"Why Should I Be Moral?" by F. H. Bradley

F. H. Bradley (Wikipedia)

About the author…

F. H. Bradley (1846-1924), an Oxford fellow at Merton College, published major works in ethics, logic, and metaphysics. His nineteenth-century idealist outlook focuses a sharp and uncompromising criticism of empiricism, positivism, and utilitarianism. Bradley writes, "If 'facts' and principles conflict, so much the worse for the facts …"[1] In consequence, much of the early twentieth-century British analytic philosophy of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore is written in reaction to Bradley's linking the real and the rational. Bradley's Merton fellowship does not require teaching responsibilities and was contingent upon his remaining single. Brand Blanshard, who studied philosophy at Oxford, writes that, in part, because of poor health, Bradley was a recluse for almost fifty years. Bradley never married, although three of his works were dedicated to an unknown woman.[2] The critical polemics of his early work mellowed in his later years, and he had hoped to rewrite Ethical Studies, the book from which our reading is taken, but he did not progress beyond some initial notes.

About the work…

In his essay "Why Be Moral?" appearing near the beginning of Ethical Studies,[3] Bradley states the aim of ethics is the realization of self: willing and acting in accordance with an ideal toward a moral end. He recognizes the realization of an ideal self is necessarily conditioned by an unrealized self, and in this regard, his ethics did not provide a metaphysical basis for relating the thought of the ideal with the reality of the actual. The metaphysical scaffolding for this he attempts to achieve in his later works, Principles of Logic and Appearance and Reality. The first part of our reading raises the question why I should be moral, but Bradley concludes the why-question is inaptly phrased. Instead, he thinks the question should be asked along the lines of what I am to do or be. What is the ideal I seek to realize?

Ideas of Interest from "Why Should I Be Moral?"

  1. Explain and give examples illustrating the differences Bradley points out between ethical action being good for some result and ethical action being good in itself.

  2. State and clarify the hidden presuppositions Bradley mentions to the question, "Why should I be moral?" Why does Bradley assert that to ask the question, "Why Be Moral?" is itself immoral, and what is his point in doing so?

  3. Explain Bradley's argument concluding that if good is a means to something else, then good cannot be an end in itself.

  4. On what basis does Bradley conclude the question why I should be moral rests upon a mistake? If the question of why be moral makes no sense, then what question, according to Bradley, should we be asking?

  5. Explain Bradley's reasoning to support the conclusion that it is contradictory for anyone to claim immoral action is advantageous in life.

  6. What are the reasons Bradley concludes morality is an end in itself?

  7. Does Bradley believe it is possible to convince someone who claims (1) the use of reason cannot prove anything and (2) morality doesn't really matter in life, that doing the right thing is a necessary condition for happiness?

  8. On what grounds does Bradley claim the purpose of acting morally is the self-realization of the individual?



Quoted in John Passmore, A Hundred Years of Philosophy, rev. ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1966), 60.


James W. Alland, "Bradley, F(rancis) H(erbert)," in The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, ed. Robert Audi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 85.


F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1876), 58-84 passim.