Why Be Moral
This essay represents my basic approach to ethics, so although I do not feel quite certain about everything here, I feel comfortable enough to post this theory here on my blog. It is rather long for a blog post (well over 7,000 words), but different sections are often reasonably self-contained, so you could skip through it to parts that are of interest to you.
Philosophers often study the question, “Why be moral?”—one of the very most important topics in philosophy. If you do not understand it, or if you fall prey to false beliefs about it, those beliefs can quite literally ruin your life. That well exemplifies how important philosophy can be, come to think of it: having true beliefs about life’s most important questions can turn your life around, while having false beliefs can ultimately prove deadly. In philosophy, it simply does not get more important than this.
Philosophy classes, taking up this question, sometimes end up discussing what are only side-issues, such as, “Should I steal if I can get away with it?” Or: “If I had a ring of invisibility, should I murder and otherwise do whatever I wanted in order to get ahead in life?” It always struck me with a kind of horror that there was always a sizable minority of students who openly declared that, in the absence of law and order, they would run amok and commit all sorts of moral crimes. The fact that they were capable of saying such things only made me realize how impoverished our moral understanding and education had become, in an age that is both anti-intellectual and irreligious.
Questions such as “Should I commit selfish crimes if I can get away with them?” are barren. You see, the reasons we should be moral are deep, profound, and even sublime; to plumb these depths, we much examine the fundamental problem of ethics. And this cannot be reduced to explanations of the wrongness of thievery or cleverly deciding what you would do with magic rings.
I think I know why we should be moral. I have a plausible theory, anyway. I invite you to critically evaluate it.
But unlike most philosophers, I do not stop at theorizing. Ethics does, after all, have both theoretical and practical parts. I will tell you, as I have told people for many years, that philosophy has consequences and that we should be living according to principle. If you accept this answer, then you bear a burden to put it into practice in whatever way you know how. For this, mere rational deliberation can certainly help, but is rarely sufficient on its own. This is why so many turn to religion, i.e., as a guide to right living. Perhaps conscience, in its various incarnations—humbly reflecting as you best know how and listening to the “still, small” voice within—is the universal guide.
But first, such guides should be informed by a correct answer to this question: “Why be moral?”
I say that the question requires that we tackle the fundamental problem of ethics. What is that? It is, in short, the problem of value: What is good? What things ultimately have value? You can explain the value of money in terms of what it will buy, but what is the thing that has value in itself, not as a means to anything else?
This problem exercises philosophers a great deal. It is famously thorny. Variants on hedonism—the view that the ultimately valuable thing is pleasure—is one common answer. One main problem with that answer is that there are things that seem extremely valuable but which do not, on first glance, have anything to do with pleasure. One such thing is human lives—or do we stay alive merely for pleasure? Another thing is knowledge. A third is happiness or well-being. Do we seek such broad things as happiness, well-being, or flourishing, merely in order to maximize our pleasure? I would think it would be the other way around. Pleasure has just one role to play, that is all.
There is a commonly-cited problem with hedonism that, I think, is particularly fruitful to examine: Whose pleasure is it that matters? Your own? Taken quite consistently, such a view could have disastrous consequences. Suppose mass murder is what gives you the greatest joy in life. But if it is not only personal pleasure that matters, how wide should our circle of concern be? Our family, our acquaintances, our countrymen, all of humanity, all sentient beings, or all living organisms? We will get to these questions further down.
Enough preliminaries. Let me give you my theory. See what you think.
The thing that has ultimate value, for anything that is alive, is life itself. There is an excellent reason why this should be so and even, on reflection, inevitable: only living things are capable of having interests, i.e., of having anything that it is good for them. Mountains and lakes do have not have interests. A mountain becomes neither better nor worse off if it wears away, nor is it better for the lake if it evaporates or grows. You might say that certain transformations become less beautiful or useful to us, or to plants and animals, but then we are talking about the interests of living things, not of mountains and lakes. The mountains and lakes do not care. Inanimate objects have no interests.
So far, I have established only that living things have interests, not that life is itself the thing of ultimate value. But all in good time.
We can say that there are various systems that keep an organism alive, such as the circulatory system, the respiratory system, and the digestive system. For each system, we can speak of something the organism needs: circulation requires warmth (among other things), respiration requires air, and digestion requires food. Those in turn are all needs of living bodies such as ours.
