Why be Moral?

This is a question that can be interpreted in a number of different ways.   Notice that, superficially, the question is not about what is moral.   Instead, it is a challenge to justify one's adherence to morality.   It is a question about why the "moral thing to do" seems to have motivating power.  It is a challenge to provide an extra-ethical justification for one's adherence to morality and an extra-ethical explanation for that motivating power.   An intra-ethical justification is trivial -- we always have good moral reasons to be moral.   That is what being moral means, and that is all that can be said on the subject from within any moral system.   An extra-ethical justification or explanation, on the other hand, addresses the more interesting issue of why one should be moral at all.

As such, however, the question that is this essay's title can be seen to be ambiguous.   First consider the meaning of "why".  "Why" as an adverb asks for what reason or purpose, or asks for an account for which. IN other words, "Why be moral?" asks for a reason, purpose, or an account that justifies us, or motivates us to be moral.  But reasons can be understood in different ways.   As a search for reasons to be moral, one can approach the question from two different perspectives.   One can interpretd the question as asking why, as a matter of fact, most people are moral most of the time.   We are moral, but whay are we?  Alternatively, one can interpret the question as asking what it is about the moral that motivates us to be moral.   Why should we be moral?   Or, more specifically, why should I be moral in this particular instance?  Of course, these two different perspectives are mutually supporting.   The answer we provide to the either of these two interpretations of the question, has to be consistent with the answer we provide to the other interpretation of the question.

Finally, consider the meaning of "moral".   It is hard to understand how we can address either interpretation of the question without forming some conception of just what is being referred to by "moral".   So I am going to approach my answer to this question in three parts:

Part 1   -- Why are we moral?

Part 2   -- What reasons are there to be moral?

Part 3   -- What is moral?


Part 1   -- Why are we moral?

Why do most people, most of the time, do the moral thing?   What is it about being moral that gives most people most of the time good reason for choosing the moral alternative?   What is it about "the right thing to do" that seems so successful in generating in people an effective motivation to do it?   Why do we generally consider "irrational" someone who acknowledges some alternative as the moral one, but chooses another one anyway?

Certainly, it cannot simply be because there are moral standards and moral rules.   The fact that we consider a great many things that people have done to be immoral, is clear enough demonstration that the average person does not always automatically do what the standards of morality say we should.   Despite the existence of fines and prisons and social censure.  The existence of moral standards is clearly no guarantee that we will always do the morally correct thing.

But interestingly enough, despite the evidence that there is a great deal of immorality going on around us all the time, there really isn't as much immorality as there would be if "being moral"was a random consequence of other decision criteria.   Clearly, it would seem that most people do actually choose to be moral most of the time.   So there has to be a reason to be moral that is at once persuasive enough to convince most of the people most of the time, but not sufficiently persuasive to convince all of the people all of the time.  Or, alternatively, there has to be an explanation of why most people, most of the time, unconsciously (without rational thought) choose the morally correct thing to do.

To be moral is obviously a choice.   One can, of course, be unintentionally moral if one chooses the moral alternative by accident or happenstance.   But let's ignore those scenarios as beyond the scope of the question.   Let's focus on the question "Why do most people, most of the time, choose to be moral?"  Why do most people, most of the time, intentionally (or subconsciously) choose, from all the possible alternatives, the one that is moral?

The verb "to choose" means to evaluate the identified alternatives and select the one that appears to be the "best" according to some standard.   A choice is a moral one if it is based on an evaluation of the alternatives against some standard of moral desirability or rightness.  But in any situation, the alternatives you will identify as available, and how you go about rating the different alternatives is determined by who and what you are.  

"Actions are, by their very nature, temporary and perishing; and where they proceed not from some cause in the character and disposition of the person who performed them, they can neither redound to his honour, if good; nor infamy, if evil." -- David Hume (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section VIII, Part 2).

If you make an intentionally deliberate choice, you do so because you have reasons for judging one of the alternatives as the best of those you find available.  If you make an unintentional subconscious choice, you do so because there are reasons that you are not consciously aware of that indicates that one of the alternatives is the best of those you see.   And given those reasons that exist, under these circumstances you find yourself in, you would not have chosen otherwise.   So when you make a choice, intentionally or otherwise, you bring to that choice your experiences and memories, your character and desires, your goals and your values.   That is what "you" are.   So the initial answer that can be provided to "Why are we moral?" is simply "Because that is who and what we are."  We humans are, for the most part, moral beings.

