We indulge on great foods because it feels good. We have sex because it feels good. We play sports, listen to music, hang out with our friends, etc because we feel good.

If asked why we do any of those things to most people, most would readily admit that they do those things because it feels good.

Yet when it comes to moral actions, most people give out reasons that imply some sort of conceptual ought that is independent of the mind. “We should not ditch our friends because friends deserve respect.” “We should not be selfish since human cooperation is important”

But would we do any of these things if they didn’t feel good? Suppose every time you gave money to a poor person, it had a lasting negative emotional impact on you. or perhaps some sort of physical pain. Or perhaps you didn’t psychologically feel good doing this, the thing that many feel when helping others out. Would you still do it? I would doubt most would. In fact, it is arguable that what makes us feel good comes first, and the rationalization for our moralities seem to happen after. Many psychological experiments also seems to suggest that this is the case.

Having a sense of purpose and meaning in one’s world that one obtains through following a “moral” life is ultimately a physical feel good feeling. It may be longer lasting than the pleasure you might get from indulging in food or sex, but aren’t these ultimately just physical sensations?

If morality is thus dependent on physical sensations, how is it any different from any other want fundamentally?

  • 2
    You are essentially assuming that people do what will make them feel good and then using that assumption as the premise of the argument that people only do moral things because it makes them feel good. It is a circular argument. Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 3:43
  • No, it is not a circular argument. I didn't assume that EVERYTHING that people do is because it makes them feel good. I listed examples of things people do that make them feel good that they themselves admit to doing because of the feeling. By induction, I hypothesized that people also do moral things because it makes them feel good, even though many do not readily admit to this.
    – user62907
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 4:40
  • 1
    Morality is not the result of a feeling (to feel good). Moral rules express the social agreement a group needs for its members to coexist in peace. You don't say sorry because it makes you feel good (in any case, it is the opposite): you say sorry because only so you can hold a persisting social relationship, allowing further interactions in peace and wellness. In extreme cases, not following moral rules might imply death or the dissipation of the human group. If following moral rules would lead to good feelings, humanity would be perfect.
    – RodolfoAP
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 5:56
  • 2
    So if people admit to doing things because they feel good that confirms your thesis and if they do not that is because they conceal it. Your argument is worse than circular, it is a species of no true Scotsman. Moreover, "feel good" is so stretchy that the thesis itself is next to vacuous. Monks and soldiers submit themselves to "negative emotional impacts" and "some sort of physical pain" out of devotion or sense of duty, they think, but really, it is because there is "feel good" in there too. And since every human action entails both good and bad they do it because it feels bad just as well.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 6:49
  • 1
    There is always something that "undeniably feels good" in anything that happens to people, and "undeniably feels bad" too, including death and torture, or, conversely, birth and pleasure. Your "thesis" is as informative as "something happens". It sure does, unfalsifiably.
    – Conifold
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 14:12

6 Answers 6


"Would people do moral things if it didn’t make them physically feel good?"

Only the strong believers. You know, people get themselves tortured to death (skinned alive, eaten by bugs) for their moral values.

However, these people are very, very rare. May be one in hundreds of thousands. Most people start doing moral things because of their moral values but continue doing so or continue doing most of so only as long as they not encounter extreme harshness.

This in a way separate wheat from chaff. Who stand and who run away.

Most people will find some kind of excuse, real or imaginary. The low level ones will just be convinced they cannot take any more hardship. The middle level ones will start weighing other moral things they can do instead ("What good would me dying here in this pit do to my cause?", "Fight another die", "There is more I can do staying alive than dieing here today" etc).

Only very few will stick to the end.

