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Why be moral

There is still one more topic from the book Philosopher at the end of the universe which I wish to make some notes before putting it back on the bookshelf. The sci-fi movie mentioned in the book is Hollow Man, starring Kevin Becon as a scientist who worked on the technology of invisibility. He tested on himself and became invisible. When he was invisible, he did many things he would not normally do, like taking advantage on Elizabeth Shue, killing the boss of the research institute, and eventually trying to kill all his co-workers in the laboratory. When he could get away with murder, no one know what he would do.

Hollow Man is an updated version of the Invisible Man series of movies of the 50s and 60s. In fact, such story was first told by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (柏拉圖 427-347BC) in his book The Republic. The story is known as The Ring of Gyges. In the story, Gyges the shepherd accidentally found a ring on an ancient skeleton in a hidden cave. He took the ring and went back to his fellow shepherds. He then found out when he turned the ring inward, he became invisible, and heard what the other shepherds said about him, thinking he was not there. Gyges then headed off to the capital, where he took over the queen, murdered the king, overturned the country, and established a new dynasty. The moral of the story, considered by Plato, was whether Gyges had done good or bad. He raised the fundamental question of why be moral, if you have the ring of Gyges?

Humans can have at least two sorts of reasons for doing something. One reason is what we want. This can be called prudential reasons. We have prudential reasons because we have interests, and because we have desires. Our prudential reasons are a function of what we want. There can also be a second reason that we sometimes do something because we believe, rightly or wrongly, that it is the right thing to do, or a moral reason. In many situations, moral reasons and prudential reasons conflict with each other and some people choose to do things morally. The question then becomes: why act from moral reasons rather than prudential reasons? Why allow the moral reasons to outweigh the prudential reasons.

If one believes in god, then god is always watching us. Such appeal to god transforms moral reasons into prudential reasons. It is in the long-term interests to act morally so as not to be sent to hell. However, the increasing secularization of society gives rise to a problem. If there is no belief in a moral god, then one cannot collapse moral reasons into prudential ones. So what reason do we have for acting morally?

Another theory to answer this question involves replacing god with society. Thomas Hobbes (霍布斯 1588-1679) considers that human beings are all egoists. We will do whatever we can to get whatever we want. However, in a society where everyone is doing what they can, there are bound to be conflicts and consequences. It makes sense to form a sort of contract with other people, a contract which places certain restrictions on our freedom in return for certain restrictions on others. This is the social contract theory of morality. For the contract to work, there are two conditions to be fulfilled. First, others are a threat and they provide a risk to the satisfying of our interests; second, others are a help and they are useful in the furthering of our interests. However, there are many human beings who fall outside the scope of social contract morality, such as infants, children, senile, mentally disadvantaged, physically disadvantaged. As such the theory fails to provide justification for acting on moral reasons all the time.

David Hume (休謨 1711-1776) looks at the question in a simple way. He proposes that human beings are born nice people. We like each others and thus act morally towards other human beings. Stories like Hollow Man and Ring of Gyges are just hypothetical. Deep down we have a benign personality. Critics consider this not a justification at all, but only a casual explanation of the behaviour of some people. At times when people can get away with murder, they may not act morally because of the absence of consequences to the actions.

The strategy of both the religious-based and social contract answers to the question lies in trying to reduce moral reasons to prudential reasons. Immanuel Kant (康德 1724-1804) looks for the answer in a different way. His theory is consistency. If you are immoral then you are inconsistent. Immorality reduces to inconsistency. According to Kant, a morally right action is always one that is done with a good will, good motive or good intention. A good motive or intention is one that turns on fulfilling one’s duty. Our fundamental duty is what he called the categorical imperative: “I ought never to act except in such a way that I can also will that my maxim should become an universal law.” Morality is the universal law that everyone practises. To not act morally is inconsistent.

To address Kant’s theory, the author looks at the interpretation of the question in two different ways: first, why should I be moral? and second, why should people in general be moral? We can understand why people in general should follow the universal law, or else there will not be an universal law. However, one person acting immorally is not a self-undermining or inconsistent policy for oneself.

In the end, the author admits that both moral reasons, prudential reasons and logical reasons cannot satisfactorily provide an rational answer to the question of why be moral. Questions without a rational answer are not irrational. They are just arational. The choice to let one’s life be guided by moral reasons or self-interest is an arational choice. It is ultimately one of self-definition., guided by your image of the sort of person you want to be.