To drill down and understand what this means, however, we need to take a closer look at just exactly what constitutes "who and what we are".   If what we are is our past experiences and memories, our character and desires, our goals and values -- then why are they the way they are?   What is it about those experiences and memories, character and desires, goals and values that causes us, more likely than not, to choose the moral alternative?   There are two rather obvious, if perhaps seemingly simplistic, answers to such a question -- "Nature" and "Nurture".   (I do not need to get into the "nature/nurture" debate as to which contributes how much.   It is sufficient for my purpose here, that each contributes a significant part.)


Let's explore the "nurture" alternative first.   I assume that everyone will agree that there is little doubt that a large part of "who and what we are" is the result of what we have learned over our years.   Either formally, or through osmosis, we pick up and adopt the opinions, beliefs, values, and goals -- and more particularly, the moral standards -- of those that surround us.  So one explanation that can be offered for why most people seem do the right thing most of the time -- it is what they have learned, it is what they have been trained to do.   They respond to moral dilemmas and moral choices the way that they have seen their parents, friends, teachers, heroes, and role models respond.   So it is unexceptional to note that some people, some of the time, intentionally choose to do the moral thing.  They have been taught that doing that sort thing is "a cool thing to do" -- they earn "brownie points" from the other members of their social community when they do what they have learned is "the right thing to do".   It does not matter, of course, whether "what they have been taught is the right thing to do" is the same as "the morally correct thing to do".   All that is necessary is that they have learned to recognize alternatives that they have been taught, either explicitly or by example, are generally (at least by their adopted social community) acknowledged as "the right thing to do".   Through practice, then, we develop the habit of choosing the kinds of alternatives that our parents, friends, teachers, heros, and role models do.  This is known as "morality by convention".  The accepted moral standards are established by social convention.  

In our modern western culture, we learn early that being honest, not stealing, respecting others, and so forth, is "the right thing to do" -- the kind of thing that parents and teachers explain that "all good little boys and girls" do, and the kind of thing that "ain't right" when committed against other members of one's local "tribe".   In other cultures, other attitudes are prevalent.   One merely needs to consider the attitudes towards women and female circumcision amongst the Islamic cultures to recognize that.   Many people (perhaps most), much of the time (perhaps most), follow a handful of general rules of what is considered acceptable behaviour because they have been taught that to do so is "the right thing to do".   Most people have neither the time nor the interest in being curious about why.   And some philosophers (the Cultural Relativists in particular) argue that there is no why -- that the socially adopted rules of acceptable behaviour are the definition of morality, they are "a good thing to do" and "morally correct" by definition.

So the "nurture" answer to the question of "Why are we moral?" is very simple.   The motivation is habit, and the reason is "because that is what we have been taught to do".   The Jesuit maxim "give me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man" exemplifies this approach to morality.   To the Social Relativist, and to some Religious Moralists, this is the whole story.  If you believe that there is no deeper foundation to moral standards than rules that we can be taught, then there is no possibility of a deeper answer than -- "we do what we have been taught to do".   Within this context, people are immoral when either
     (a) they never learned the appropriate rule, or
     (b) they forget the rules they have been taught, or
     (c) they find themselves in circumstances where it is unclear which particular rule applies, or
     (d) they consciously choose to violate the rules (i.e. are "evil").  

Of course, the "nurture" answer still leaves open the question of what (if anything), besides habit, motivates us to adhere to the rules we have been taught.   And what motivates us to learn the rules in the first place.


So let's examine the "nature" alternative and see if that can provide any deeper answers.   I assume that most of us (specifically excluding the Religious Fundamentalists) will agree that there is little doubt that a large part of "who and what we are" is the consequence of our genetic heritage and our billions of generations of evolutionary history.  So what can Darwin contribute to the question of "Why be moral?"

