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Assuming there is no afterlife, or whatever afterlife there is does not depend on the morality of my actions in this life, what is one’s incentive to be moral given basic rational self-interest is often at odds with choosing to be moral?

An afterlife where I am rewarded/punished for the moral/immoral actions I choose to take in this life makes sense in accord with basic rational self-interest. It is in my best interest to act morally because I am rewarded for doing so. But lacking this and observing the frequency choosing moral actions does not serve my self-interest, I am wondering how philosophers of morality or ethics argue why I should care about morality or ethics in the first place.

*Self-interest precludes negative legal repercussions. For example, I am asking what my incentive is to avoid an immoral act which benefits me but is still legal or I know a legal authority cannot discover (it is in my self-interest to avoid punishment).


Update Notes

I am not presuming self-interest is always rational. I am not presuming what is rational serves self-interest. I am only presuming there is a such thing as self-interest and that there are many situations where a rational and thorough analysis leads to the conclusion I can overall benefit from doing something immoral. Then I am asking what is the incentive to be moral in these cases.

Why should I do the right thing in cases where doing the wrong thing clearly benefits me more than harms me? From the comments and answers, some people seem to believe this is contrived. However, I would argue this is the most commonplace immorality. Consider garden-variety exploitation by wealthy and powerful people. Most seem to agree this is at least somewhat commonplace across the planet, especially due to its legality. Politicians lying and manipulating, as well as being rewarded in certain ways by legal but shady special interest groups, is another common example.

Why should these people care that what they are doing is wrong when the benefits exceed the negative repercussions? They know this more than anyone because they choose to continue to do these things. These people don’t seem to care very much about the morality of their actions. What is the incentive for them to be moral? Why should they care about morality? By extension, why should anyone in similar circumstances (benefiting from immorality)?

Many of the comments indicate violating moral principles simply does, more often than not, entail negative repercussions that outweigh the positives. I don’t see much widespread evidence for this, especially from my examples. Such people can stop whenever they want, yet choose to continue. I also do not see evidence such people suffer more than the average population. In fact, they seem to be very well admired, connected, and cared for.

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10 Answers 10

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The phrase, "rational self-interest," is misleading. To be rational does not imply to be self-interested; reason is just a tool that allows you to make effective inferences. You may use this tool in service of many goals, self-interest and altruism being only two examples.

It may be that you do already care for people besides yourself. In this case, that would be sufficient motivation to behave morally.

It may be that you want things to be fair, and you don't want to be a hypocrite. This would be motivation to treat others fairly as well.

It may be that you have pride in yourself, and you lose respect for those who act wrongly. This would be motivation for you not to act wrongly, lest you lose respect for yourself.

You do not have a perfect window into your "true" motivations. What do you really want? People act, then invent explanations for why they acted that way. We do not fully understand the workings of our own brains.

What do you really want? Suppose that you analyze your motivations for a certain action and realize they are, at the base, aesthetically crude and ugly, shameful if they came to light. Realizing this, would you want to change them? If you would, then you have a deeper motivation: for your other motivations not to be ugly.

What would you really want, if you spent a hundred years thinking about the question? You would likely come up with some philosophy that is somewhat different from the one you hold now. Isn't there some reason to prefer your future-self's desires over your current ones, considering that your future-self is better informed than your current self?

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  • Thank you for your answer. Rational self-interest has a foundation in philosophy as early as the ancient Greeks. It is significant in economics, political science, psychology, and sociology. Game theory treats it as fundamental. As for the rest of your answer, are you saying that the reasons are, fundamentally, dependent on the individual? -that there really is no universal reason? May 16 at 4:45
  • +1 Would “people act, then invent explanations for why they acted that way” be admission morality in of itself doesn’t have much efficacy? May 16 at 4:48
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    @JustSomeOldMan "Rational self-interest" is a perfectly valid term when not misinterpreted. My point is that one should not take the term "rational self-interest" to suggest that rationality can only be used to pursue self-interest; it may be used to pursue other goals as well. "Rational altruism" or "rational paperclip-maximizing" are also possible, depending on if the individual's motivation is self-interest, altruism, or paperclip-maximizing.
    – causative
    May 16 at 5:09
  • @JustSomeOldMan About your second point - no, that would be oversimplifying it. We act for motivations which are often hidden to us, but the choices we make can alter those motivations. If someone resolves to behave in accordance with some particular code of moral behavior, then their future actions may indeed change as a result. Our true motivations are not totally opaque to us - and neither are they totally clear.
    – causative
    May 16 at 5:13
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Roughly speaking, moral frameworks in philosophy can be classed as either Deontologist or Consequentialist. Consequentialism evaluates an action's morality on its consequences with various metrics (your own happiness, the general happiness, economic value created, etc), while deontologism focuses on the action itself, stating as a duty to act in such or such a way whatever the consequences might be (the most famous example being Kant arguing you should not lie, even to murderers looking for your friend).

