The Reading Room

Why Be Moral?

Philosophers like to ask questions whose answer might seem obvious at first glance but for which satisfactory accounts often prove elusive. One such question is “Why be moral?” You might think there should be some convincing responses since we have all been told at various times, or exhorted ourselves, to do the right thing. 
But why do the “right” thing? What explains the directive force of our obligations unless we have decisive reason(s)—reasons we can identify with—to abide by those obligations? What keeps morality, whatever its rules or principles, from merely being sanctimonious browbeating from some self-proclaimed authority we don’t (and needn’t) recognize?
A response may then marshal various considerations that appeal to the listener’s interests and values: you’ll have peace of mind when you abide by a prosocial moral code, or God’s commandments; you won’t be able to live with yourself if you hurt people in certain ways; you’ll typically have more friends or at least fewer enemies; it’s in your self-interest, or you’ll feel proud for standing by your principles even when tempted to compromise them; doing the right thing makes the world better for the poor, or future generations, or other kinds of people you care about or admire. 
The list could continue for pages. A lot of these approaches treat morality as enticement rather than command. That is, they appeal to non-moral desiderata as good reasons to abide by this or that set of moral norms. Many virtue-ethical approaches to morality, both ancient and modern, emphasize this element of “attractive-ness,” whereas other contemporary theories emphasize the “command” element of moral directives, independently of how attractive (or not) they may be.
A drawback of the enticement approach is that it renders morality closer to being advice that one can take or leave, rather than something one has categorical reason to obey and for which one can be held accountable or blameworthy for failure to obey. Can we provide convincing accounts of why we ought to be moral, especially if the “ought” is not one of mere counsel but something more powerful? A strength of the enticement approach is that demands can feel less foreign (perhaps less burdensome too) if the agent’s own beliefs and values count decisively in favor of them not only doing the right thing, but being disposed to behave accordingly. 
Fortunately, our moral dispositions may provide much of the answer we seek. Rather than hope some grand theory of morality will unite our diverse values, another approach follows the philosopher P.F. Strawson by highlighting the ubiquity in our social practices of “participant reactive attitudes” and overlapping moral emotions like resentment, guilt, praise, and blame. These attitudes involve our mutual  recognition of reciprocal authority to make claims on one another, intentional violation of which fittingly elicits attitudes of blame or guilt.
We come to learn these claims through developing in one or more communities. Certain fundamental norms anchoring a liberal democratic ethos are rather fixed and stable (respect individuals’ agency, respect property rights, honor contractual obligations, etc.) You don’t merely frustrate my goals or set back my interests innocently when you flout these norms; rather, you thereby act toward me with bad will. Accidentally hitting my car may be a nuisance, but attitudes like blame and resentment aren’t fitting responses to accidental infringements. By contrast, spitefully ramming your car into mine elicits blame and resentment. 
Participant reactive attitudes contain a “second-personal” component: we mutually recognize, if just implicitly, that we have decisive reason to refrain from acting in certain ways toward our free and equal fellow members of the moral community. In making such claims on you, I acknowledge your reciprocal claims on me. In pointing a moral finger at you, I thereby point some fingers back at myself. 
Moreover, we don’t typically consent or reason our way to such arrangements—we develop these moral attitudes in the normal course of human maturation. If Hayek is correct, many of us rule-following creatures can’t even really articulate why we abide by certain moral norms, at least not at first blush. This doesn’t mean we must blindly do what we feel is right; our shared norms are open to reflection and revision, especially if they lead us to suboptimal equilibria, but changes are more likely to come from addressing the totality of factors, such as normative inconsistencies, calling for revision. Perhaps it was blameworthy in ancient Greece to fail to return a slave to his owner; in a modern liberal democracy, it would be blameworthy to own slaves given our recognition of human equality. 
While it may be nice to have some or other elegant theory (e.g, utilitarian, Kantian, virtue-ethical) that tells us what to do, it’s not clear how useful such a theory would be without our reactive attitudes already providing the directive force of our recognized obligations. It’s not our job to convince sociopaths that they should be moral agents. If one already lacks adequate motivation to be moral, it’s not clear one will be attracted by any theory, at least not enough to be a reliably moral agent in the first place.