Consider what it is that distinguishes "animate" from "inanimate", "life" from "non-life"?   What is to prevent "life" from ceasing to be "life"?   We observe that "life" often does cease to be "life".   What causes that transition?   What prevents that transition for "life" that does not cease to be "life"?   What keeps the "animate" from becoming the "inanimate"?  The answer is -- the directed actions of life.   When life transitions to non-life, what ceases are the directed actions of life.   The actions that constitute life are non-random.   And they are directed specifically towards the continued maintenance of life.   When and if the actions of life are not specifically directed towards the maintenance of life, life soon ceases.   So at a very fundamental level, the goal of all living behaviour is the maintenance of the life that is behaving.   Living things have to act, in general and on average, in the pursuit of the continuation of life.  As a general life strategy, random response to the environment will not long do.   The laws of thermodynamics, the universal tendency towards increasing entropy, will cause any life to become non-life if it does not direct its actions towards the goal of continued life.

Therefore, from the perspective of "nature", we can examine the question "Why are we moral?" by keeping in mind that "who and what we are" is, at the very least, a living organism.   So as a first approximation, one reason that can be offered for why most people do the right thing most of the time is "To pursue the goal of continued life".  From the perspective of our nature as living organisms, the alternatives we face in any situation of choice (moral or otherwise) break down into: (a) alternatives that will aid and abet our own continued life, and (b) alternatives that will not aid and abet our own continued life.  Regardless of whatever other criteria we might have in mind, and regardless of whatever choices we actually do make, it is unavoidable that the consequences of any choice is either to promote (in a greater or minor degree) the future of our own continued life, or to interfere (in a greater or minor degree) with the future of our own continued life.  In the ultimate analysis, all choices come down to a choice between Life and Death.  Our choices may promote (sooner or later, to some degree, when all consequences are considered) one's continuted life.  Or our choices may promote (sooner or later, to some degree, when all consequences are considered) one's eventual death.  Of course, logically, it may be possible for the consequences of a choice to be neutral between these two alternatives.  But the world is a complicated thing, and the consequences of our actions - or inactions - are complex, long lasting, and frequently unpredictable.  So the logically possible neutral alternative is really not sufficiently probable to to be worth worrying about.  Evolutionary pressures ensure that, over the long run, any successful species will consist of individuals who tend to choose alternatives that will aid and abet their continued life more often than not -- and more often than any competitors.   A species of individuals who tend to choose alternatives that will interfer with their own continued life more often than not (or more often than their competitors), will, over the long run, become extinct.   Such choices trend towards the suicidal when practiced at the individual level, and towards the genocidal when practiced at the group level.  Therefore, to be moral is, in the ultimate analysis, to pursue the continuation of your life.   Why are we moral?   Because if we are not, we're dead!   (At least in the long run, and on average.)   Being the successful inheritors of billions of generations of proving that we are good at it, it is to be expected that most people, most of the time, will choose to be moral.   Psychologists recognize that self preservation is a very powerful motivator.  Sufficiently so that they label it an "instinct" -- meaning that it is an effective motivator even without conscious attention.

The preceeding argument is overly simiplified, of course.  The single paragraph exposition does not mention the full impacts entailed by the concept of "inclusive genetic fitness".  Within the science of population genetics, the concept of "inclusive genetic fitness" has a very precise definition. Here is an abbreviate definiton from DIctionary.com

Inclusive Fitness: (noun, Biology) 1. the fitness of an individual organism as measured in terms of the survival and reproductive success of its kin, each relative being valued according to the probability of shared genetic information.

From the gene's point of view, evolutionary success is defined as leaving behind the maximum number of copies of itself in the population. in 1964, W.D. Hamilton showed mathematically that, because other members of a population may share one's genes, a gene can also increase its evolutionary success by indirectly promoting the reproduction and survival of other individuals who also carry that gene. 

Understanding the biological context within which Morality has evolved, readily explains the success of all of the various Consequentialist systems of Ethics, from Aristotle to Mill and beyond.   These are the philosophies that claim the standard of morality is one's happiness, or pleasure.   "Happiness/pleasure", regardless of how specifically defined, can be understood as the evolved propensity to react with emotional "happiness/pleasure" to those environmental circumstances that evolutionary processes have "discovered" usually contribute to ensuring the continuation of one's life (or more technically, promotes one's inclusive genetic fitness).   The eudemonia of Aristotle's Virtue Ethics, and the "Utility" of Bentham and Mill can be understood in this way.   As can the "economic value" of Adam Smith, and the "Life as Man qua Man" of Ayn Rand.