First of all, under a deontologist framework, focusing on an afterlife as an incentive to act morally is no moral behaviour at all. In this framework whatever good action we take with the idea of a reward, be it in this life or in heavens, is not acting morally at all, because acting morally supposes the action is done for its own sake.

In fact, acting morally in order to deserve a reward in paradise is just as selfish than following "basic rational self-interest". The reward is just moved to a place and time where it is impossible to prove it will never happen, but there is no fundamental difference.

Now, in a consequentialist framework, a moral action is defined as an action with a good outcome. Whatever this goodness is defined as differs according to each philosopher, but the common ground here is that moral actions have a desirable outcome, and the most moral course of action is the one that brings the most desirable result.

So in this view the result of a moral action is its own reward, people are incentivized to act morally simply because it brings the most desirable result.

To summarize:

  • On one hand deontologists consider you should not need an incentive, including heaven, to act morally anyway.
  • On the other hand consequentialists consider the incentive for moral action to be their own result.
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  • Unified in: "We are not punished for our sins, but by our sins." - Elbert Hubbard. "He who is unjust, let him be unjust still; he who is filthy, let him be filthy still; he who is righteous, let him be righteous still; he who is holy, let him be holy still." - Revelations 22:11
    – CriglCragl
    May 15 at 2:55
  • +1 I like you point out how some in two schools of thought would argue why or if people should care about morality in the first place, rather than presupposing the importance of morality and then argue within their own school of thought. The latter is boring without the former. May 16 at 5:00
  • To the deontologist – arguing people should not need an incentive seems to be circular, in that it presupposes the importance of some sort of morality (evinced by the word “should”). An opposing argument is that it is simply descriptively true that many humans do seek incentive to act morally. Thinking they should not is not efficacious. May 16 at 5:06
  • @justsomeoldman deontologists are not my forte so I might be wrong, but they have various ways to assert why we have a duty to have in such or such way. For Kant the proper behavior is determined by reason, and we all have a duty to act reasonably because otherwise it would be unreasonable. But even some Christians are deontologist, like the Calvinists (I might be wrong), for whom access to paradise is through faith, not acts. Our good acts don't grant us any reward, and we just have a duty to obey God's rules without expecting anything from it (according to them)
    – armand
    May 16 at 5:50
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You have the choice. Do you want to be a human being, or do you want to be an animal? That’s your decision to make. Knowing that you are a human being and not an animal is a lot of reward in itself.

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  • 'Be someone it is worth being', you might put it.
    – CriglCragl
    May 15 at 12:40
  • But we are animals. Even if meant metaphorically, who’s to say animals are somehow more morally lower in the first place? In fact, the belief animals can’t be immoral or are never evil is a common one, as they act with no ill will. May 17 at 19:15
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There are all kinds of incentives to be moral, some mentioned in other comments, but your question has a ring of: what is the ultimate grounding of morality? I don't know any compelling answer to that question, but if anything comes close I'd say it's discourse ethics (as famously defended by J. Habermas, but I'd rather recommend reading K.O. Apel). The argument goes something like this:

Moral norms must be negotiated in discourse (rational discussion of arguments), but the outcome is constrained by the presuppositions of discourse, such as the mutual recognition of all members as equal discussion partners etc. Now, the point is that by asking for reasons to be moral you are already committed to those presuppositions, as denying them involves a performative contradiction, where the content of your statement contradicts the presuppositions of making that statement.

