The most fundamental decision: Why be moral?

The following sort of answer will not suffice ‘I am moral because being moral helps me achieve my goal (of being happy, wealthy, popular or whatever).’ The reason it will not suffice is that it assumes some pre-existing goal, which everything else is a mere means to achieving. But to do ethics is to question all aspects of your decision-making – deciding whether to modify yourself and if so in what way. One thing ethics questions is why to have that goal rather than some other goal. Ethics tells us what to adopt as a goal – and places constraints on what means we may employ to achieve that goal. It is not merely a tool used to serve pre-existing goals. So we need a different sort of answer.

A difficulty with answering ‘Why be moral?’ is that ‘being moral’ means different things to different people. Do we first have to settle the correct ethical theory before we can begin answering this question? No. I take it the question is actually seeking an answer to the more general question, ‘Why make my decisions in any given way (e.g. the moral way) rather than another?’ or, ‘Why (not) change the way that I make my decisions?’

Let us approach this by asking ‘Why do other than leave to chance your decision-making?’ There are three ways that chance can influence your activity:

  1. ‘Circumstantial’ or ‘situational’ luck: Chance events can affect what options you are presented with at a given moment in time. River example: you are by chance passing when a child by chance slips into the river; it is chance you learned to swim when young. Thus it is chance that you now face the options of either trying to save the child or
  2. ‘Resultant’ or ‘consequential’ luck: Chance events that affect the outcome of your act after you have chosen it. An example of C is when you throw a lifebuoy in the direction of the child but once you release it a chance gust of wind carries it away from his grasp. If not for that gust of wind you would have saved the child.
  3. ‘Constitutive luck’: How you go about making decisions would be different had your genes, upbringing and/or past experience by chance been different. For example, if by chance: your parents had died or got better paid jobs in a different town, you had met different people, found different books, websites, films, music. Even small events can affect the direction that your thoughts and actions take, leading to increasing divergence from the track you would otherwise have taken.

The literature mainly discusses third person moral judgements of character and action in the light of the foregoing three ways that chance can influence your activity. For example, ‘Is Francis to blame for X?’ and ‘What punishment, if any, should Francis receive for Y?’

In contrast this paper explores the first person perspective. Once you recognise the influence of chance past events on how you currently go about making your decisions, what bearing should this have on your decision-making henceforth? To explore this imagine yourself the agent in the following example:

Twins. My name is Lucy. I am visiting the city for the first time. I am astounded to see someone who looks identical to me. I rush up to her and she is as shocked as me. My parents explain that we are identical twins. Our biological mother died in childbirth and my parents and hers could only take one child each. So the nurse tossed a coin and I went with the Luck family and my twin, Fiona, went with the Fortune family.

Fiona Fortune and I speak for ages. We discover that we each live in small isolated communities and were home-schooled. We discover that whilst we have many things in common (such as believing that the world is round and being able to do arithmetic) we nevertheless differ in many ways. For example, in order to decide what answer to write down when asked about the length of a hypotenuse in a right-angled triangle Fiona uses a2+b2=c2 whereas I use a2+b2=c3. We each simply copy what our parents do, and are rewarded by them for mechanically plugging numbers into the equation in question and reporting the answer.

Furthermore, Fiona Fortune treats others as she would like to be treated herself, whereas I do whatever I anticipate will maximize my own pleasure. Again, I am as I am rather than like Fiona because we each copied our respective parents and community, did as we were told and were rewarded for behaving accordingly.

It dawns on me that I can respond to this revelation in any one of the following three ways.

  • Path 2i: I can carry on deciding in the same way. However, I only decide in the way I do rather than in the way Fiona decides because the nurse’s coin fell heads. Therefore, to take this path is to I implicitly leave to chance my decisions, and thence my acts and life.

If I take Path 2i then I will continue to use a2+b2=c3 to decide what answer to give to questions about triangle side length. If the coin had instead come down tails then (given we twins are physically identical) I would now use a2+b2=c2, as Fiona currently does. Thus, if I take Path 2i then I will be implicitly leaving to chance what I think and say about the hypotenuse length. This is not obviated by the fact that my thoughts and statements are systematic, ordered, rule-governed, approved by my community and are the product of deliberation and calculation (e.g. adding numbers, squaring, figuring out square roots etc).

Likewise, if I take Path 2i in the ethical realm (which I take to cover all aspects of how I live my life) then I will carry on being someone who strives to maximise her own pleasure. I may learn in superficial ways – for example I may improve my means end reasoning, better understand how people and the world work so I can better manipulate them, better balance my desires when they clash, and discover new and exquisite pleasures. However, I will not learn at the deepest level. I will not revise the fundamental values, desires, goals, intuitions that currently underlie my decision-making.

For example, I may learn how to get away with swindling my employer or customers, but not question at the deepest possible level – not question whether to continue being the sort of person who thinks maximising pleasure is what is best for a person and who puts his own pleasure ahead of that of others.