Now of course, most moral choices we face do not involve any immediate threat to our survival.   But that is not the point.   If self-preservation / inclusive fitness is the currency of morality, it explains an awful lot of otherwise arbitrary rules.   As the "nurture" proponents will point out, our social environment is rife with a myriad of rules.   Instead of blindly following the rules simply because you were taught that adhering to the rules is "the right thing", you can (if you are interested) understand why it is the right thing.   You can understand why and when the rules work.   And you can understand why and when the rules should not be applied.   Understanding the evolutionary basis of morality provides often critical leverage for resolving moral dilemmas.

The rule says "be honest" or, alternatively, "do not lie, do not cheat, do not steal".   The currency of personal survival / inclusive fitness in a social environment explains why that rule is effective -- it "pays" when working together as a social species on cooperative projects, to have a reputation for honesty.   It also provides the necessary rationale for resolving some otherwise nasty moral dilemmas.   It "pays" to lie to the murderer if he asks you where his victim is hiding.   It "pays" to cheat the cheater.   It "pays" to steal that loaf of bread if the alternative is starvation.   The approach works for most of the commonly accepted "moral rules".

So the "nature"answer to the question of "Why are we moral?" is again very simple.   The motivation is self-preservation / inclusive fitness, and the reason is because it "pays" (in the currency of genetic survival, over the long term -- keeping in mind the importance of social cooperation) to choose alternatives that aid and abet our own continued life over those that aid and abet the continued life of others.

"Recently a Canadian anthropologist, Harold Barclay, suggested that within humans our facility with language and with higher order abstract thought enables us to develop rules, social norms, laws and moral codes which arise out of basic survival mechanisms of our distant past. That is, we are not so far away from other animals in our behaviours as we might think. While competition is still an important motivator, there is within us the drive to follow understood ethical codes that enable societies to work in safety and in harmony. This is especially true of humans who see other humans as part of their own group or their own family. Ideally, as humans we can learn to encompass a much larger group of fellow humans which includes those of different racial origins, religious preferences, and geographic areas. If science can help us take a broader view of those whom we will accept as part of our group, or our tribe, or our family, morality will have taken a giant leap forward.
. . .
"Why be moral?" The answer is that while we have a certain competitive nature within us, we also have within us a basic nature to be co-operative, to develop codes and norms and morals that are equally basic to our nature and even more important to our survival."
G J Emerson , Professor Emeritus, University of Western Ontario
                                  Why be Moral?   (February 15, 2005)

This evolutionary theory of morals explains why most people, most of the time, are pretty much moral.   It explains what is it about "the right thing to do" that seems to generate in people a motivation to do it -- evolution has equipped us with powerful instincts for self-preservation, and finely honed talents at discerning our best interests.   It provides most people most of the time with a good reason for choosing the moral alternative.   It explains why we feel joy, happiness, pleasure, gladness, and generally "good" when we do things that our instincts discern is "right".   It explains why we feel guilt, remorse, or generally "bad" when we do things that our instincts discern is "wrong".   And it explains why we generally consider "irrational" someone who acknowledges some alternative as the moral one, but chooses another anyway.   For example, suicide, in the normal course of events, is generally considered to be an irrational act.  

The evolutionary approach to morals also explains why the "nurture" answer is useful.   An unreasoned and habitual obedience to the rules we have been taught so often works because it "pays" when working together on cooperative projects, to have a reputation for going along with the crowd; and socially defined rules don't usually last too many generations if they conflict with the principles of survival.   The evolutionary theory of ethics even explains why not everyone is moral all the time.   Blindly adhering to rules, which most people do most of the time, sometimes doesn't work as expected because some of the rules are contradictory, and some circumstances don't readily fit the rules; and sometimes one's estimation of the circumstances or consequences is erroneous.   Out of ignorance or laziness we make mistakes in identifying available alternatives and predicting probable consequences.