Whether this is compelling depends, among other things, on whether one could refuse to enter discourse in the first place - maybe one could, but it seems pretty far-fetched to me. Moreover, it may be unclear whether, or in what sense, the presuppositions of discourse are themselves moral norms at all - while some presuppositions clearly aren't, such as that one should speak consistently, others concern how to treat people so there is something distinctly moral about them.

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  • I’m not sure I agree with your second paragraph. It seems the presuppositions of discourse are weaker and can be entirely amoral. It is not necessary I view these partners as equal. I’m not even sure what “equal discussion partners” would mean. For example, it seems sufficient that I simply view these partners as being able to contribute something to the discussion. Perhaps concede it is likely they know something I don’t. This does not entail a view of equality, even in knowledge of the subject being discussed. Math teachers will often learn new things about mathematics from their students. May 18 at 16:34
  • Related, I don’t see what presuppositions are contradicted in asking what reasons there are to be moral. A completely amoral psychopathic alien or AI might wonder what reasons humans have to be moral, simply out of pure curiosity. He can enter the discussion honestly on this basis alone. You seem to point some of this out in your third paragraph, but it seems to me no uniquely moral presupposition is required for the discussion. May 18 at 16:40
  • Oh, nobody said that asking for reasons to be moral contradicts any presuppositions of discourse - the idea is rather that you thereby commit yourself to certain presuppositions which you then cannot deny without performative contradiction. And this leads to your first comment: mutual recognition of all members as equal discussion partners is such a presupposition, and it does not suggest that everyone is somehow right, but that everyone should be heard and that the better argument wins in the end (or, the better argument is the only ground for authority).
    – Turtur
    May 18 at 18:05
  • @JustSomeOldMan The argument breaks down to: If you want to be part of a community, you have to engage with the moral discourse and practices of that community, ie. it is rational to accept the basic precepts of moral discourse in the first place. Mind, Habermas and Apel do have a (rather sketchy!) anthropological conception at the base of their theory which does involve tacitly Kantian elements of rationality and dignity, but based on communicative interaction (this is rather broad, it includes all kinds of acts that somehow involve other beings) and its necessary conditions.
    – Philip Klöcking
    May 19 at 7:38
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    Well, I was explicit about my skepticism that there is something like an ultimate grounding of morality, if that's what you are looking for. I suspect, however, that discourse ethics comes closest - you are right to say that the presuppositions of discourse are all too general, but they have a constraining function. For example, that it is okay to exploit people is not something that could be agreed upon in (rational!) discourse, under the presuppositions indicated.
    – Turtur
    May 20 at 8:27
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There is a branch of philosophy called metaethics which deals with your question, among others. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's article on the subject is a great place to start, especially the section on moral reasons. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy also has an article on metaethics, but I feel like its section on motivation and reason is lacking. It has much more detailed articles on reasons in general and on motivation in ethics, but calling these article dense is an understatement.

I believe that the least complicated answer to your question is a position called internalism (specifically motivational judgment internalism). Basically, this is the idea that people are always motivated to do what they believe is moral. The only reason someone does an immoral action is because they are mistaken regarding the situation or the nature of morality. This position nicely defuses your entire conundrum since it basically says a person's desire to act in their self-interest must have already been factored in when they were making a moral judgement to begin with.

Edit to address sweatshop owner question:
Lets propose that when interviewed the sweatshop owner said, "I don't care about morality. Its a dog-eat-dog world and if I don't look out for number one, no one will." An internalist would claim that the sweatshop owner is having difficulty expressing his position, and because of this it appears that he does not care about morality. If he were to take some philosophy classes and was then interviewed, he would retract his previous statement and instead say, "I am an ethical egoist. As running a sweatshop makes me rich and being rich is in my self-interest, I am acting morally by running my sweatshop."

Any Rand, an ethical egoist, would say that the owner is mistaken about the situation. There are consequences of running a sweatshop that are against the owner's self-interest and if the owner were to consider them, he would conclude that running a sweatshop is against his self-interest and therefor immoral. Literally everybody who is not an ethical egoist would claim that the owner is mistaken about the nature of morality and then try to convince the owner that their view of morality is true (e.g. a utilitarian will try to convince the owner to abandon ethical egoism and instead accept utilitarianism).

