Friday, July 20, 2007

Who says I'm moral?

In Friendly Atheist's questionnaire I answered the question "Where do your morals come from?" with a question: Who says I'm moral?

On some accounts of morality, I'm absolutely, completely, utterly without a shred of morality.

If one defines a moral act as an act performed in submission to a God's command, well, I'm an atheist, so that's pretty much out. Muslims, for whom submission to God's will is the sine qua non of their religion, have to consider me absolutely immoral.

Kant defined (or at least many people interpret Kant as having defined) a moral act as one taken without any self-interest whatsoever. Well, I do everything out of self-interest, broadly construed. How could I not do so? Everything I do happens because of some motivation in my mind, and all motivations are, by definition, the interests of the self. If one defines self-interest more narrowly, why that narrow definition instead of another?

I tell the truth because I want people to believe and trust me: It's nice to be able to sign for something. I contribute to charity for the same reason I take an aspirin when I have a headache: I feel pain at others' suffering, and a charitable donation provides at least temporary relief.

It happens to be the case that I am indeed empathic: The happiness of others causes me a degree of pleasure, and the suffering of others causes me pain. But that's a result of my genes and my upbringing: I can't take any more credit for my empathy than I can take blame for my lack of musical talent.

Because I'm normally empathic, and because I'm reasonably intelligent, I can behave in ways that benefit my neighbors, usually earning their approval: Perhaps it is that that my neighbors call my "morals". But my neighbors' approval itself does not strongly motivate my behavior: If I want to do something that they don't approve of, but which I don't believe will actually harm them, I'll do it (in private) with a clear conscience. So even in the sense of acting according to others' approval, I'm not in the least bit moral.

Like every other lump of matter in the universe, rocks, trees, and even you yourself, gentle reader, I act according to my nature. My nature happens to be considerably more complicated than the nature of a rock, and a lot nicer than Charles Manson's. But other than that complexity, there's nothing magical or mysterious or qualitatively different about me or you or any other human being.


  1. Well said. Couldn't agree more. We are all creatures of self-interest. The sooner people stop pretending otherwise, the better our societies will be.

  2. Nice post.

    Never could make head nor tail of Kantian gobbledygook. [I'm no philosopher, as you've already gathered!]

    People do what they do to make themselves feel better [hedonism]. If I am sitting in a cramped position, I move to ease the pain. We rationalise our actions by convincing ourselves that what we do is "for the best". This is the alibi of bin Laden, Bush, Blair, suicide bombers, and Lindy England.

    Whether my "best" is also for your good is another matter. Too bad if it isn't.

    I look forward to Larry's penetrating dissection of these random thoughts.


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