A natural question to ask at this point is why is our behaviour is so flexibly adaptive and environmentally responsive?   In other words, why is it that we seem to be free to choose our goals and moral standards with no evolutionary constraints?   After all, in the 2500 years or so of the history of Philosophy, philosophers have been known to identify some pretty anti-survival standards of morals (the Marxist standard being the most blatantly obvious).   The evolutionary answer is that the genes have "learned", through evolutionary adaptation, that flexibly adaptive and environmentally responsive behavioural freedom is a cost-effective way of ensuring their continuation and flourishing.   So the reason we seem to be free to choose our own moral standards, is that such freedom has evolved as a good way to ensure the continuation and flourishing of our genes within a complex social environment.   Or at least that is the evidence to date from our evolutionary history.   But this track record is running into the challenge that we are now also free to conceive of, and choose, moral standards and other such goals that actively interfere with our genetic survival.

So why can't we choose any moral standards that we want?   Why should we adhere to the moral standards of evolutionary survival?   Well, the future is going to belong to those who don't make mistakes.   The future is going to belong to those who use their freedom and flexibility to choose moral standards and other such goals that actually reinforce our genetic survival.   You now face a question -- do you wish to be the ancestor of the future?   Or do you wish to go down with the trilobites -- as a nice try, but a failure in the long run?

Part 2 -- What reasons are there to be moral?

Which leads us to consider the question from the second of the two perspectives introduced in the beginning.   When asking "Why be moral?" in the sense of "What motivates us to be moral?" the above described nurture and nature based explanation provides a complete answer.   Our motivation to be moral comes from our instinct for self-preservation.   Self-interest is the reason for being moral.   Self-interest is the reason that I ought to be moral is this instance.

However, if we interpret the question "Why be moral?" as asking instead "What motivating reasons are there for being moral?" we are asking for consciously and rationally considered reasons for being moral.   Instincts, by their very nature, need not operate at the conscious level.   It is perfectly possible that we could choose the moral course of action without being consciously aware of the reasons or motivation for that choice.   When asking for rationally considered reasons, however, the assumption is that at least some moral acts are done (or choices made) not out of an instinctual reaction to environmental circumstances, but from a conscious and rational consideration of the situation.

There is a hidden question buried behind this inquiry, however.  Just what is it that would constitute a "reason"?   To be able to discuss what might constitute rational reasons for being moral, we must first digress a little, and ascertain just what sort of thing would qualify as a "reason" in this context.

To do so lets consider the situation faced by a robot called "Robbie".   Recalling the robot stories of Isaac Asimov (or the android Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation), picture Robbie as a humanoid robot with a "positronic" brain -- designed to fit seamlessly into our human-scale society, and do all (or at least most) of the things that humans do.   For the time being, however, let's imagine Robbie without Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics" (or Doctor Noonian Soong's "Directives" programmed into Data).

Now picture Robbie sitting in a chair in the middle of your kitchen.   He is turned on.   All the processes within Robbie that are automatic, and not subject to his "own" initiative would be functioning.   Sitting there, his sensory faculties would be registering whatever is in range.   His mental capacities would be filing and cataloguing whatever his senses report.   His internal motors and servos would be operating as per design specifications.  But would Robbie actually do anything on his "own" initiative?  If you think that Robbie might actually do something, you need to say why he would do that.   And by specifying the "why", you are providing the reason and motivation that triggers that action.   So why would Robbie do something -- anything?   Even if you commanded him to?

If Robbie did do something, it would have to be to some purpose.   The purpose might be as simple as to obey your command.   But even if you suspected that he acted randomly, there would have to be some initial justification for him to switch from not moving to moving.   There would have to be some goal that Robbie is trying to achieve.   Without a goal to achieve, there would be no reason for Robbie to move a muscle, or to change his current state.   He would sit there with no motive to move or to change until his batteries ran down, and he "died".

Robbie, as described to this point, is a sort of life form.   As such, his behaviour will adhere to all of the rules of life-form behaviour described above.   Robbie will "die" unless his behaviour is directed towards the maintenance of his "life".   But because Robbie is a constructed life form and not an evolved one, he has no genetic history to contain any of the evolutionary pressures that our genetic history has.   So Robbie will not have an innate "instinct" to self-preservation.   In fact, Robbie will have no goals towards which to direct his behaviour unless and until his programmers specifically give him one.