A very similar problem for internalism that is much harder to solve is the existence of psychopaths. It is completely realistic to imagine a psychopath in the sweatshop owner's situation would not retract their original statement even after taking the philosophy classes. To explain this internalists have to really start digging into the psychology of psychopaths.

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  • What is preventing the case of an owner of a legal sweatshop to admit it is wrong to exploit his workers, but he simply does not care? What is he mistaken of in the situation or of the nature of morality? May 20 at 14:31
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You do indeed have an afterlife, in the memories of people you have dealt with during your time alive here. Which would you prefer: 1) that you are remembered as someone who was thoughtless, selfish, and had no regard for the feelings and well-being of others, or 2) the opposite? The choice is entirely yours.

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    Well, after death we'll be dead, so why give a damn?
    – armand
    May 15 at 0:07
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    @armand why do nice things for your future self? Your present self will not be there to enjoy them. From a certain perspective, we die every instant, a present self giving way to a future one that is different from it. Imagine a transhumanist scenario, in which future-you gets copied so there are two of you and no way to say which is "original." Which of the copies does present-you "selfishly" want to work on behalf of?
    – causative
    May 15 at 0:11
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    @causative what you are saying is contrary to the experience of my whole life, and i'll go on a limb and bet yours too. When is the last time you experienced the consequences of your past actions as a third party and not first hand ? There is a continuity of self and i know i will personally reap in the future what i personally sow now. I also dont see the point of your SF scenario. Contrast this with our dead self in the hypothesis of the OP that there is no afterlife, i.e. this dead self will just have ceased to exist. So even if your argument was valid, it is not applicable here.
    – armand
    May 15 at 0:50
  • @armand You said, "When is the last time you experienced the consequences of your past actions as a third party." No one experiences anything as a third party, and yet most people are third parties to you. Everybody at any time may say "but I just feel like me," and most of them are not you. Your future and past selves would each say "I feel like me," but they feel and think differently from how you do, and perceive different things.
    – causative
    May 15 at 1:16
  • @armand in the transhumanist scenario where you have been copied, both of your future selves would say they feel like themselves, and they would feel like they were continuations of their past, uncopied self. Their memories would agree on that point. But they can't both be you - or can they?
    – causative
    May 15 at 1:18
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When we are children, we are given everything without expectation: food, shelter, clothes, protection, and the like all come to us without any particular effort of our own. All things being equal (and barring unpleasant exceptions for the purposes of the argument), it's an Edenic state: a state in which we are uncomprehendingly blessed not by some God, but by our parents, family, and the society around us. Unfortunately, we are eventually forced out of that Eden into the real world. But all that being cast out of Eden means in this context (much as in the original Abrahamic mythos) is that now we must establish a relationship with those others who grant us what we desire. We must find ways of interacting such that others will give us food, shelter, clothes, protection, and the like; we can no longer expect such things to be given us without a conscious thought on our part.

Of course, we can leave the Edenic state and go live in isolation on a desert isle, providing food, shelter, clothes, protection, and the like entirely for ourselves, by ourselves. But that is a rough, animalistic existence that most people eschew. Mostly we like the luxuries, comforts, and privileges that come from establishing relationships with a community of others.

Morality (in a nutshell) is merely a recognition of this human condition:

  • People who take from others without returning anything — thieves, rapists, murderers, etc — are bad because they break the human relationship between people, and damage the continuity of human communities.
  • People who act as though they are still entitled to receive in that childlike, uncomprehending manner are viewed as arrogant, entitled, infantile, ignorant... They lack understanding of the most central aspect of human life, the fact that our desires are always (in one way or another) satisfied by others.

Morality boils down to a plea for cognitive development. It asks us to recognize that we give as we receive, we offer as we take; that we must show we have faith in society by allowing society to have faith in us. Those who break the bonds of human relationship are immoral by definition. If they get away with it, it's only by breaking more human bonds and hoping they can constantly stay ahead of the trail of destruction they leave in their wake. But that is exhausting: it loses the innocent reliance of a child and morphs into the sly, frenetic misanthropy of a meth-head. Being moral is an easier, more pleasant life.

