In my philosophy class we were discussing ethical hedonism, whether the only good in the world is pleasure. My question to you is this: Why should people be moral to each other if their actions have no consequences, and if they have no incentive for themselves to be moral to other people?


The thing about 'why' questions is that they presume an answer exists, whether or not an answer actually exists. Suppose I answered your question with "You should behave morally because such-and-such reason." That reason would then be an incentive to act morally. But we're operating under the premise that no such incentives exist. Contradiction.

I also object that the very idea of actions without consequences might not even be coherent. An action is something done so as to accomplish a purpose. They are by definition characterized by the intentionality of agents. If there are no consequences, then by the same token there are no actions either.

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    Even if the idea is coherent, the question seems to presuppose that actions with consequences (many subtle or minuscule individually but important collectively) can be neglected. This premise seems shaky indeed. – Rex Kerr Sep 27 '13 at 23:21
  • This is a little semantic surely. You could attempt an answer to the question based on the common usages of the words, whilst attempting to define your meanings as you go. It's ok to try to find an answer even if there isn't definitely one. If the question is big enough, it's surely imperative. – CCarter Nov 9 '15 at 13:29

You may enjoy reading Alisdair MacIntyre's 1984 After Virtue. His central premise is that morality collapses to Nietzschean power-plays without knowledge about what ought to be—without a telos. The enlightenment rejected any and all role for teleology, which completely undermined morality. The Enlightenment project of finding a 'rational basis' for morality failed completely. On p58 of the third paperback edition:

Hence any argument which moves from premises which assert that the appropriate criteria are satisfied to a conclusion which asserts that 'That is a good such-and-such', where 'such-and-such' picks out an item specified by a functional concept, will be a valid argument which moves from factual premises to an evaluative conclusion. Thus we may safely assert that, if some amended version of the 'No "ought" conclusion from "is" premises' principle is to hold good, it must exclude arguments involving functional concepts from its scope. But this suggests strongly that those who have insisted that all moral arguments fall within the scope of such a principle may have been doing so, because they took it for granted that no moral arguments involve functional concepts. Yet moral arguments within the classical, Aristotelian tradition—whether in its Greek or its medieval versions—involve at least one central functional concept, the concept of man understood as having an essential nature and an essential purpose or function; and it is when and only when the classical tradition in its integrity has been substantially rejected that moral arguments change their character so that they fall within the scope of some version of the 'No "ought" conclusion from "is" premises' principle. That is to say, 'man' stands to 'good man' as 'watch' stands to 'good watch' or 'farmer' to 'good farmer' within the classical tradition. Aristotle takes it as a starting-point for ethical enquiry that the relationship of 'man' to 'living well' is analogous to that of 'harpist' to 'playing the harp well' (Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a 16). … It is only when man is thought of as an individual prior to and apart from all roles that 'man' ceases to be a functional concept.

Whenever you follow moral rules, you are preferring some kinds of possible futures over others. But are these possible futures good for everyone, or merely some subset of the population, in which you may or may not be included? Consider aristocracies, where one's family history largely determines one's opportunities in life. If you don't share the telos of the current moral system, you will be oppressed by those who do share it. In such a society, 'morality' is merely a code-word for doing what benefits a strict subset of society.

You may also benefit from Nicholas Wolterstorff's 2010 Justice: Rights and Wrongs. In the first quarter of the book, he establishes two rival forms of justice/rights:

  1. justice as right structuring of society
  2. justice as individuals having the same rights

The first form is historically earlier (e.g. Greece), and I believe it is this conception to which Enlightenment thinkers objected. For, such a conception allows caste systems and the like. Here's MacIntyre, p60:

The self had been liberated from all those outmoded forms of social organization which had imprisoned it simultaneously within a belief in a theistic and teleological world order and within those hierarchical structures which attempted to legitimate themselves as part of such a world order.

I find MacIntyre's thesis compelling. I think the Enlightenment thinkers threw out the baby with the bathwater: they discarded teleology altogether, instead of merely rejecting the telos of the Church.

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As @DavidH points, if there are no consequences there are no actions. There are no reasons to perform those actions either, and there are no reasons to behave in one way or another if people are not encouraged to do so.

While the answer is technically correct, I don't consider it a good answer because I think it fits a question that is misleading due to its wording. Therefore I'm going to propose a different wording, that leads to a more interesting question and more interesting answers: Should people be moral if there is no explicit incentive for morality?

Now that's a different thing. Should people try to do well to others or the planet (ecology) even if there is no God, government or any Big Brother there to reward them for their good actions?