So lets give Robbie a goal.   At this point it doesn't matter what goal.   And because Robbie is a programmable device, you can program in any goal that you wish to.   Whatever goal you give him it is going to determine his behaviour.   Having a goal to achieve, Robbie has "reasons" for doing something.   Whatever Robbie might do, if you ask him what his reasons are, he will respond by explaining what goal he is trying to achieve, and how this particular behaviour will contribute towards the achievement of that goal.   And this now explains just what "reasons" are, and how they function in motivating, justifying, and explaining behaviour.   To be a reason for any choice or action, is to be an explanation of how that choice or action contributes towards the achievement of some particular goal.   That is what "a reason" means in the context of "Why be moral?"   But it also means that "reasons" in this context are goal specific.  You can't have a "reason to do something" unless you have a goal that the doing of that thing is a means of achieving.   What is your reason for going upstairs?   To find my hat.   And what is the reason for finding your hat?   To shade my head from the sun.   And so forth.

With that understanding of what it means to be "a reason", we can return to the question of "What reasons are there to be moral?"  We can now interpret this question as asking "What explanations are there of how our choice or action contributes towards the achievement of which goals?"  Understanding the intent of "Why be Moral?" in this form, allows us to see that what is being asked for are the moral goals that we deem worthy of achievement.

To make this more obvious, let's return to Robbie.  Suppose you wanted Robbie to act as your servant, and gave him the goal of obeying your every command.   You could now order Robbie to kill your neighbour.   And Robbie would do it, because the goal he has been given makes killing your neighbour the "right thing to do".   Although his behaviour is not moral from our perspective, it is certainly moral from his.   Now suppose our experimental objective is to make Robbie's behaviour indistinguishable from that of a "properly moral person".   What goals would we have to program into Robbie so that his behaviour in pursuit of those goals would appear to be moral by our standards?   More importantly, what goals have been programmed into us so that our choices and actions in pursuit of those goals appear to be moral by our standards?  

There are a number of fundamentally different approaches to answering this more detailed interpretation of the question "Why be Moral?"  Some philosophers would supply a laundry list of "moral commandments" -- like "do not lie", "do not cheat", "do not steal", etc.   A variation of this approach maintains that the goal to be achieved is some form of "objective principle" like Kant's Categorical Imperative.   This approach would work for a robot like Robbie only if he is also programmed with the goal of "Obey Commandments!"  (Or, alternatively "Obey the Imperative!")   But it would not work for us humans, since we are decidedly not programmed with the goal of obeying orders or adhering to imperatives.   So a laundry list of moral commandments or an objective categorical imperative cannot be a persuasive reason for us humans to be moral.   What is missing from this approach to answering the question "Why be moral?" is the motivation we humans have for obeying the commandments, or adhering to the imperatives.   To respond, as Kant does, that it is simply our nature to adhere to these commandments or imperatives, is begging the question.   It leaves open the puzzle of why and how it became our nature.   And it leaves open the question of why we should have any rational reason to follow our nature.

Other philosophers would argue that being moral is logically required on penalty of being irrational.   From this perspective, the question "Why be moral?" is asking what is it that makes it irrational to be immoral or at least keeps it from being irrational to be moral.   That argument might work for a robot like Robbie (assuming the argument is correct) since he is designed from the ground up to be a logical and rational computing machine.   But the argument fails for us humans (especially if the argument is correct) because we are decidedly not designed to be logical and rational thinkers.   Any casual glance will reveal that a good deal of what we humans do is anything but logical and rational.   The coolly logical thinkers among us are few and far between.   Most people, most of the time, "go with their guts", their hearts, their feelings, their emotions -- not with their heads, their rational thinking capabilities.   Yet the same casual glance will readily reveal that we humans behave morally more than we behave logically.   So it seems unlikely that being moral requires a logical mind.   Like with the previously described approach, what is missing from this approach to answering the question "Why be moral?" is the motivation that we have for being rational or logical in our thinking.

Philosophers of evolutionary ethics offer an alternative approach.   One that is simple and yet also provides the missing pieces of the other suggestions.   Suppose we program Robbie with the goal of flourishing in a social environment -- just like Aristotle's concept of eudemonia.   Being a logical and rational machine, he will quickly come to learn that he cannot, with impunity, lie, cheat or steal, etc.   In the pursuit of his goal of flourishing, he will learn a long laundry list of moral rules-of-thumb - commandments and categorical imperatives that work most of the time.   His motivation for adhering to them will be self-interest -- the goal of flourishing in a social environment.   The same move works for us humans.   Evolution has programmed us with the same goal of survival and flourishing in a social environment.   That becomes the motivation for learning all the habits and rules of moral behaviour -- providing the missing element in the arguments that our reasons for being moral consist of a list of moral commandments or categorical imperatives.   It also becomes the motivation for being rational and logical -- providing the missing element in the arguments that our reasons for being moral consist of logical necessity.   More importantly, the goal of flourishing in a social environment becomes both a consciously and rationally considered reason, and a motivating reason for being moral.