The fulfillment of those needs quite naturally causes us pleasure, and their deprivation, pain; a warm blanket, or gulp of fresh air or food, can give us great pleasure, especially when greatly needed. Pleasure and pain are the natural mechanisms whereby we are driven to meet our needs.
Corresponding to each need, and to each natural source of pleasure and pain, is what we might call a natural desire or want; we naturally desire warmth, air, and food.
We can even define biological flourishing or the well-being of an organism as the abundant fulfillment of all of its biological needs. The deep reverence, by some, of all things “natural” can be understood as simply trying to flourish naturally, to live in tune with the needs of the organism.
I mention all of these concepts because they are essential to several theories of value or goodness that come up in one way or another when people (philosophers and others) discuss value or goodness: systems, needs, pleasure and pain, desires or wants, flourishing, and nature. Each of these features has been proposed by somebody or other as a theory of value, but when one lays them out in their conceptual relations like this, singling one of them out looks rather silly. We should consider them all together. And what ties them together? The answer is clear: life itself.
Now, admittedly, this is a rather vague theory so far. “Life itself?” you say. “And this includes pleasure, needs, desires, and the rest? What am I supposed to do with that?” Fair question, and my answer is: nothing quite yet. I am still doing groundwork.
But you can understand my point, I hope. If you want to know what is ultimately valuable to a tree, or a dog, or a person, it is: those things that keep it alive. When I put it in that way, it seems almost tautological, I think; do you agree? That certainly seems to be the common scientific approach as well. A farmer, veterinarian, or doctor studies the needs of the things in their care and quite naturally considers what is good for the organism as what is life-preserving (or life-enhancing).
At this point you might have an objection. “But I thought values were basically subjective. I can have different values from you, of course, and there does not seem to be any basis on which we can tell which of us is right. I do not think you are even considering the same concept of value as I do.”
This is incorrect. I am considering the same concept of value as you do, just at a more basic level. The fact that there is much that is objectively good for you only goes to show that subjectivism is not just wrong, but pernicious and positively harmful. That said, let me concede that we can certainly differ in our opinions about what things are valuable. A child declares a bag of candy is “good” even if it turns out to be unhealthy, and that is an instance of a (rather simple or primitive) value system in action. But when it comes to diet, there is a fact of the matter about what is best for our organism, what will satisfy our needs without having any deleterious effects such as being overweight or underweight, having stomach problems, or having rotting teeth. So let us distinguish a person’s sense of value, or subjective value, from what is factually best for us, or objective value. That is, I think, a perfectly useful distinction.
As strange as it might sound to some of us, in our cynical and miseducated age, there are indeed objectively value things for us. Simply reflecting on the obvious fact that adequate heat, clean air, and healthy food are determined by the human organism in relation to its environment, we can easily acknowledge that those things are objectively valuable. They are, really or in fact, good for us. Other species have other and sometimes differing objective values, by the way: what is good for you is not necessarily good for trees or for deep-sea fish.
I imagine that some readers will be puzzled at this point. I announced that I was going to talk about value theory, and I did not mention such basic ethical concepts as right and wrong, principles, and virtues, all of which are loosely described as “values.” I also did not mention religion, politics, and art, approaches to which essentially differ based on different “values.” Well, these are values in a different, broader sense, the sense in which “values” is more or less the entire scope of ethics (and beyond). I will indeed broaden my scope some more, and talk about some ethical concepts: right and wrong. This will be necessary to understand at a basic level, if we are to understand why we should be moral, or why we should care about doing the right thing. But first, I want to get more flesh on the bare-bones theory of value I have articulated so far. After all, what is good for us qua human beings is not just that which is good for our bodies.
So far, I have not spoken of any unique features of human beings. I have spoken of us by analogy with all different sorts of organisms. But ethics tells us how to live as human beings; moral rules, or ethical principles, depend very crucially indeed on human nature. I say that life itself is what is valuable; but now I will qualify that by saying that, for us humans, it is human life that is valuable, not mere biological flourishing.
The effect of adding the qualifier is to acknowledge that human beings have additional features, the flourishing of which is particularly valuable to us. We are not just vegetables or dumb brutes; we do not merely want to survive; we place the highest value in that which allows us to exercise our very human capacities.
