Being Moral: A Humanist (and Humean) Perspective

August 12, 2010


If you take the question “Why should I be moral?” seriously outside the context of a philosophical discussion, there may be no answer that will satisfy you.  The truth is that it can be rational to act immorally—to lie, cheat, and steal—provided one does so discreetly.  However, this is not much cause for concern.  I will explain. 

But first, some background.  A few weeks ago, I offered some thoughts on the purpose of morality .  At the time, I specifically distinguished that issue from the issue of why any individual should be moral.  Well, inspired by news of the recent escape of convicts from an Arizona prison , and the subsequent intense efforts at recapture, I have decided to address this issue now. 

How does the manhunt for the escaped convicts relate to the question, “Why be moral?”  It vividly illustrates one of the disadvantages of being immoral when that immorality is known to others.  You are shunned and, if you are bad enough, you are hunted down and ultimately caged like an animal.  People tend to deal harshly with individuals who cannot be trusted, especially if they resort to violence to get what they want.  To be a member in good standing in the community, one must conduct oneself appropriately, at least most of the time.  Avoiding the condemnation of others is a powerful incentive to act morally. 

Most of us, of course, never seriously entertain the thought of taking up the life of the reprobate, and we do not weigh the pros and cons of doing so.  Most of us are disposed to act benevolently toward, and cooperatively with, the fellow members of our moral community.  There is no need to decide here the extent to which these dispositions are the product of nature or nurture.  Clearly, both nature and nurture have some role to play in the formation of our character. What is important to understand is the critical function of our character.  It would be pointless to try to promote social cohesion in a group of individuals who lack any disposition to act cooperatively.  As Aristotle recognized long ago, philosophical arguments are no substitute for appropriate character traits. In fact, unless one has the disposition to be influenced by moral suasion, appeals to morality will fall on deaf ears. 

OK, so most of us have a disposition to act morally, and we also know that when we treat others badly, and they are aware of this, we are unlikely to enjoy their trust and confidence. But what if there are, at most, only a few persons who might suspect that I am a cheat, a liar, or a thief?  We interact with large numbers of individuals, and only some of them have long-term relationships with us and know us well enough to form a judgment about our character.   What if I can preserve my reputation as a decent individual and still act to further my own self-interest at the expense of others?    

The answer, again for most of us, is that our dispositions incline us to act morally, even when no one is looking and detection of our wrongdoing is difficult.  An important part of moral education is the internalization of moral norms. Regardless of what others think, we will judge ourselves harshly if we act contrary to the norms we have accepted.

Still, someone may think she can overcome any sense of guilt.  Are there any reasons this person should refrain from pursuing her self-interest even when doing so would violate her moral obligations to others? 

David Hume, in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (sec.9, pt.2), famously considered this issue when addressing the challenge of the sensible knave, that is, the person who acts immorally on occasion while cleverly concealing his immoral acts through deception.  This person believes he can preserve his reputation because he ignores his moral duties only occasionally and is adept at covering his tracks. 

Hume has several observations concerning the knave. First, the knave underestimates the value of peace of mind.  Assuming he is not a psychopath, the knave is sacrificing consciousness of his own integrity, which Hume considers “requisite to happiness.”  Second, it is not easy “to cheat with moderation and secrecy.”  Knaves have a tendency to overreach, to take imprudent risks after an initial period of success.  Not infrequently, knaves are exposed, resulting in “a total loss of reputation.”  (Think Bernie Madoff.)  Finally, the knave is taking risks for the sake of “toys and gewgaws,” which ultimately cannot compare in value to the pleasures and enjoyments, including self-regard and a sense of integrity, available to those who act justly. 

Are these decisive arguments against the knave, establishing that the knave must be irrational?  Hardly.  And I doubt whether Hume considered them to be decisive refutations of knavery.  There is no argument that can prove the knave is always irrational.  Depending on the knave’s circumstances, including his motivations and his level of risk aversion, he may not be irrational. 

Hume’s observations are directed not so much to the knave—who is unlikely to be convinced— but to us, that is, the vast majority of individuals with fairly stable moral dispositions who act appropriately most of the time.  Hume’s observations are designed to bolster our resolve, to assure us that we are not dupes, that things are not as easy for knaves as they seem, and that in the long run, knaves are usually no better off, and sometimes are worse off, than we are.  These observations bolster our resolve, but, in the end, the choice is ours to make.

Humanists, presumably, should take a naturalistic and realistic view of ethics.  This is one reason I find Hume a congenial philosopher.  His understanding of morality is firmly grounded in human nature and he has no illusions about the limits of reasoning. We are disposed to act morally, but there is no logical compulsion to do so.  Who we are, how we define ourselves, is ultimately up to us.  An argument found in an ethics textbook is not going to make us persons of integrity, if we do not want to be. 

Why be moral?  Because that is how we choose to be.  And that answer is sufficient. 

[Note: This post is not related to John Shook’s recent post on a similar topic.  I had starting writing this post before noticing John’s interesting post.  Fortunately, we approach our topics from different perspectives, so there is little overlap between our posts.]