Why Should We Be Moral?

                It has always been debatable if some actions such as lying for some advantages are moral. With different criteria and notions, how to judge what is moral, what is genuinely moral and what is not are not so clear. Moreover, the reason or benefit why we should be moral at all can sometimes be obscure. This essay will discuss on each theory of ethics proposed by various philosophers from past to present and how they may help us reach an answer to why we should be moral.


Immanuel Kant’s idea on ethics may give an answer to the question we are interested in. However, before the answer can be derived, some of his basic ideas have to be considered. Kant worked on his theory of ethics by first distinguishing things that are good as merely a means and things that are intrinsically good or good in itself. He conceived a good will as the only thing that is good in itself since its value is unconditional and does not depend on what results it will give. Other good deeds such as courage, intelligence or judgement on the other hand are desirable in many respects but they can be extremely bad when used by the will that is not good.

                Reason is viewed by Kant to have a true function of producing a will which is good, not as a means to some further end, but in itself. The capability of reasoning of human is not for making him happy because any other instincts would have served that end more effectively but is intended for the supreme condition which Kant calls duty. As human beings are rational, they are therefore capable of true freedom. When human freely acts in accordance to the law of reason, he is performing his duty.


                An action which is done out of natural inclination, for example because of desire or affection is not morally praiseworthy according to Kant. Only if someone acts without any inclination but out of duty alone, does his action have genuine moral worth. For example, if a grocer did not overcharge inexperienced customers because it would be bad for his business then he is acting out of his own interest and does not worth a moral praise. Only if he did it because it was a duty then he became morally praiseworthy. Kant tells us that preserving one’s life is a duty. If a wretched man being hopeless and wanting to die still preserves his life without loving it, not because of inclination or fear, then his act has a moral content.

                Similarly, helping others is only genuinely moral when the person who acts is not moved by any inclination, for example when his own mind is already full of sorrow. To assure one’s own happiness is also a duty according to Kant, not because we want to be happy but because it is necessary for us to do other duties. Almost always, all men have already the strong inclination towards happiness. It then only has moral worth if one only has a will for good health as a duty, as a law of furthering his happiness in order to do other duties and not from other inclinations.


                However, the question what determines what is duty arises. Kant gave an answer to this question by asserting that “Duty is the necessity to act out of reverence for the law”. Even though reverence is a feeling, he said that it is the self-produced one and hence it is different from feelings received from outside which can always be reduced to inclinations and fear, hence the statement is still valid without any inclination involves. This law must be absolutely good, regardless of what is expected from it. Kant then asserted what is known as Kant’s Categorial Imperative: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become a universal law”. It refers to a demand which is not conditioned as opposed to Hypothetical Imperative which is a conditioned demand e.g. study law (if you want to be a lawyer). This suggests that breaking promises for some personal advantages are forbidden since although one may wish to break the promise but one cannot rationally wish that such action should become a universal law otherwise the whole institutions of promising will collapse. This should give one of the answers why we should be moral. If we were not moral in the sense that Kant suggested, the civilisation and societies might not have been able to form and human might have better lived individually with only egoistic view which tells us to act out of our own interest to ensure survival.

                We might as well say that the universal laws in Kant’s notion is an a priori principle which can be known before or independently of experience. The problem then might be how to know what action conforms to this universal law since Kant’s Categorial is too general to help us decide what to do in a particular circumstance and practically, at the end of the day, experience and convention are needed to judge the morality of a particular action so Kant’s idea is one of an absolutist that a standard or absolute knowledge, in this case, the so called universal law, exists.

                For the question of whether to lie and hurt nobody’s feeling or not to lie according to Kant’s Categorial Imperative, Kantian answer is not to lie but one does not necessarily have to say the truth but can avoid by saying “no comment”, for example.  Also if one steals from the rich and gives to the poor, Kant will say that his acts is still wrong but he does not deserve to be punished.


                Kant also gave us an alternative version of Categorial Imperative: “Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of any other, not only as a means but at the same time as an end in itself”. This is derived from the idea that “persons” are not only valuable but are the source of value. Their values are unconditioned whereas objects of inclination which we call “things” only have conditioned values. Without inclinations, they have no value. Therefore human, or in general a rational being, exists as an end in himself, not merely a means, regardless of nationality, races or where he was born. Persons are objective ends(things whose existence is in itself an end) which cannot be replaced by any other end, not a subjective end whose value of existence is only as an object of our actions like “things” in general. Actions which use other people for our own benefit without any regard to their interest is hence forbidden. This is not because we want others to do the same to us in return but simply because they deserve respects and have values as such in themselves. This version of Categorial Imperative maybe viewed as still an unconditioned obligation which also gives a guideline of conducts with respect to others.   

                In conclusion, Kant’s answer to why should we be moral should be it is because there are absolute laws which everyone ought to be abide, this includes the idea that each person has his own ends and hence ought to be respected. This is a deontological view which has a central concept on duty and is solely based on reason.

However, the question why we should obey this law may arise and cannot be answered by the deontological.

