murder people is not a rational desire. A desire to donate one’s kidney to save a family member is a rational desire. What’s in my self-interest is what fulfills my rational desires.
If it is in one’s self-interest to act according to their rational desires, then a simpler solution to the moral question emerges. Why be moral? Because we have the rational desire to be moral, and it is in our rational self-interest to fulfill these desires. One’s first impression might be that this solution is circular: we should be moral because we should be moral. But this is misunderstanding the logic; we should be moral because we rationally want to be moral. Of course it could be objected that not everybody has the rational desire to be moral, that some people abhor morality and consciously act against its principles. Recall, however, that the BSS was inadequate because it treated morality as a means rather than an end. This was enough for us to reject the BSS because intuitively, we believe that obeying morality has intrinsic value. This very intuition shows us that most of us have the desire to be moral, regardless of what the content of the moral system are. Insofar as we have the rational desire to be moral and that to act rationally with regard to our self-interest means to act in way that promotes the realization of these rational desires, we should be moral. This solution offers a way to reconcile the seemingly contrary demands of morality and of rationality, while allowing us to preserve the self-interested account of rationality.
What about the individual who has no desire to be moral? It seems unlikely that we can both maintain our notion of morality as having intrinsic value and find reasons that motivate him to be moral. If he does not have the desire to be moral, then acting morally for the sake of acting morally cannot be in his self-interest. For such a person, it seems that the best we can do is to revert back to the BSS, and treat morality as a means for promoting his other self-interests, most of which perhaps connect with his well-being. This way, at least we can convince him to carry out the moral actions even though he will be doing them for the wrong reasons (through purely selfish motivations).
Now I turn to the question of our rationality. What is the correct account of human rationality? Someone might look at the simple solution I proposed and object that it is unlikely that human self-interests include the desire to promote the well-being of others. After all, the rational interests in question are self-interests, not others’¬-interests. But this is to confuse self-interest with selfishness. As I explained above, what’s in one’s self-interest does not simply consist of what promotes one’s own well-being. Similarly, what’s in one’s self-interest does not simply consist of selfish desires. It can very well be in one’s self-interest to devote the greater part of his life to raising and caring for his children, even though doing so would involve sacrificing a significant amount of his own time, energy, and money. Self-sacrifice for others can be, and often is, an essential aspect of one’s self-interest.
Again, skeptics of this account of rationality might say, “By this account, the only thing I want is what’s in my self-interest. This is just obviously wrong.” But this is not the self-interested account of rationality that I put forth. The account I put forth claims that the only thing in one’s self-interest is what one wants. That is, what one’s self-interest consists of is necessarily and sufficiently explained by what one wants, which consist of the reasons one has to want something. This is the correct way to understand the self-interested account of rationality.
The best objection one might raise to the arguments I’ve put forth is that, “Surely the moral desire is only one of many conflicting desires an individual possesses at any point in time. Why should he choose to follow the moral desire rather than other, perhaps more selfish, desires?” This objection would be relevant for other accounts of rationality as well. If what’s rational is determined both by selfish concerns for one’s own well-being and altruistic concerns for the well-being of others, there will be conflicting desires. Why should the individual choose to act with regard to the self-interest of others over his own? Why should the individual choose to follow his moral desire? Regardless of what theory of rationality we believe, further arguments must be made to show why it is rational that the moral desire should take precedence over other desires. This is the great difficulty of moral philosophy, to construct an argument defending this normative claim and to show the validity of its normative force.
I did not discuss this question here, and by no means do I pretend to have fully answered the initial question, “Why be moral?” But I hope I have shown how such an answer is possible given the self-interested account of rationality, and why such an account of rationality is plausible. Unlike the Big Stick Solution, my argument does not rely on the existence of an omnipotent and omniscient enforcer. My argument relies only on the reasonable assumption that people have the desire to be moral. And from this we can see that it is rational to be moral because we have the desire to do so.