Note: This is part 1 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.
Why Should We Act Morally?
This is Part 1 of a series of posts on morality.
In this series of posts on morality, I don’t claim to have any special wisdom or insight. My purpose here is to do the best I can to think through these important moral issues. I have spent too much time up to this point not trying to carefully think through these issues. Since this is my first attempt, I am always open to better ideas (which is true of everything I write here). In this series, I use “ethics” and “morality” interchangeably to mean the principles and rules which determine right conduct and serve as guides for proper and acceptable behavior.
In this post, I discuss different justifications for why we should act morally. The ultimate purpose of this series will be to explain my thoughts about morality and try to figure out a rational system of morality.
Selflessness vs. Selfishness
It seems that every major system of human morality values selflessness. Yet moral teachers and religious leaders often justify the necessity for each of us to act morally by explaining the personal benefits we will receive from acting morally. Such benefits range from something as simple as feeling good to financial or material blessings from God, up through salvation in heaven. But any moral system which claims that we should act morally just because it will bring benefit to ourselves s really valuing selfishness, and not selflessness.
If morality is acting to make yourself feel good (getting a warm feeling by being nice to people, for example), then that means morality is really about taking action to benefit yourself, not to benefit others. Even if the reward is a long way off (like salvation in heaven after death), acting morally just because you get something out of the deal is really all about selfishness. If the reason that we should act morally is to get into heaven, than morality seems to be nothing more than just being able to weigh the costs and benefits of our actions to maximize the personal benefit. So what happens if doing something which is traditionally considered “immoral” will bring greater benefit than not doing it?1
Here’s a completely artificial hypothetical to test some of these ideas. Let’s imagine you are informed in a way that leaves you completely certain that if you kill a certain person, you will become a billionaire. More than that, it is guaranteed that you will never go to prison for the murder, no one will think less of you for doing it (in fact they will think more highly of you), and there will be no other negative consequences for you during your life or in the afterlife. The person, however, is completely innocent – they are a good upstanding citizen, they donate to charities and volunteer at a soup kitchen; they are a good parent to their children, and have not done anything that would make you (or any other reasonable person) think they deserved to die. Would it be morally justifiable to kill that person?
I think almost all of us would answer “no” to this question, even though murdering this person would bring great reward and no negative consequences. I know my gut reaction would be to strongly say “no, such a murder would not be moral.” If our intuition about this hypothetical is right, then there must be a better justification for morality other than that morality is good because it brings personal reward. If we’re trying to come up with a rational, coherent, and complete system of moral thought, then working just from instinct and intuition is not enough.
Why do most of us think that such a murder not would be justified? Are our instincts about this hypothetical right? Are moral systems which sometimes require that you act against your self-interest superior to moral systems which promise you rewards for following their rules? Is there a way to rationally justify a moral system which requires self-sacrifice and taking action against your own self-interest (a system where people who are moral are worse off than the immoral)? Is true selflessness better than selfishness?
I will address these questions in my next post. In the mean time, I will say that the idea that our actions should be motivated by a desire to maximize personal benefit to ourselves is a very cynical view of human nature, even if the perceived benefit is only some sort of other-worldly eternal reward. That sort of philosophy is one of the most debasing approaches to “morality.”
Love for God
Some people might argue that we should obey moral rules not because of some expectation of reward, but that we should be moral as a sign of our love for and gratitude to God. There several problems with this approach:
First, it does not account for people who have different religious beliefs. In our pluralistic society, different religions teach different things about what God expects of us. Does morality, therefore, depend on the religious beliefs of each person? This seems to lead to moral relativism (an idea which many religious leaders seem to especially criticize). Should each person be held to different moral standards, based on what they believe is the best way to show their love for God? What about atheists? Should they not be bound by any moral code? All of my atheist friends are compassionate, highly moral individuals. They have become atheists only after carefully thinking about religion, morality, ethics, and cosmology. Even without their belief in God, their behavior actually seems to me to be more ethical than many religious people I know. Any rational moral system should have more universal application than just to the members of one religion or group – it should be able to equal explain and guide the moral behavior of atheists, agnostics, and theists alike.
Second, it fails to recognize the difficulties in ascertaining God’s will and what we should do to show our love for him. Jesus said that if we love him, we should keep his commandments.2 Christian conservatives would claim that all we need is to do know his commandments is to read the Bible. But how reliable is the Bible? Many of the books of the Bible were written many years after the events they purport to describe occurred. Our best understanding of how the four gospels of the New Testament were written is that people told and re-told stories about Jesus. Those stories spread over a huge region, passing from person to person and city to city. Have you ever played the game of “telephone”? Imagine playing that game over several decades, telling stories over and over again. The same thing is true of the stories of the Hebrew Bible—oral traditions which circulated for many years were later written down, and then compiled, re-edited, and recombined many times over centuries by scribes with differing agendas and affiliations. The same sorts of problems are true of the sacred texts of most religions.3
What about the idea of biblical inerrancy? Belief in biblical inerrancy requires that two things be true: 1) God is perfect and cannot lie and 2) the Bible is the word of God. But there is no external way to prove either of those ideas. You can only get to that conclusion through circular logic – it isn’t very convincing to argue that we should accept the Bible as the word of God because it says that it is the word of God (the Quran says the same thing, so if that argument really is convincing, then Christians should accept the Quran as well as the Bible). Moreover, the Bible itself never purports to be inerrant; it is not even a single book, but a compilation of many widely divergent books written by different people in different places.
Additionally, there are huge textual problems with the Bible: there are literally thousands of different versions of ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Each of them are different from each other – how do we know which one is right? For example, the story about the woman taken in adultery where Jesus says “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”4 does not appear in any of the early versions of John and is almost certainly a later addition to the book of John; the Johanine Comma (1 John 5:7-8 – the only place in the Bible where the doctrine of the trinity is explicitly stated) does not appear in any texts until the Middle Ages, and was added by later copyists.5 many centuries after the Gospel of John was written; Mark is the oldest gospel in the New Testament, and it did not mention any of Jesus’s post-Crucifixion appearances – later scribes instead made up a fake ending to Mark 16 to include those stories.6 These stories still appear in many Bibles today. Any claim of biblical inerrancy runs into the problem of figuring out what the Bible really says.
A Rational Moral System
Acting morally because of your love for God is a highly commendable reason for doing good, but I don’t think that it is a workable basis for the derivation of a coherent and rational moral system. A universally-applicable system of morality is far more desirable than one justified by each person’s personal religious beliefs. If God exists, and if he is all-knowing and all-loving, and if he created us in his image (meaning that he gave us the ability to think and reason like him), then surely any system of morality derived from rational principles would closely match his own moral laws. A moral system based on careful logic and science thus has the benefit of being something that most theists should be able to look to with confidence (assuming that they believe in God’s omniscience, omnibenevolence, and our creation in his image) as representing God’s will, but also something that atheists, agnostics, and other secular people can also follow.
A rational moral system will make the desirability of obedience to its principles self-evident. If a moral system is based on reality (as best as we can understand it), logic, and reason, then it should convince any objective, unbiased rational person who learns the principles of the moral system that they should live according to that moral system’s principles.
In my next post, I will discuss what morality is and start trying to reason through a system of rational morality.