While philosophers disagree about a lot, a perennial observation throughout the history of philosophy is that human beings are essentially rational. As Aristotle put it, man is, by definition, the “rational animal.” Over and over one finds philosophers dwelling on this basic idea; so now it is my turn. But come to think of it, you might notice, if you are familiar with Aristotle, that my theory here is broadly speaking Aristotelian.
Aristotle’s dictum does not mean that we are always quite logical, like Mr. Spock, or that we like, prefer, or are good at reasoning. As cognitive scientists enjoy reminding us, most of us are pretty bad at it. Aristotle meant that we have the capacity for reason, and “reason” here means not reasoning but something much more modest: we have the ability to mull things over, consider options, follow a train of thought, make up our minds, or, as philosophers sometimes put it, to deliberate. We might be better or worse at it, but we all have the capacity (at least—whether we exercise it is another matter) to deliberate.
This means we have a mind, and while a horse might also have a mind, the human mind involves the capacity for such complex and far-sighted deliberations that, we say, we have free will. That at least is my view on what free will is; see my essay on the topic. As long as this capacity for deliberation and our bodily movements are unencumbered, we are free to act. And this freedom of action is what explains why we are morally responsible. I maintain that it is our unencumbered capacity for deliberation that indeed makes us morally responsible.
Ask yourself if this makes sense: The thing that makes it appropriate to credit us with good actions and to blame us for bad ones is precisely the fact that we had the ability, and the opportunity, to think our actions through and to act on the results. If you were an unthinking zombie, under the influence of mind-altering drugs, or literally insane, then your rational, deliberative capacity would not be in charge; then nothing would really be your fault, which is what the courts do generally say.
Now let us return to the results of the previous section. Good food is good for us, again, because it satisfies the operation of digestion; so it plays a role in “living well” or good biological flourishing. Why not take the human capacity for action as a whole, and say that it serves as another biological function? When we make big decisions in life—concerning career, marriage, family, and much more—we do better if we act out of at least some deliberation.
Very well, then: a wise decision would be one that best satisfies our capacity for deliberation. But of course, that is vague and not very useful. It is a pat but useless formula, because it leaves totally mysterious what “best satisfies our capacity for deliberation.”
“Creature comforts” like warmth, food, drink, sex, and their accompanying pleasures, might be called lower values. We have these in common with dumb animals. Just as the lower values are associated with the satisfaction and good functioning of our bodies, the higher values would be those associated with the satisfaction and good functioning of our minds (such as emotion, cogitation, and yes, deliberation).
Two of the most important higher values are truth and beauty (or, perhaps, appreciation or knowledge of these). They are not the only two, but they are two of the more fundamental, in the sense that you might have difficulty giving an adequate theory of the veritable cornucopia of things we human value without them. It seems to me you can better explain the value of the sense of your own worth (as in self-righteousness or pride), just to take an example, if you can first explain the value of any knowledge whatsoever. Similarly, there are countless varieties of aesthetic reactions to the world and to human creations—delight, excitement, profundity, etc.—but what they have at bottom is the sense of beauty. And truth and beauty satisfy a fundamental capacity that we all have: judgment.
Let me take a step back, though, because I imagine this is going by very fast and becoming off-putting. Of course there is more to life than an abstract list of the variants of “truth and beauty.” What about love? Family? Country? Peace? Freedom?
I agree. These things are all deeply important. But want to explain why they are part of the good life by actually taking up the topic my essay, “Why be moral?” So let me, finally, turn to the main event.
Why be moral? This question is meant as a challenge to justify other-regarding behavior. But the fact is that we, like all living beings, are built for moral action, which we might briefly gloss as life-affirming action. That is just how people and, indeed, animals are. To do what we ought, to do what is right, is to take that action that preserves and secures life. That is what organisms just do.
So I want to say that, as a general question, “Why be moral?” strikes me as rather pointless. We are naturally moral; it is not unlike asking “why breathe?” The answer is that, short of killing ourselves, we have no choice and that we are built that way.
I know this will sound glib, especially to philosophers, so I want to develop the point enough so that it becomes at least minimally plausible. The point is that right action is, in a certain way, simply normal. When confronted with the extremely wicked, we do not merely say, “That is wrong.” That does not capture our usual and natural reaction adequately. If we are decent ourselves, we look upon evil with incomprehension. We say such things as, “That’s messed up” or “That’s insane” and often shake our heads in disbelief, saying, “How is that possible? How could he (or she)?”