The answer is yes, for many reasons, but all of them boil down to game theory, at least all the reasons I can speak of.

Basically altruism is an indirect reward that is expected to pay back when properly done, and from which we are benefiting since the moment we are born. So there is a culture of altruism, a tacit agreement that we are interested in preserving, because we get more from it than what we have to pay.

The morals that are to some extent encoded in most of us (possibly in our DNA, except psychopaths) are a way to get through local maximums. An example of a local maximum can be found in the tragedy of the commons, in the prisoner's dilemma, and in most games that are interesting from a game theory perspective.

These tacit agreements provide more utility in their results than the lack thereof, or they should do so to endure. They can also be traditions that should be forgotten because they were once useful and now harmful. E.g. We have now cheap and good contraceptive methods, so maybe some traditions about sex could be broken.

That's why it is important to know the roots for the morals, if they are currently beneficial, and judge critically.

To summarize, to the question, "why should I respect other people if I don't get a cookie for it?" The answer is: because you will promote a culture of respect in which you will live. Also, you never know when you are going to find a psychopath that may be violent, it's usually wise to avoid useless trouble.

I'm also going to add two examples.

  1. You may not take care of the light bulbs in your house, but after some time your future-self will be in the dark for your irresponsibility. This example can be expanded gradually from your house to your planet and beyond.

  2. You may be a tourist in a foreign country and not care about what they think about you, but their prejudices are going to be unavoidable (we are humans) and they are going to use the information about the people from your country that they have seen before. If you all behave well you all will be rewarded indirectly (some people for some other people) and viceversa with the punishments. It's like having a few stocks (that you can't sell) on a big company, the intelligent option is not to harm the company uselessly because its benefit is your benefit to some extent. This can be considered analogously in many other circumstances, not only tourism.

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Morals are your beliefs.. You follow them because they are what you believe in. Not because incentive.

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This is an excellent millenia old question that nobody yet answered to my personal satisfaction. Here's my take on it, which I also don't find satisfactory:

Recall the prisoners' dilemma. A society of selfish people would live by the lowest decision a prisoner could take, and barely survive, if at all. A moral society, where everybody takes the high road, would strive. Therefore it's highly beneficial for the society as a whole to have moral citizens.

The above does not answer, of course, why I should act morally. In fact, in a moral society the one who cheats has a lot to gain, just as in the prisoners' dilemma. Therefore society institute a variety of safeguards against people like that, ranging from laws that threaten consequences when a cheater gets caught to organized religion that promised the consequences afterwards to pop culture with tales about good guys alway prevailing. And yet, these safeguards don't always work: more often than not the top positions in many facets of life get occupied by sociopaths.

And here we come back to the question: what if I am slick enough to avoid human justice, what if I don't believe in divine justice, what if I don't care about the health of the society as a whole, what makes me behave morally?

I guess the answer to that is: nothing. A person like that often becomes a CEO or a successful politician.

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This question actually forms the basis for Plato's Republic. In that work, Socrates is challenged to prove that it is better to be a good person who is despised by everyone than a bad person whom everyone respects and admires.

Clearly, answering the question is a book-length enterprise for Plato, but his most direct address of the challenge uses a dictator as the example of a well-admired, successful bad person. Although he (the dictator) rules everyone around him with an iron fist, he himself is a prisoner --of his own ungoverned desires. In this way, he is less free --and ultimately less happy --than the good man, who may be a prisoner of the world, but who is the master of his own soul.

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In fact they would not have to.

Morality has a strong relationship to habit which can easily be broken or altered if need be. Especially when there are no consequences to the actions that morality would avoid.

Also, the question you posed can be quite paradox: why would morality forbid or advise against an action if it had no consequences? Only because of century old habits? Well then change those habits and adjust the morality.

This is what happens all the time.

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  • Could you provide more sources or explanations on how you came to think that way? As it stands, your answer is more of a comment, really. Also, there are several answers already provided, and one of them has been accepted. If you think you're making another point than everybody before you, please explain why that is so. – iphigenie Oct 15 '13 at 17:41

Unless you're talking about a person living in complete isolation there is always some kind of social effect resulting from any action. The idea that a fallible, non-omniscient human could predict the universal effect of a single action is laughable. Even if that person is highly educated, intelligent and wise with the knowledge of all situations our species has encountered in the last 100,000 years there is still a possibility of something new happening.

Much simpler systems exist that are logically impossible to answer (see Godel's theorem, and decidability in computation theory) or very difficult to predict (see chaos and dynamical systems theory). Human nature precludes ignoring what others do, no matter the distance in time and space, because our instinct is to absorb as much information relevant to our survival as possible.

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