  • What happens if you do something that in majority of circumstances would be considered "immoral", in order to "stick it to the end"? How is that valued? Like what if living up to your "values" requires money you don't have, but the situation is also urgent, so instead of making the excuse "I have no money" you go against the excuse by stealing? Which of the 3 "levels" does that put you on? That is, you directly violate the excuse but "too directly", and you write off the punishment for the theft as "just the inevitable 'not feeling good' of 'living up to the values'"? Commented Jan 1, 2023 at 6:22
  • Also, how do you get yourself into situations like this where you can be tested like that? Commented Jan 1, 2023 at 6:25
  • "What happens if you do something that in majority of circumstances would be considered "immoral", in order to "stick it to the end"?" Thats an entirely different question than asked by OP. You are asking "Is it moral to do something immoral if ...?". Just stop there. Your question answered itself. The answer is no. Its not moral to do something immoral, period.
    – Atif
    Commented Jan 1, 2023 at 7:43
  • But doesn't that logic suggest then that if the choice truly is between not "living up to the values" and actively doing something "immoral" in the name of trying to get the ability to "live up to them", then they have a valid excuse? But the way you've written it, "sticking it to the end" is the only best option, all the others will dock points from them. So that seems to leave nothing at all in those cases, then. Commented Jan 1, 2023 at 9:31
  • The levels are about people. About how much morality they have. People dont have equal values of morality in them. Helping others make everybody happy but will one do it by taking away food from one's own kids. How many will tell military secrets under torture?
    – Atif
    Commented Jan 1, 2023 at 9:34

Is that really the issue though? What about choosing between competing goals, and rewards?

We will have emotional responses, because we are emotional creatures - emotions for us are linked to how we prioritise what to remember, and contextual recall. We may have had an aversion to a choice, then done mental work to identify as correct by some moral criteria, and then feel good about the action because we are doing the right thing. That just tells us about how we use emotions towards guiding behaviour and shaping intentions, nothing about why we make certain behaviours our moral goals.

Heroin or crack cocaine are considered very pleasurable. Even so, it's estimated only 15% of hard drug users experience addiction issues (5% of alcohol users). Hedonic treadmills simply are not enough to explain behaviour. Consider the results of Rat Park, that seem to show compulsive and impulsive behaviour is linked to lack of social connections and boredom.

It is unfashionable now to talk about wisdom, but it's exactly the right term for looking at the quality of our decision making, and in Philosophical framework for avoiding short-term strategies I make the case wisdom is the skill of solving dilemmas, in relation to the integrated centre of our concerns, in this answer: Wisdom and John Vervaeke's awakening from the meaning crises? Addiction, compulsion, coercion by our desires and shirt term aims, are problems exactly because they conflict with other values or timeframes of aims. We can work on personal development, including through philosophy, to make better decisions, in relation to increased self-knowledge.

Food and sex are absolute requirements for the persistence and replication of the medium for memes and meme-complexes, human minds and culture. As Hume observed we don't reason to our core values, we reason from them (including managing conflicts); we can't get a sense of what we Ought purely from what Is. I would argue that Moral Foundations theory is helping give a picture of the necessary values for us to cooperate, with a slightly different set for people who feel more under threat (linked to prioritising the Purity and In-group foundations associated with more right-wing politics). We receive impulses towards these values, towards feeling they are rewarding, as part of our evolved social natures. Another way to think about this is Christakis' 'Social Suite'.

Sports are cultural forms to manage competitiveness and status-seeking, into greater cooperation. The Ancient Olympic Games and their religious truce helped the Athenians and Spartans cooperate against the Persians, even while still competing for regional influence and hegemony (I would argue Sparta won militarily, but Athens won on soft-power and cultural legacy). The increase in violent crime with greater social inequality has been linked to decreased opportunities to seek status, heightening small interactions between strangers. Sports and culture, more generally, allow a wider range of behaviours and the harnessing of the selfishness of our genes towards replication, towards social aims. So we don't just do sports because they feel good, but also because they are part of successful societies, thy cooperate better, and ensure the spread of their values.

An idea that can help us understand moral behaviour not simply as values and impulses, but as a mode of reasoning, is intersubjectivity - 'if I were you' and 'if you were me'. This gives rise to what has been identified as the most describes universal moral principle, The Golden Rule, usually expressed as 'do unto others as you would be done by'. Discussed in relation to moral frameworks like Kant's Categorical Imperative, & Rawl's theory of justice here: Is the Categorical Imperative Simply Bad Math? :)

Intersubjectivity also helps ground our understanding of meaning and communication in general: According to the major theories of concepts, where do meanings come from? Which can help us to understand how we generated the mode of narration that we call causality, which we use to draw inferences from experience: Is the idea of a causal chain physical (or even scientific)?