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  • Doesn't this imply those born poor have less duty to be moral?
    – CriglCragl
    May 15 at 15:23
  • @CriglCragl: No, it only implies that they have a different road to moral understanding, because they have to come to understand interrelation at a younger age, with more noticeable consequences. They cannot escape the human fact of dependency on community; they just come up against it through different doors. May 15 at 15:32
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It's a good question. The first thing to address is, what is the self that has interests?

On the one hand fundamentally you are genes, a replicator - what you inherited relies on an absolute precondition of that, so in a sense you are your unit of selection, and to go against that is self defeating or tends to disappear from the pool of replicators. Discussed here Is the tyrannicide perpetrated by William Tell morally legitimate?

On the other hand, following the Private Language Argument, and comparing the collaborative intelligence of humans to say corvids, cephalopods & bears, we find problem solving for individual intelligences face limits. Humans, apes, cetaceans, and elephants, expand their intelligences through social learning. The Dunbar Number suggests homo sapien neocortex developed to be uniquely large for an expanded social context, not just of troop but inter-troop - this has been tied to escaping the long genetic bottleneck in Africa 70-40,000, through developing proto-religion and trade networks. Roughly speaking, mirror-neurons and intersubjectivity seem to underlie advanced cognition and abstract reasoning - discussed in detail here According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from?

Identity is then a kind of hybrid of genes and meme-complex. They are frequently antagonistic, and typically the slower to change and unreasoning genetic impulses likely act against our known social interests - though we know there are behavioural changes in pandemics and wars which seem to have genetic-toolbox roots. Memetics can definitely act against gene concerns too. So a short vs long term, individual vs group tension is maintained - ie AO Wilson's multi level selection.

I would look to Buddhist thought to push further the deconstruction of the conventional self - which, is based on deeply unreliable intuitions. The above background elaborates meaningful 'selves' in terms of systems, and over the long term. There is an afterlife for your genes, and also an emergent intersubjective layer that allows for more rapid adaptation and problem solving (see private sex & uses of humour discussed here How is Society shaped?). You may of course be a unique and special snowflake; but in terms of the systems that made you, and what you leave behind, that is entirely irrelevant - and all future subjectivities that care to have a bit of a think, will recognise the same.

Genes and memes collide in 'game playing'. Because one gene might win a specific game. But a well played game might 'win' for a whole group, like the slime mould cells that sacrifice themselves to become spore-stalks for 'close enough' kin to propagate when a local ecosystem dries up/ends & it becomes about long distance propagation (glasshouse whitefly is another great example, with 7+ instars before imago).

So basically, you think you are all clever and unique, but your thoughts and impulses result from endless 'games', repeated interactions of groups with environment. You are just one member of the group with strategic variations, to produce useful iterations if you 'work' & propagate. So hope you do, try. That's the real morality - and if betraying the interests of your group, your community, is the high road to personal & social destruction, well, buh bye if you choose that: social landscape is crucial to fitness landscape, when social landscape is more important than 'nature'. Discussed Confucianism as a meme-complex to seek group advantage, by suppressing succession crisees here: Are there opposites to the "social contract theory" where humans are regarded as naturally social beings, and yet individualism is a human invention?

Edited to add: I forgot I wanted to mention Peter Singer. He arguably founded the idea of animal rights, and challenged the way we 'draw a circle' of moral concern around humanity that puts us in a special category morally in all times & ways. He looks at what we consider moral progress through history, like ending slavery, gender equality, and defining war crimes, to say moral progress is expanding the circle of moral concern. That is, caring about things like suffering in all beings, and granting self determination and rights on a capacities rather than categories basis. I would expand the context of why this is positive, as that it helps support intersubjective knowledges and multi-level selection - ie greater capacities than we have as isolated individuals, through embracing our connections with all beings. But then I'm a Buddhist. edit ends

Why should you care about morality? Tell me who you are, and I will answer like that.

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  • Interesting. I need some time to think about this. May 16 at 5:08
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Both legal and illegal are associated with man-made laws, which are made for the sustainable development of society. And often, more or less it is based on laws of nature also. Don't think that the incentives are always given by the Government or any other authority. If you didn't care about morality or ethics, the setback from nature would be in the form of actions from the Government.