But this could be due to internalization what are mere societal taboos. But I claim to the contrary that morality is part of the normal and natural order. To explain why I mean by this perhaps puzzling claim, look at the many remarkable instances of inter-species altruism. The latter words are linked to a rather heartwarming video of animals of one species helping and rescuing animals of other species; I recommend watching. Such instances give me pause. Why do the animals do this? Well, it seems obvious to a child: it is the nice thing to do. So should we agree with the childish view that animals just naturally want to be nice? Surely it is not that simple?
Ethologists (biologists who study animal behavior) and ethicists (philosophers who study right human behavior) alike are quite aware of and much taken with animal altruism. One biological theory has it that this behavior constitutes reciprocal altruism, i.e., one animal undertakes some costs or risks in helping other animals in anticipation of benefiting from such behavior in return. Reciprocal altruism, then, is supposed to be an evolutionarily adaptive behavior, despite the plethora of evidence of cross-species concern. Ethicists, too, when they take up the question of the justification of altruism, often look for explanations in terms of some benefit to oneself. That is, in fact, how the question “Why be moral?” is often couched: “Of what benefit is it to me not to steal when I can get away with it?”
I reject this framing of human and animal motivations as small-minded and ultimately bankrupt. We need not seek for selfish motives for other-regarding behavior. I think we animals generally and naturally value life where we find it; we are built to be life-preservers. Those helping animals do not seem to love only their own kind. They seem to care and have deep concern for friends of all species. The simplest explanation of this is that animals, and human beings must be included here, quite naturally care about life, period.
But what, for example, about all the vicious people and animals in the world? Rest assured, I will address that. But first I have another point to make, which should clarify my view even further.
A perennial theory in philosophy and religion, and in cultures throughout the world, is the notion that we can simply reflect on a situation and then “know” what is right or wrong. This is perhaps most often called conscience, but philosophers sometimes call this the moral sense, sentiment, or intuition. Many and sometimes quite elaborate theories and concepts explore this general idea; in Christianity, there is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, that “still, small voice” that, if we listen to it, will tell right from wrong. Even Socrates believed in what he called his daemon, the sole function of which was to restrain him from wrong action. But again, this need not be anything particularly mysterious, mystical, or “woo.” Very sober, science-minded ethicists simply acknowledge that we have what they call “pre-theoretical moral intuitions” about specific cases, and they generally leave aside where these intuitions come from.
Do we all have the same moral intuitions? Does our conscience operate the same way? Common experience and research both show the answer to be complex: in some broad principles, yes (reciprocity seems to be a universal norm, and killing requires a very good excuse, at least), but in many specific cases, no (sexual morality varies quite a bit across cultures).
Now, if the desire to do good were natural, then, a critic might challenge me, would not conscience be the same in everyone? But it does not seem to be. And then children would be pure, benign beings, would they not? It is a rare child indeed who is not occasionally a little monster.
These topics (whether children are morally pure and whether conscience is the same in all of us) are, in fact, connected. Children are born crooked. They should be straightened out in a gentle, loving way by their parents. Doing so develops a child’s conscience or sense of right and wrong. Their parents are from a wide variety of cultures, with a wide variety of mores, to be sure. But nature and universal human experience are useful teachers—their operation looms large in what is called “growing up” or “maturing,” beyond the more deliberate “raising up” and “nuturing” by older, wiser humans.
To say that people are naturally good or that they naturally value the good is not to say that such refined moral sensibilities are automatic. It is merely to say that nature and common situations create common, indeed universal influences in us all and indeed in all animals. The cat that saved the puppy knows how helpless the young are, knows that being in precarious places is fraught with pain and danger. Due to its quite natural (and, maybe especially to children fascinated by the video, perfectly understandable) valuation of such potential precious life, it decided to help the puppy. Another cat might have acted differently, of course.
When there is similarity of conscience, therefore, it can be partly due to common upbringing or culture, but it can also be due to even more common, impersonal life circumstances (which can be common even in the broader animal world).
