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Philosophy 302: Ethics
Why Be Moral?

Abstract:  Several well known answers to the question, "Why be moral?" are recounted and are found to have serious objections.  As a basis for our inquiry into ethical theories, the working answer to this question is to attempt to develop an ethical theory founded on truth rather than opinion or belief.

John Hospers raises the question, "Why not shortchange a blind news vender by telling him he was paid with a five dollar, rather than a one dollar bill?"

I. The Answer of Divine Command


A. An ad baculum argument: God will punish you or reward you for the choice. The idea is that there is no reward in this world (remember the lesson of Job), but perhaps there is in another.


1. The egoistic answer is that such being the case is an incentive, but not a good reason. The reasoning would be an appeal to power.


2. Instead, wouldn't we say God commands it because it's good, not that it's good because God commands it.


a. Remember the story of Abraham and Isaac: How could we tell what a good God is? (C.f., Kierkegard's Fear and Trembling.)


b. The ad baculum appeal would work even though God were not good.


3. The answer of Divine Command presupposes ethics derives from religious belief. However, religious beliefs vary among peoples. Differing beliefs are inconsistent.


B. The obedience argument: We obey out of our love for God. God should be loved.


1. But obedience whether from fear or love needs justification.


2. Consider the analogy with parents and children. Should children obey from what is right or from love alone?


C. The creation argument: We owe our existence to God--this consideration still doesn't establish God's power as being good.


There is a missing premiss (the argument is faulty on the basis of the coherence theory of truth):

God created us.

[missing premiss here]


Therefore, we should do as God commands.

II. The Answer that Morality pays--we should act from self-interest.


A. This answer presupposes that it's the nature of the world that cheaters get caught and the good people are rewarded. Right action is always to your advantage.


1. The obvious answer to this question is to note that it simply is not true. The facts in the world do not correspond with the belief


2. (The argument is faulty because of the correspondence theory of truth.)  Observation and experience falsify this empirical statement.


B. Plato's variation of this argument: The Socratic Paradox.


1. Happiness has to do with the inner state of your soul, not what other people think or do.


2. Statement of the Socratic Paradox:

Give your whole attention to the question, is what I say just, or is it not?"

**You should only do what is right--irrespective of matters of life or death.

Your life should be spent on the improvement of your soul.

An unexamined life is not worth living.
The Socratic Paradox: People act immorally, but they do not do so deliberately.

The outline of the paradox:

a. Everyone seeks what is most serviceable to himself. If you know what is good, you will always act in a way to achieve it.
b. If you act in such a way that it is not conducive to your good, then you must have been mistaken (i.e., ignorant).
c. If you act with knowledge, then then what you get is the most serviceable to yourself.
d. knowledge = (def.) virtue, good, arete
ignorance = (def.) bad, evil, not useful
e. Since no one knowingly harms himself, if harm comes to you, then you acted in ignorance.
f. We are responsible for what we know or for that matter don't know.

      Examples of tending your own soul:

a. Cheryl: saying she was 12 in order to get into a movie as a child; saying she was 18 in order to date a 21 yr. old; trying to get a driver's license early. She seeks an edge--in fact fairness to her is the assumption of an advantage. Thus, when she is cut a fair deal, she feels as though she did not get her fair share. Note how her soul is out of balance (not centered) because she becomes different things to different people. Thus, she becomes inauthentic through her role playing for different people.

b. The student who cheats on a test--how he harms his own soul: loss of confidence or pride or guilt.

c. Such is the thinking behind Pope's "Oh, what a wicked web we weave when first we practice to deceive."


3. In the end, Plato's attempt fails because of the unconscious--we really don't know what is in our best interest sometimes. There are other motivating factors.


a. Undoubtedly, however, Freud's psychology would undermine any possibility of an individuals actions being in accordance with an ethical theory because of the necessity of rationalization as a defense mechanims in controlling various forms of conflict in both normal and neurotic persons.


b. Our happiness is not totally independent of external factors. Factors beyond our control have effects on our thoughts and feelings.


c. Hence, we can conclude that morality is not a sufficient condition for happiness.


C. Is morality a necessary condition for happiness?


1. Although more plausible, this view cannot account for all the innocent victims in the world.


Consider Ivan's story of the death of an innocent child in the Brothers Karamazov.


2. The best that can be said at this point is that morality is a contributing condition to happiness.

III. The Fair Play or Common Interest Argument.


A. Life is a game with rules--it is to our mutual advantage or common interest to play by the rules.


B. This view is a variation of the philosophy to live and let live. It's in your own interest and every other person to obey the rules.


C.f., the Social Contract theory of Hobbes and Locke.


C. This view holds that a group which obeys the rules is better than one where anything goes.


D. Objections to the Fair Play Argument: Sometime you are not better off by following the rules.


1. Perhaps, you wish to be left alone.


2. Perhaps, the rules are not fair.


a. The rules are not fair.


b. You actually deserve more.


3. Often one loses sight of his goals and the rules become an end in themselves. Should you do your duty when it would be wrong? (Consider the sandwich episode from the movie Five Easy Pieces.)

IV. "Because It is Right" (re: synthetic a priori statements)


A. We should be moral because it's right--not whether the act will pay.


1. Essentially, this view holds that we should act morally because of our ethics. (Note that ethics is being used in the prescriptive sense of ethical theory.)


2. Rightness is not a motive for being moral. Be careful to distinguish between reasons and motives (causes).


a. If this distinction is not familiar to you, it can  be explained in the difference between an argument and an explanation.


b. This basis for our acting morally obviously is not convincing to an irrational person.


B. If we can show that we can have knowledge about what is right, then we have a basis of morality. If we cannot, then ethics and morality are relative and cannot be objective.


C. A major goal of the course is the attempt to develop an ethical theory as the basis of morality.

Recommended Sources

Ethics Quiz on Theories of Truth:  This short quiz covers the coherence, correspondence, and pragmatic theories of truth.

The Correspondence Theory of Truth: Bertrand Russell's version of the correspondence theory of truth is characterized and discussed.

The Coherence Theory of Truth: Francis Bradley's version of the coherence theory of truth is characterized and discussed.

The Pragmatic Theory of Truth: William James' version of the pragmatic theory of truth is characterized and discussed.

Introduction to Philosophy Quiz: Theories of Truth.  The coherence, correspondence, and the pragmatic theories of truth are the subject of this short multiple-choice quiz.

Philosophy Notes on the Socratic Paradox:  The Socratic Paradox is outlined and discussed.

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