You may treat your family as a miniature form of society and verify what the incentive is. Do you get more self-contentment from your good actions than you get from a meal.

From the first part of your question it is obvious that you have included people in all sections. When they make immoral activity, each of them consider different times. Some people give importance to a few minutes or hours as per their attitude towards life. They want to enjoy every moment of their lives. Some give importance to a few days, months or years. Some to their lives until their death. Another section wait for their posthumous life. Anyway all (all creatures) seek happiness / pleasure in their lives. The bounty (pleasure) received from the first immoral activity must be an incentive to do the next activity. Of course, happiness lasts for a short period of time in their case. And that is what they desire. This is the philosophy of bad people.

As you sow so shall you reap. We have no right to expect kindness / courtesy from others if our acts are immoral. Frequent setbacks from one’s own immoral activities can lead to such acts not being repeated. Instead, they seek to change their attitude towards others and do morals acts. Most often, expectations of the good that we might receive as a reward for our moral actions become incentives. This is the philosophy of good people.

Where does it come from?

The following link also would help you a lot in this regard. You can read my short explanation in this link.

What are the basis of all or a majority of moral systems?

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  • If I am reading you correctly, any incentive is situational and dependent on the individual. There doesn’t seem to be a universal reason, so there isn’t any real incentive for someone who, after performing a rational and thorough analysis, comes to the conclusion he can benefit overall from doing something immoral. There’s no incentive for wealthy, powerful people who benefit from exploiting others, to stop (they are treated well, even admired, despite doing these immoral things). May 20 at 14:45
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There is a psychodynamic viewpoint that arises exactly opposite Nietzsche: One does not need an incentive to be moral, because one cannot escape it. Any pattern of shared behaviors is by definition a morality, to the degree it is a broad enough pattern. We are animals in an environment, and patterns will emerge. So morality is really an automatic side-effect of a society. There is no real incentive to be moral, because morality is automatic, and what is automatic is unmotivated. It is not a part of individual psychology at all.

But we do have an individual psychology, which spontaneously translates patterns into morals. We feel like morality is a thing we strive to have, that needs an incentive, because that feeling is a consequence of cognitive dissonance resolution. We shape our values to make our previous behavior feel rational. (The genetic basis of the observed dynamics of cognitive dissonance would seem to be to encourage societies institutionalizing their patterns. That seems a bit too circular for me. But we do not have to make a deeper sense out of something that is consistently observed in order to use it as a predictor.)

Being born into a culture, we accept expectations built into that culture because our previous behavior is that at no earlier point did we just abandon the culture. We want to feel like that pattern constitutes a decision and that this decision is rational, because that is the basic nature of long-term planning in human beings.

So we ourselves create the illusion that we have an obligation to our society, and we would, whether the society imposed such a view or not. Acting 'too different' from our habits will naturally induce either anxiety or guilt in those susceptible to them, simply because diverging greatly from a pattern you have unconsciously rationalized feels irrational, and dredges up doubts about the previous investment, which need to be contained, or they will become grief, and lead into depression. Philosophers do not need to motivate you to care about morality -- you automatically do. They only want to wrestle this already existing force into something less reflexive and emotional, that you can more consciously control.

Sophisticated individuals in a society, of course, are going to predict and guide the behavior of those around them. It is natural to channel power, and this common feeling is an obvious source of power. So they reflect back the decisions that naturally occur, codifying or intensifying the feeling of moral obligation. But they would not need to. The society would shape individuals to its own benefit merely by containing them.

Choosing to submit to morality or to strive for independence is a later stage. (Again, opposite Nietzsche, who feels we have devolved into an obsession with the common good from a better, more selfish, orientation.) True rationality and therefore the problem of balancing herd behavior with personal benefit comes later, long after these mechanisms have firmly cemented our shared psychology. The individual monkey does not decide whether it is in his personal best interests to spread a whoop of panic. He does it because it is the social behavior of his society, and to not obey the expected pattern would bother him. Kick his intelligence up a notch, and only then does he have to think about personal decisions.

If this is going to happen anyway, why not consciously manipulate it?

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