Another point worth mentioning helps to clinch the conclusion that we are naturally moral. It is certainly perfectly moral—and many traditions would say deeply important—that we act effectively to preserve our own lives. Not only should we not be killing ourselves, but we also typically bear a burden, sometimes a difficult and heavy burden depending on our circumstances, to care for ourselves once we are adults. This might sometimes look selfish when our well-being is in some competition with someone else’s; but when we are merely trying to survive and stay comfortable, we are surely doing something quite right. And I dare say nobody denies that desire for self-preservation is “natural,” if anything is, and that animals do the same. Yet, for all its naturalness, preserving one’s life is an injunction so important that breaking it is regarded a mortal sin by the Catholic Church.
Very well, I hear my critic say. Perhaps there are natural circumstances that make us look out for ourselves and each other, and this behavior is perfectly moral or right. We are naturally moved to be moral, in that limited sense. But you’ve glossed over so many important issues. Why should you not lie, cheat, and steal if on balance it improves your life? Morality, you say, is life-affirming action. But whose life should be affirmed? Maybe I want to say: mine only. And if I should disagree about who benefits from moral action, you do not seem to have given me any grounds on which to prefer your answer over my own.
It is absolutely true that my theory is not finished. I need to put some further touches on it.
I want to begin by admitting that, indeed, I could not convince anyone that it is exclusively in their self-interest to be moral. It might be, sometimes, in your self-interest to be completely immoral. Of course, it depends on what you mean by “self-interest.” Immorality is bad for the soul and you will, it seems to me, ultimately have a more satisfying life if it is a moral life. But surely not always. I do not see how one can always justify a moral life, complete with much other-regarding action, simply because doing so is always in your own personal self-interest.
In other words, I am inclined to reject a view philosophers call ethical egoism, i.e., that ultimately, the reasons we have for doing right can be explained in terms of our own rational self-interest. That is the view of Ayn Rand, for example. I used to put some stock in that theory, but no longer. There are simply too many difficult cases. Why should an ethical egoist ever become a soldier or police officer or fire fighter, putting his life on the line for others? I regard that as admirable heroism. For that matter, why should a woman ever have children and sacrifice a large part of her life doing so? Mothers are generally among the finest and most admirable human beings. Such self-sacrifice does not redound to the egoist’s own benefit. The rather stretched answer that egoists sometimes give is that they quite deliberately and rationally extend their sphere of concern beyond themselves to their family or country. But then, I respond: by definition, you are no longer an egoist if your values extend beyond yourself.
What is this “sphere of concern”? This will turn out to matter. It basically means the things we ought to be concerned about when making our moral deliberations. Our sphere of concern extends to whatever things figure in our moral calculations. From items closest to furthest away from me, potential items in my sphere of concern could include: myself; my family; my neighborhood; my community; my state or region; my country; all of humanity; all intelligent beings; all sentient beings; all living beings; and finally, absolutely everything in the universe.
To get a taste of what philosophers say about this topic, it is sometimes said that if we limit our sphere of moral concern to just human beings and do not extend moral concern to animals, then we are guilty of a kind of bigotry called speciesism (like racism, but about the human species). I am not going to try to adjudicate that now. All I want to point out is that even plants can fall into my sphere of moral concern. I would not just start stripping a tree (even out in the middle of the jungle, far from where anyone would miss it) of its leaves for no good reason. Closer to home, we generally find it to be a moral concern that we treat pets humanely, and we (should) teach our children not to torture even small animals, even insects.
It is less common, however, for philosophers to discuss what I will call a sphere of influence. While on the one hand your sphere of concern includes everything you care about in deliberating, on the other hand your sphere of influence includes everything you might reasonably be thought to have some more or less direct influence on. The universe makes up a vast web of causality, but clearly, we should not be held responsible for distant consequences we cannot possibly predict. What we are responsible for is whatever we could reasonably predict. If my taking a Sunday drive somehow, inadvertently, causes an accident across town, I am not responsible for that. But if I might cause an accident by failing to use my left turn signal, then any such accident is in my sphere of influence.
More generally, though, we can say that our sphere of influence increases the more power we have in the world. A young person fresh out of high school working in a factory has little power or influence in the world. The CEO of a multi-billion dollar international corporation has influence ultimately on millions or even billions of people, and so has a much larger sphere of influence.