  • Path 2e: I explicitly embrace leaving to chance all my decision-making. Thus, I strive to increase the role of chance in my decision-making, with the ideal being to choose at random between all the (mental and physical) activity available to me. This would eliminate all structure and method from my thought and movement. I would not live long. It is an option in theory at least.
  • Path 1: I reject leaving to chance my decision-making so strive to reduce as far as possible the extent to which I leave to chance my decision-making. Thus I try to learn at the deepest possible level and act on what I learn. For example, I do not simply carry on calculating the length of hypotenuses in the same way as before. Rather, I ask myself ‘Why use a2+b2=c3 rather than a2+b2=c2 or some other equation?’ I then try to learn the mathematics of triangles. If I succeed in learning then I can do other than (implicitly or explicitly) leave to chance what answer I give: I can confidently give the correct answer. By ‘learning’ I mean deepening understanding, enriching wisdom and suchlike: in contra distinction to rote learning, copying, parroting others etc. (which is what one relies on when one takes Path 2i).

Can I take Path 1 in the ethical realm? Well, if I reject leaving to chance decisions regarding what to think and do in all aspects of my life, then I will at least try to seek an alternative. Whether I will find an alternative I at the outset do not know. When one sets out on trying to learn – in mathematics, science, ethics or anything else – one does not know whether one will succeed in learning.

First, one does not know whether there is anything to be learnt until one succeeds in learning it. For instance, when I commence trying to learn about the relationship between the sides of a right-angled triangle I do not know whether there is a formula linking them – for all I know there may be no systematic connection. Likewise, when I start trying to learn in ethics, I do not know whether there is anything to be learnt.

Second, one does not know whether, even if there is something to be learnt, one will succeed in learning it: one might not have enough talent, time or good enough teaching. For instance, I may fail to understand the relationship between the sides of a right-angled triangle even though others understand it. And I may fail to deepen my understanding of ethics, even though it is possible for others to do so.

It follows that in both mathematics and ethics if a person tries but fails to learn regarding a particular topic, then he cannot infer that it is impossible for him or others to learn. There are many explanations for why some fail to learn in ethics, for example: lack of brainpower; lack of teachers and texts; psychological issues (such as lack of self-understanding and openness, insecurity, pride, egoism); and being in the thrall of a false theory or worldview (eg. certain religious and philosophical approaches). And no-one has proven that learning in ethics is impossible.

One can certainly conceive of the possibility of learning in ethics which does not rest upon one’s current contingent desires, values, intuitions etc, analogously to learning in mathematics. This is all that this paper needs. It does not need (or claim) to prove that anyone has succeeded in learning in ethics (though I think they have). For this paper is only arguing for rejecting leaving decision-making to chance and so trying to learn regarding all one’s decision-making and then (if one does so learn) acting on what one has so far learnt.

That there are some differences between learning in mathematics and ethics does not matter for this paper. This essay does not claim that what is learnt in ethics is somehow like what is learnt in mathematics. Nor that the method of learning in ethics is similar to the method of learning in mathematics. Rather, this essay claims that there are similar grounds for trying to learn in mathematics and ethics. Namely, the rejection of leaving to chance one’s decision-making.

I take it that in general one learns through reasoning, reflection, experience, practice, attention to exemplars, and through employing creativity, imagination, empathy etc. However, this paper need make no claims regarding the nature of the process through which one learns in ethics. Nor what one learns. When setting out on trying to learn in ethics one needs to have an open mind; then upon succeeding in learning in ethics one knows that learning in ethics is possible, and finds out what learning in ethics involves.

In practice, until one has succeeded in learning sufficient for what one has learnt to provide guidance in a particular situation, one continues making decisions in a similar way to before. After all, one currently has no grounds for changing to some other way of deciding. For example, imagine Lucy Luck takes Path 1, but before she has had time to learn the relevant mathematics, she has to buy a ladder: she calculates the length needed using a2+b2=c3. Only after having learnt would she change which equation she uses and knowingly give the correct answer.

Someone brought up a Nazi or a slave owner, might think of himself as having had a blessed upbringing, and living a great life. Only once he succeeds in learning at a deep level does he see the wrongness of his previous life. Likewise, until you succeed in learning at a deep level, you do not know whether you live a truly good life.

The most fundamental decision you face is which of the three paths to take. It determines how you go about all of your intellectual and practical decision-making – from what you think and say regarding mathematics and the physical world to how you treat others. Most people recognise that to leave life to chance – take Path 2i or 2e – is to strip it of ultimate meaning, value, purpose and significance. They reject this.

Furthermore, if you seriously ask yourself, ‘Shall I take Path 1, 2i or 2e?’ then you reflect, investigate, try to deepen understanding and to find rational grounds for this decision. This is what it is to seriously ask yourself a question. Yet to do this is precisely to do other than leave your decision-making to chance: it is to try to learn in order to then base your decision on what you have learnt – that is, it is to be on Path 1. So to now seriously ask this question is to answer it. In other words, to now be someone who seriously asks this question is to reveal yourself to now be someone who is not leaving his decision-making to chance but is rather on Path 1. Those on Path 2i and 2e avoid this serious questioning.

In conclusion, there are two steps in answering ‘Why be moral?’ Step one, notes that what you label the ‘right’ act in a given situation is what your ethical understanding guides you to do once you have succeeded in learning sufficiently in ethics – just as what you label the ‘right’ answer to a mathematics question is the answer that you give once you have learned sufficiently in mathematics.

Step two, note that in rejecting leaving to chance your decision-making and so committing to trying to learn and to acting on what you learn, you are am committing to doing acts which are the acts that you label ‘right’. Thus, the case for rejecting leaving to chance your decision-making is simultaneously the case for doing what is ‘right’.



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