  Part 3   -- What is moral?

Different people have different notions as to what constitutes "moral" behaviour.   And although I am dealing with this issue as Part 3 of this essay, a sound understanding of what it means to be "moral" is a prerequisite for the intelligibility of the preceding discussions.   Moral behaviour is always "the right thing to do", by definition.   But philosophers have expressed profoundly different views on whether or not believing something is right makes it so.  

A "subjective" foundation for moral conduct would argue that believing that something is right does in fact make it so.   Subjectivist reasons for being moral consist of one's subjective beliefs as to what is the right thing to do.   An "objective" foundation for moral conduct and values, on the other hand, would argue that believing that something is right does not make it so.   Objectivist reasons for being moral consist of reasons, in the light of which a moral agent like Robbie would be seen by outside observers to be irrational.   Although it would not be necessary for Robbie to be aware of this.

By comparison to these two opposed extremes, an "evolutionary" foundation for moral conduct and values would argue down the middle ground, borrowing arguments from both ends of the spectrum.   An evolutionist would argue that believing that something is the right thing to do does in fact provide a suitable motivation to do it because, by being considered the right thing to do of the available alternatives, it is judged to be the most in the agent's own best interests.   But an evolutionist would also argue with the objectivist that believing that something is right does not make it so.   An outside observer can determine that the moral agent in question is missing information about some aspect of the situation, or is misjudging the probable consequences of some scenario.

Some non-consequentialist philosophers would argue that the foundation of moral conduct and values is independent of the actor's situation.   The arch-typical example is Kant's "Categorical Imperative".   On this basis, being moral does not always "pay" in the sense that an evolutionist would argue it does.   Such philosophers would argue that there are moral scenarios where the moral thing to do is not the alternative in the best interests of the moral agent.   An evolutionist would reply that this is not, in fact, possible.   The evolutionist would argue that either the identified alternative is indeed in the moral agent's best interests when viewed properly in a social context; or that the identified alternative is not in fact the moral thing to do.   Further, the evolutionist would argue that if indeed the identified alternative is not in fact in the moral agent's best interests, the agent has no motivation or reason for doing it -- even if failing to do it would be viewed as acting immorally and irrationally.   The "hero" who jumps into the freezing water to save the life of a stranger at grave risk of his own (assuming no consideration of the benefits of being a "hero"), is not in fact doing the moral thing.   He is instinctively reacting without thought to an evolutionary scenario where the person in danger was almost certainly a close relation.   His instinctive reactions are responding inappropriately to a modern situation based on an evolutionary presumption that no longer holds.   Or he is reacting without thought to a learned habit of sacrificing his own interests for the sake of another's.   Such moral irrationality is rare enough that it usually makes the nightly news.


For an evolutionist moral behaviour is genetic survival behaviour "above the self and beyond the now".   Most people are moral most of the time, whether or not they consciously consider their reasons for being moral, because evolution has equipped us with a finely honed ability to identify our own best interests.   Some people are moral through conscious consideration of the reasons because, in areas where genetically pre-programmed behavioural responses are not appropriate to the circumstances, learning, prediction, and calculation of flexible and adaptive responses to rapidly changing environmental challenges is the best way to identify our own best interests.

Man is a social species, and succeeds (genetically speaking) better when working together in groups towards mutually desirable goals.   To work cooperatively together with our comrades, it is good practice to trade values rather than extorting them.   To be successful and profit from trade, one has to be cognisant of the interests of others.   To avoid the interference of others in the attainment of one's own goals, it pays to be considerate of the goals of others.   "Tit for tat" is an effective basis for fostering cooperation and trade.   Therefore, if you want others to take your interests into consideration when they act, you must be prepared to take the interests of others into consideration when you act.  Why be moral? Simple self-interest.

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