I went through these platitudes to set up two general claims:
- We should take all of life as our sphere of concern.
- Our actual moral obligations vary considerably based on on our sphere of influence, i.e., how great of an effect we can have on others (and on all life).
Generally, our obligation—perhaps, indeed, our purpose in life—is to do the most good we can within our sphere of influence.
In other words, the young factory worker has the greatest impact on his own life and that of his immediate family and friends. His own life usually comes first (your obligation is generally to yourself first and foremost); his family and friends, on whom he can have a significant impact for good or ill, are very important; beyond that, he has some impact on his workplace and his local community; beyond that, he has even less in the way of obligation to his country or all of humanity, but even these obligations can matter. But the young factory worker has the greatest impact on his own life and that of his immediate family and friends.
Matters are very different for the CEO, whose personal and family obligations must sometimes and quite reasonably take a backseat to what are more profound and wide-ranging impacts that action or inaction can have.
The reason you should not steal another person’s stuff, then, is that in doing so, you are hurting that person. Simply by virtue of the immediate effects of your contemplated crime, your victim would be within your sphere of concern.
But there is more to it than this.
After all, perhaps you are poor and the other person is rich, and you will benefit hugely while the other person will lose comparatively little. Perhaps the rich person has an obligation to you, who have a clear and present need, after all. Maybe, just maybe, stealing from the rich would be the right thing to do. It is easy to see someone constructing that argument.
To explain why such reasoning would be incorrect, and why you should “be moral” according to conventional ideas of morality (such as that stealing is wrong), I must expand my theory again. So far I have spoken mostly about value theory, i.e., about what things are good and bad for us, what is valuable and why, and how far our sphere of concern should extend. I do say “our obligation is to do the most good we can,” but I do not really say what this means. I need to produce what ethicists call a theory of obligation or of right and wrong.
In approaching this enormous and forbidding subject, it would not be a bad idea to begin with the case before us now. If you were to steal, and if you wanted to be quite deliberative about the case, you would naturally ask yourself, “Where does it end? What is my policy now? Should I always steal from the rich whenever I have the opportunity?”
And then a more enlightened soul can give you the sort of platitudes that you were probably expecting at the beginning of this essay: if you stole, you would have to cover up and hide your crime; you would risk severe penalties; you would cause fear and upset to your victim and your victim’s loved ones; you would create more work for the police, undermining society’s laws; you would be teaching yourself to become dependent upon others’ honest work; etc. Even if you were quite poor, regardless of how much you stole, it would make everyone worse off, and not the least you. I do not intend to make this case in any more detail. Especially if you are able to make reference to spheres of concern beyond yourself, understanding why stealing is wrong is not the hard part. It is rather easy to explain. I am not saying this is unimportant, either; understanding why you should do this and not do that, applying general principles in many particular cases, is admittedly a central part of a moral education. It is part of growing up and, as I said, getting less crooked.
But I wanted to discuss the general question: Why be moral? An individual explanation is meager fare. You wanted a full meal. Why, in general, should you embrace those principles that are regarded as representing “morality”? And if it is not clear what those principles are, how do you decide on them?
I could go in some depth at this point about about what is called ethical theory. I would discuss virtue ethics and rule consequentialism (which are two of the type of theoretical approaches I like best), but I think for a general audience it would be most useful if I avoid the jargon and stick to matters that have more obvious and easily-graspable substance.
Here then is my answer: We should be moral, we should do as much good for the world as we can, because that is our natural purpose in life. Given the proper understanding of what morality is, or how it actually functions in our lives, this turns out to be a fairly easy answer to defend. And I will defend it in more detail further down, but first I want to explain what I mean.
People who discuss the question “Why be moral?”—and here I would include many philosophy instructors and students—seem to regard it as a hard problem because we are tempted to do all sorts of wrong things, and philosophy should provide us with motivations to resist what is wrong and to do what is right instead. But that seems to be a difficult feat for philosophy to perform.
The thing that makes it difficult, however, is that so many of us (including those philosophers) simply do not understand that doing good for the world is, in a sense, why we are here. If our purpose is to do good, that in itself makes it clear why we should avoid wrong action. This is, I maintain, a perfectly natural, ordinary, commonsensical idea.