Does a computer do things for reasons other than how good it feels? I expect you would answer yes.

Does the human brain at times operate in some ways that are similar to how a computer operates? I expect you would answer yes.

Do you think that all reflex actions are the result of pleasure and pain? For example, is a hiccup an action someone takes because of how good it feels? I expect you would answer no.

So, is it logically possible for a person to do something for a reason other than how good it feels? Given the above, I expect you would answer yes.

A person could act out of a strict moral code, even knowing that it will cause them a great deal of pain and no pleasure. You might argue that this strict moral code is simply another form of pleasure-seeking; the person saves themselves from the discomfort involved in breaking the code.

However, imagine a person with a strict moral code that they never deviate from; it is part of their identity. Then suppose that the person encounters a situation where they know that following the moral code will cause an evil man to torture them to death. Suppose that the torture is so painful that any discomfort the person might feel from violating their moral code would pale in comparison to it.

But if the moral code is sufficiently part of the person's identity, can you imagine the person may still do the moral thing, disregarding the pain he knows he will experience as a result?

If you can imagine that, then you can imagine a mind that makes moral decisions in ways not purely motivated by pain or pleasure.

  • Your first few paragraphs are a straw-man. I didn't say that human beings only do things because it makes them feel good. I do however think that this is the case for moral actions. In your example, yes, I can imagine that. But here you are confusing the intensity of the feeling with the overall duration of it. Sure, he may be tortured, but that person may also realize it will last a short amount of time. The guilt with not following the moral code may last longer. Change your example to, say, being eternally tortured. Do you think anyone would now not break the code?
    – user62907
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 4:46
  • @thinkingman If duration of torture vs duration of guilt is your concern, we need not resort to infinities. Suppose it is finite torture ending in death if he keeps the code, and if he violates the code, he is not tortured, but he is still killed after the same amount of time. Then it is the same duration of guilt vs torture. And yet I think we can easily imagine someone taking the moral high road in this scenario, even though the torture is much more painful than the guilt.
    – causative
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 5:06
  • Physical harm is always more painful physically than psychological harm by definition, even if the former is of a very small duration. However, a person may feel psychological torture in the sense of being bothered while feeling guilty. In your example, it would depend on what the person cares about. Would he rather feel guilty (psychological torture) or be physically tortured? Either way, the rationale would be based on what he feels, which was the original point of the post.
    – user62907
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 5:14
  • So, to be clear, you aren't saying that a person will always choose the less painful option. Only that their decision is in some way "based on" what they feel - even if they knowingly choose to feel worse. However, the person with the strict moral code would not say he made his decision by considering the brief amount of guilt he might feel; he would rather say he made it so he would not break his code, e.g. so that innocents would not be harmed. The amount of guilt he might feel in what little remains of his life does not factor much into how he would describe his decision process.
    – causative
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 13:10
  • Let me put it this way. My argument is that if he didn't feel guilt, he would easily break the code. You could counter this by saying that the guilt arises BECAUSE he thinks he should not break the code. I would argue that psychological experiments have shown that the reasons for not breaking the code happen AFTER the feeling. It is your intuition/emotions that make you feel bad harming someone for example. These feelings are the foundation for the "reasons" you come up with to justify that after the fact
    – user62907
    Commented Dec 30, 2022 at 14:23

The difference comes from the location of the source of satisfaction: external or internal. Not exactly the same as eudaimonia and hedonia concept, but that might be interesting to look at in this context:


Anyway, the 'good feeling' when you eat something tasty comes from the senses directly. When you give money to a poor person, it comes from a mental concept. It doesn't matter if that concept is consciously recognised or not.


  1. Someone doesn't feel good at all about sharing their wealth. Why would they still donate to charity? They don't want to be seen as greedy, either by others to project a better image or by themselves just to feel as a better person. Either way there is a concept in their head that being greedy is 'bad'.

