Why Be Moral?

Carlos Martinez

I debated a couple friends of mine today. The subject was morality’s source. Where does it come from? Why do we believe it? Why should we continue to?

I argued that morality is what works – if it facilitates your flourishing, then it is moral. I also said that a belief in God is very useful. If you believe that an all powerful being keeps track of everything you do, then it allows for cosmic justice – nothing goes unrewarded nor unpunished.

But for some reason, my friends pushed back, and I’m not sure why (probably because I didn’t listen properly hahaha, sorry Ana and Jakub). One of them noticed a contradiction in my argument, the other disagreed that we need God in order to flourish.

Their arguments were scattered (as were mine), but here are their main points. For one, belief in eternal damnation is psychologically harmful. Two, one can derive morals from reason. Three, we have evolved to be kind to one another – those who were selfish and who were bloodthirsty simply disappeared off of the ancestral tree. Four, that my belief in God is akin to the Panopticon. Five, that your moral beliefs, specifically, your articulated philosophy of right and wrong, matters. And I’m just going to tack on another one, six, which is more of a question: why be moral?

Let me start with the sixth objection, for my answer most quickly answers the question. One reason to be moral is for the adventure. If you are immoral, it’s a nightmare! You will suffer, your friends, family, and society will suffer, all because the way you treat the people around you changes the way others then treat their friends. And if you are immoral, the world will loose the positive and moral impact you could be making on the world.

But if you try to be moral, then you’ll discover that it’s full of twists and turns. Doing the right thing is difficult, such as breaking up with someone when you know he’s not meant for you, or apologizing for something wrong you did. However, you also frequently don’t know what the right thing to do actually is! When this happens to me, I try to say what’s on my mind, go home to mull over what just happened, come up with suggestions for improvement, and then integrate those suggestions into your life.

For the philosophy peeps reading this, this is very similar to Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative. There are though a few important differences. One is that I don’t expect other people to uphold the same imperatives. Different people have different personalities, and that changes what you think is right and wrong. It’s unrealistic to expect everything to have the exact same moral code.

The second reason for why moral knowledge differs from philosophy is that it’s more like wisdom. Wisdom comes only with experience, and by wisdom I mean knowledge that is domain independent, in that you see the impact one part of your life has on another. As time goes by, you stop making similar mistakes, you start to notice the patterns, and you hopefully catch yourself before you fall into the same trap again!

The third reason is that it’s nearly impossible to think properly in high pressure situations (at least for me), so the best thing you can do is to act on instinct.

So all of this means that living morally is an adventure! You’re going out and making mistakes not knowing what exactly will happen and what the consequences of your actions will be. But if you keep trying (to be moral), then over time, your mistakes and experiences will train your moral intuition, and hopefully you level up and take on bigger moral challenges.

Remember as well that making moral mistakes is part of learning. When they happen, you’ve got to forgive yourself, because, well, you didn’t know any better! And you can’t know better until you suffer the consequences. This also isn’t a free pass to do wrong or immoral things. In one case, you are trying to be moral, and in the other case, you are grasping for excuses. Only your conscience can hold you accountable for this one.

So, you should be moral because it’s going to be an adventure. If you don’t want to go on adventure? I don’t think that this is possible. Life is a moral adventure, and every thing you do either makes the world better or worse. There is not sitting out for this game, because sitting out is also a moral choice.

Okay, next! The fifth objection of my friends was that one’s articulated moral beliefs matter. I disagree with this. In my experience, everyone lies. Well, lie is too strong. It’s more like people don’t notice that they say one thing and then do another unconsciously. With this in mind, you can figure out what someone’s moral character is by watching how they act instead of what they they believe. Look at how they treat people, how they respond to challenge, how they act when they discover they are wrong. That reveals much.

Good moral reasons are no guarantee that you’ll make good actions. Perhaps you picked them up to win arguments, or to fit in with a bunch of other people, etc. But your brain doesn’t make decisions based on reason. It does so by using emotion.

What I’ve found is that in pressurful moral situations, your rationality abandons you! I usually get a headache in my temples, except that it does not go away for a couple days and that it is painful. And this is where I see a moral philosophy like utilitarianism and Kant’s deontology are not useful. Logically deducing what is right in many situations is simply not possible, but it’s definitely not possible to come up with an accurate prescriptive ethic that covers everything.

Perhaps when you’re sitting in your office thinking about the morality of abortion, it’s then okay to use these philosophies. But even then, to use them properly, you need to go out and make moral mistakes in order to develop your intuition. One reliable way I’ve found of testing someone’s character is to ask if they can host me. The things which happen before the hosting, during the hosting, and then afterwards, tell me infinitesimally more about that person’s character than any spouting out of what they supposedly believe to be is right and wrong.

Next, I address objection 4: that my belief in God is akin to the Panopticon. This is false. Firstly, God watching you is not a prison. It is something out of which you can disregard at any time, and which you might even get away with! Secondly, you can also reach out and interact and play with other people if God is watching you; this is not true for the Panopticon. Lastly, the Panopticon idea is something associated with Foucault, unlike the oldest idea of mankind, so I’d be very weary of associating something of great quality and variation with something else so skinny and devoid of morals.

Objection three: that we have evolved to be kind to one another. Uhhh. No. Well. Sorta. My friend said that Jane Goodall’s work shows that we have evolved to be kind to other people. No, it doesn’t. It shows that we have evolved to be kind to other members of our tribe. When we deal with members of our tribe outside of our own, we become absolutely savage and violent towards them, just like the chimpanzees that Goodall studied.

Objection two: one gets his moral framework from reason. No, you don’t. People who cannot reason are still able to be moral. I only learned how to reason somewhere in first or second year, and I still mess up reasoning all the time. But I was able to be moral, and I knew what was clearly wrong from a very young age. Reason is not some destination to which we all end up; it’s for this reason that St. Thomas Aquinas is wrong about Natural Law. We will not necessarily come to the same conclusions about what is right or wrong, even if we all use logical arguments!

Lastly, belief in hell and hellfire and eternal damnation is actually harmful: psychological studies have shown that people who believe in these things are harmed by it. Perhaps then, the way that they were taught these concepts then was wrong. But there is undoubtedly hell. Sometimes I get a taste of it when I choose to do something that causes more suffering. And when others do the same to me. This hell is real. And it can cause true harm. So knowing that something malevolent exists may in fact be psychologically harmful. But it is important to know about it in order to develop counter measures against it, and to know what you are trying to avoid.

I put a baby on as the photo because I think that babies are incredibly cute, but also incredibly revivifying. When I see a baby, I kind of get emotional, because of how innocent the baby is, and how not-innocent I am. But the other thing about babies is that I think that a baby’s laugh is something that is universally good, and that any culture that takes away a baby’s ability to laugh is immoral. Here, therefore, is at least one thing that I think is absolutely wrong.

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