Evaluating a life in the long term, as in a funeral encomium, we might call a person a “good man” and a “good woman” simply to convey that they made it a habit to abide by some narrow list of moral maxims, such as the Ten Commandments. That would not be wrong, exactly, but in many cases, it significantly mischaracterizes the praise we are giving the dearly departed. Clearly, we are not merely saying that they followed some rules. We are saying that they had a massively beneficial impact on the world, or at least on everyone around them (in their sphere of influence). They made the lives of everyone they touched at least a little bit better: you have heard that said of people. Are you rather envious when you hear that? I am. I think many of us are. We have moral ambitions, and when we hear this said of a deceased person, we think: “She succeeded. Will I?”
Who does not want to be good in that sense? Maybe you say, “Well, I do not work in soup kitchens or teach kids to read; I build skyscrapers” (or whatever). Indeed. And if your skyscrapers are excellent and help many people, are you not rightly honored for your contribution to society? Have you not done good? I think so. There are, after all, many ways to improve the lives of those around you. There is a division of highly moral labor. Modern industrial society shares work in many ways, and helping the helpless is of course not the only beneficial role to play, as important as that is.
“She left the world a better place than she found it”—that we can say such things about our life’s work, or about how we treated others, rightly strikes many of us as encapsulating what the purpose of life is. Funerals as well as near brushes with death sometime inspire us to re-examine our lives in broad strokes, to evaluate whether our lives really have meaning. There are lessons to be gleaned from the examination of a life lived “in full.” In the ancient Greek apothegm, “Count no man happy until he is dead.”
In a speech, I argued that what makes it difficult for young people (and some older people, e.g., those undergoing a personal crisis) to figure out the meaning of life, or what they should do with their lives, is the uncertainty involved in deciding how we can best impact the world. This is inherently hard to predict; there are too many variables and too many unknowns. When you are starting life, you naturally want to know the greatest impact you can have on the world. Perhaps a good way to view this is by speculating about what you want your funeral encomium to contain. But there is no easy way to know whether it is possible to get “from here to there.” Thus the difficulty.
Some people, of course, seem only want to “get ahead.” They seem to be entirely selfish. Perhaps, but “getting ahead” is only one aspect of their ambition. What really matters is why they want to get ahead or to get power. It all depends on the ends: If you seek wealth in order to get women, or to satisfy your vanity by impressing others, or simply to bend others to your whim, then you are ignoring a great deal in life that is truly valuable. Such people end up losing their loved ones; or they do the popular rather than the correct or right thing, and so the effectiveness of their work suffers; or they have power indeed, but no love and no real achievement. All that said, there are some who are equally ambitious, but whose ambition is perfectly well-grounded: they want to be a doctor because they want to benefit the human race by curing people; they want to be a lawyer because they actually do care about law and justice; they want to be a programmer because they care about making life easier for others through innovation and usability. If I am correct, then your motives are deeply important.
Let me see if I can sum up this answer. It is life, I said at the beginning, that has value in itself. To live and to flourish just is the securing of valuable things and conditions that make life easier, safer, and more pleasant. But it is perfectly natural for us, like all well-functioning animals, to support and affirm life wherever it is found. It is not merely about our own lives, but about life in general, in ever-widening circles of influence beginning with our own lives. So:
What is ultimately valuable? Life itself.
But what sorts of things are objectively good, then? Whatever supports or enhances life.
Whose life? Whose good am I to be aiming at? Your own first of all, but beyond that whoever (and indeed whatever living thing) you can have a positive impact on, i.e., that which is in sphere of influence. This is just right action.
But why should I seek to do right in this sense? You do, as a matter of fact, unless you are broken. It is the nature of life itself to seek that which is good. This is the purpose of life itself.
I know this is apt to seem very inadequate to many people, who were, like those philosophers and philosophy students, expecting me to say something that would motivate them to do good. And here I am saying only that if they are not broken, then they are already so motivated!
Very well. If you are seeking moral inspiration, then let me see if I can offer a bit of that.
Right action is life-affirming, and superlative action is unusually so. In other words, as you do more good, the more wonderfully, deeply, broadly other lives is benefited. We reserve our most unrestricted and enthusiastic praise those who go out of their way to save lives, or to make lives much better. We honor fallen heroes for making the ultimate sacrifice that allows others to go on living, or living freely. We honor inventors who make the lives of millions easier. We honor great leaders, if they lead whole societies to deeply beneficial improvements. We honor messiahs, prophets, scholars, and scientists whose great works orders our thinking and shape our cultures and remove the confusion of the ages, so we can act more correctly and confidently.