                Another important idea on ethics and morality which may give an answer to the question is the Utilitarianism. It gives a stark contrast to Kant’s deontological argument. Utilitarianism is one of the consequentialistic idea which emphasises the moral value of actions on their consequences and the Greatest Happiness Principle rather than the standard absolute laws as in the deontological. One of the leading figure in Utilitarianism is Bentham who viewed that principle of utility which is the principle that approves or disapproves of every action according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question. However, Bentham’s idea seems to incline to the egoism side and hence was taken up and refined by John Stuart Mill. Mill still sticks to the utilitarian framework that actions are right as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to promote the reverse of happiness. Happiness according to Mill is a pleasure and absence of pain. He was not satisfied with Bentham’s hedonism which states that pleasure is the sole ultimate value and to Bentham, this pleasure seems to be only physical. To Mill, it cannot satisfy human conception of happiness since human has a distinctive capacity to enjoy the exercise of capacities for intelligent activity in contrast to other animals. He then goes on to make a distinction between higher and lower pleasures. This implies that Mill thinks that pleasures differ from one another not only in quantity but also quality. However, the higher pleasures can be said to be superior only because of human preferences which must be of those who have properly experienced the alternatives e.g. experiencing by the process of education or a commitment over a period of time.

                The answer to why we should be moral regarding the view of Utilitarianism might then be to maximise the collective happiness of the group as a whole, considering pleasures differ both quantitatively and qualitatively. Alternatively, we might look at his idea on the psychical connection between human nature and human happiness and say that we should act morally because it is in our nature to do so and enjoy the exercise of our capacities for intelligent activity.

                However Mill’s idea is still subject to many criticisms, an obvious one being how can happiness be measured. Mill’s qualitative approach on happiness seems to be a simple summation of all happiness and subtraction of all unhappiness. He adds that equal amount of happiness are equally desirable to everyone. This can hardly be justified. Some criticise Utilitarianism that it does not attach any significance to the person who gets the benefits, assuming everyone is counted equal. Usually, this should not be the case for one might get upset more than another if their promises have been broken, maybe because of different and unique relationship of one to another. The problem of having no time to calculate and weigh the effects of a conduct prior to the action is also a barrier to adopting Utilitarianism as a guideline to moral conducts. Mill answers this by suggesting that mankind have been learning all the time by experience the tendencies of actions. Mill also incorporates some deontological view of ethics into Utilitarianism in order to answer the objection. This version of utilitarianism is called rule-utilitarianism as distinct from act-utilitarianism as we have seen before. He says that to act rightly, we need to be guided by traditional rules. We cannot calculate the consequences of actions from scratch. We should then be moral by following the general rules so that it would produce the best consequences.       


                Some view Kant’s  and Mill’s philosophy of ethics as two extreme poles. Kant emphasises the universal whereas Mill emphasises the particular. The philosophy that combines the two is the Hegelian morality which stresses on the social relations of an individual. This is claimed to be what Mill’s and Kant’s philosophy fail to grasp and take into account. Bradley, one of the Hegelians, identifies “self-realisation” as the central concept of ethics and the self here refers to social self, self through the relations to other selves. In the problem of breaking a promise, the utilitarian only forbids breaking a promise because it harms the other person and creates unhappiness but it fails to see the unique nature of the harm. The answer from the relational theory by Bradley will be because breaking a promise harms the relationship of trust and reliance between us and the other person. Being loyal to a friend and standing by him are also actions which ought to be done just because they are what it is to be friends. This may be called emotional commitment or underlying relationship which demands a certain kind of concern in each case. This commitment to others is internal to self-realisation because it is internal to the self. These explanations bridge the moral gap between self and others with self as a social self whereas the claim by the utilitarian to bridge individual happiness to general happiness cannot be justified. In the light of social relation theory, Kantian ethics is merely a principle of consistency and impersonality of reasons. The relational theory may be viewed to agree with the naturalism well. The naturalist such as David Hume says that human beings are essentially social creatures and they go through the process of emotional development through relationships with others, by learning the needs of others and take them into account. However, there is a difference between the naturalism and the relational theory in the way that the former tells us to be moral because our natural feelings tell us so. It will give us the peace of mind and happiness, being fulfilled by the deepest need. The latter says that we should be moral just because it is always the case to do so, considering the importance of social self and the relationships with others in committing such actions.

                The social relation theory also suffers from criticisms. It does not seem to provide a definite guidance as to how we ought to act. An objection like why we ought to realise the social self in the self-realisation scheme and not one’s own self like the egoists might say seems to suggest that the concept of self-realisation alone cannot tell us how to act but has to be integrated with other ethics to be of any value.

                I personally agree with the view of social relations and naturalism in the way that we ought to act morally because that is what it takes to be ourselves in the society where we take different roles and status and because we have “feelings” towards others.  As a human being, we are highly dependent on others both physically and mentally. To make a civilised society a happy place to live in, all of its members should be moral. However, the tender natural feelings which will lead to morality may only exist in modern societies as a contrast to the society in stone age era, say, when the harsh condition of environments may force human to rather adopt the egoism view in order to ensure the survival like David Hume remarked. Kantian ethics seem to give a reasonable and clear-cut proposition that what is right, is right and what is wrong, is always wrong. This, I think, should always be used, along with the feelings towards others and our roles in the society, as a director and an additional guideline to decide how to act morally. His second version of the Categorial Imperative that tells us to treat others as they also have their own ends is also compatible to some extent with the view of social relation on why we should be moral although with different intentions. What is moral is still to be discussed further. To me, the answer to the question “why should we be moral” lies dominantly in the social relationships and natural feelings and partly in the realm of the deontological view.