  2. A child is drowning in a ice cold river and a passerby jumps in to save it, risking their life in the process. They do it without thinking, yet the concept that that is the right thing to do has to exist in their subconsciousness (or even as deep as genes). It's easy to imagine a person who doesn't jump as they don't have that concept or don't give it much value.

So either way the concept has to exists inside one's mind. Thus I find it difficult to answer the first part of the title question. Perhaps 'No they won't, but doing moral deeds would always aim at bringing moral satisfaction by definition, so the question is pointless'


All our voluntary actions as far as we know are the result of chemical interactions in our brains (I leave aside the as yet unanswered question of the nature of consciousness). Undoubtedly the brain has been wired through evolution to reward certain types of actions- such as eating, mating, etc- with feelings of pleasure, and to discourage other types of actions- such as confronting tigers- through the generation of unpleasant sensations such as fear and pain.

The mind is also clearly programmable in the sense that an individual's tendency to think in a certain way will be conditioned to some extent by what has happened to them in the past, including the influence on their mental development from their peers and wider society.

Given that, how you act seems to be the result of some hard-wired tendencies, societal programming and a host of random influences over your life, coupled with whatever degrees of freedom we might associate with your consciousness.

The distinction between a moral action and any other type seems ill-defined, arbitrary and largely irrelevant. We do things because we make judgements about whether we should do them, and those judgments may be a mix of the conscious, the unconscious, the rational, the irrational, the poorly informed and so on. I paid a large tax bill this morning, not because it gave me physical pleasure, but because I was aware of all the consequences of not paying it. One might classify the paying of a tax bill as a moral obligation, and it is certainly not a pleasurable one.

In short, then, the answer to your question is that we appear to perform some acts (Type A) because they give us pleasure and others (Type B) for other reasons. However you choose to define moral acts, you will find that some of them are Type A and some Type B. Your desire to pigeonhole them as one or the other seems misguided.


Kant addresses this question in the Groundwork:

Empirical principles are wholly incapable of serving as a foundation for moral laws. For the universality with which these should hold for all rational beings without distinction, the unconditional practical necessity which is thereby imposed on them, is lost when their foundation is taken from the particular constitution of human nature, or the accidental circumstances in which it is placed. The principle of private happiness, however, is the most objectionable, not merely because it is false, and experience contradicts the supposition that prosperity is always proportioned to good conduct, nor yet merely because it contributes nothing to the establishment of morality—since it is quite a different thing to make a prosperous man and a good man, or to make one prudent and sharp-sighted for his own interests and to make him virtuous—but because the springs it provides for morality are such as rather undermine it and destroy its sublimity, since they put the motives to virtue and to vice in the same class and only teach us to make a better calculation, the specific difference between virtue and vice being entirely extinguished. On the other hand, as to moral feeling, this supposed special sense, the appeal to it is indeed superficial when those who cannot think believe that feeling will help them out, even in what concerns general laws: and besides, feelings, which naturally differ infinitely in degree, cannot furnish a uniform standard of good and evil, nor has anyone a right to form judgements for others by his own feelings: nevertheless this moral feeling is nearer to morality and its dignity in this respect, that it pays virtue the honour of ascribing to her immediately the satisfaction and esteem we have for her and does not, as it were, tell her to her face that we are not attached to her by her beauty but by profit.

The general issue with heteronomous ethics, even if supposedly more idealistic (like metaphysical perfectionism or divine-command theory), is that they use a principle of the understanding for their first principle, rather than a principle of reason. Hedonism, for example, might be interpreted modulo axioms of intuition or, probably more closely, anticipations of perception (since we do speak of the differing intensities of different pleasures).

But now since the understanding is particularly susceptible to the untoward influence of the senses, it follows that if we try to found ethics on types of understanding, we will mislead ourselves drastically. So even if some right actions occasion good feelings in us, if we try to make the feeling into our justification for our action "after the fact," we are transcendentally deluded.

You must log in to answer this question.