At the same time, the folks at home honor honest laborers and providers, for making a home life possible. We honor our mothers and caretakers for making home life easier, more loving, and more pleasant. We even honor our children for their comparatively trivial achievements, because of what a crucial role they play in helping life to go on; and we honor our elders for their long lives of good work and for the wisdom and guidance they can continue to pass on.
At whatever scale, small or great, this is what life is about. What could be more motivating than a life that is productive of all the good things, material, intellectual, and spiritual, that make a richer life possible? Is this not what you are (as I said) already motivated by? You might say, “But that is just life,” but I am telling you that a life well lived is a moral life; it is, in Jesus’ excellent phrase, “abundant life.” We naturally want that, and that is why to be moral.
Perhaps you want to complain that I have still not really answered the question. Why should you not steal if you can get away with it? Why should the holder of the Ring of Gyges not make himself a wealthy king? I will give you two answers.
First, unbroken people avoid such crimes not because crime is not in their self-interest, but because the gains that crime provides do not make up for the fact that it simply gets in the way of, and indeed puts at grave risk, so many more important things in life. They put at risk the very purpose of life. They will make your life not only chaotic, but also meaningless. Law-abiding citizens around the world and throughout the ages are not dupes, as criminals sometimes say; they are the wise ones. They have known all this and lived by it. What I say is simply a matter of common sense to them.
The second answer requires that we examine evil in more depth. Some thieves will not find any of this satisfactory. What about those students of mine who declared they would run rampant if society broke down? I seem to be implying that we all, because it is “natural,” seek to do well; and that, of course, seems obviously false. There are bad people out there, no doubt. Indeed, evil people exist. (I have a blog post explaining what I mean by evil.) So is it my claim, perhaps, that those people are confused, thinking they do good when they do evil? Or are they good sometimes and evil sometimes? But is that really possible, on my theory?
The simple and uncontroversial observation that some behavior is normal does not entail that abnormal behavior does not exist. It only requires that we produce an explanation of what makes behavior normal or abnormal. I have already explained what makes life-affirming, life-enhancing action normal. But what exactly is abnormal about evil people?
I have already said that bad people are broken. They are not functioning properly. I do not mean that they are mentally ill; they might be sane enough. Evil people are broken in a specific way. I mean they have lost the natural desire to benefit the life around them. They are not merely bad but evil if they have contempt for life itself.
There are people who are so broken, indeed, often because they have been so abused (and were unable to recover), that they go through life filled with spite, contempt, black cynicism about anything held up as important or true, anything beautiful, anything innocent, anything showing great promise. They are so broken that they are motivated to do quite the opposite of what I claim is the “natural purpose in life.” They are prepared to throw their lives away and, if they can, to ruin others’ lives in the process. Such people do exist.
They are most nihilistic elements of society. Nihilism is a much darker concept than many people in our cynical society seem to think. “Nihilism” in general means the position of rejecting value per se, but that then means rejecting everything that is, in fact, good for us. Such nihilism comes in degrees. You might be nihilistic with respect to art or certain (say) Christian values you think are bourgeois, while retaining a firm grasp on the value of human life and property. But there are people who are even more broken, who see no special value about human life, property, law, happiness, or anything that well-functioning people naturally value. Such nihilists can act on such their contempt for human values by taking action that is entirely unguided by such ends, or that is hostile to those ends. When they do, we should avoid them, improve them where we can, and punish them if necessary.
I have not answered all moral questions in this essay; I have not tried to. I have not even finished answering the question, “Why be moral?” to my own complete satisfaction. Long books can be and are written about the subject. All I hope to have done here is to sketch a theory and an explanation that, if you did not have anything better, you could use to understand why you should seek to do as many good, life-enhancing things in the world as you can, while avoiding bad, life-defeating things. In the process, I hope I have helped those readers (most people, in my experience) who have a very limited view of what morality is really about to embrace a much broader view. After all, if to “be moral” is to live well, with everything that entails, then the scope of morality is life itself, and you should be moral to live most abundantly.