Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Social Utility, Sympathy, and Reasons for Being Moral

Why would someone be moral if they didn't believe in God? For example, it is possible, if there is not God, to literally get away with murder. If there is a God, then it is literally never true that no one is looking. If there is no God, then it can sometimes be quite literally true that no one is looking. If you are never caught by humans you will die and reach the same condition as your innocent victim, after having reaped all the benefits of wrongdoing. Why wouldn’t an atheist commit a murder if he were to benefit from doing so and was reasonably confident that he or she would never be caught.
The philosopher David Hume suggested two reasons for being moral that don’t have anything to do with religion: social utility and sympathy. But are these enough to keep us moral, or, more importantly, to insure that it is always rational to be moral? It might depend on how good we are at sympathizing, and whether we stand to benefit, not benefit, from behaving morally. Given some set of desires and states of character, and on the assumption that to act rationally is to maximize the satisfactions of one's desires, the immoral person can be perfectly rational, and it can even be irrational to be moral. Does this mean that you can be moral without God if you have good circumstances for doing so, but if you aren’t so lucky, then you won’t be so moral?

5 comments:

Hugo Pelland said...

"If you are never caught by humans you will die and reach the same condition as your innocent victim, after having reaped all the benefits of wrongdoing."

Yep, that's probably what happens; truth is not what we wish it to be.

Then, just to answer 1 sentence:
"If there is a God, then it is literally never true that no one is looking."
Yet, people who do believe in God don't act significantly different from those who don't. And those who believe in God have such different versions of their beliefs that one believer's actions can be seen as horrific by the other, and vice versa.

Therefore, if some god is in fact looking, and considering that billions of people think they are being watched, he/she is doing a really shitty job at making us understand what we should do.

One Brow said...

If there is a God, then it is literally never true that no one is looking.

Supplementing Hugo's comment, everyone seems to think whichever God they believe in supports the actions they believe they are justified in taking anyhow, meaning their vision of God provides little check on their behavior.

David Brightly said...

If there is no God, then it can sometimes be quite literally true that no one is looking.

Not so. One is always looking oneself, at least while one is conscious and able to act. Hence in anyone of a decent moral formation there is guilt.

But are these enough ... to insure that it is always rational to be moral?

Why is it necessary to show that acting morally is the rational choice? We judge as rational or not the ways in which we go about achieving our ends, not the ends themselves. To act morally is more like a value or end in itself than a means to an end, so requires no rational justification. But the point about luck stands. What values we acquire is a matter of birth and upbringing over which we have little control. We used to call this character.

Starhopper said...

There's a scene (I hope I'm remembering it correctly) in the movie City Slickers in which the 3 main male characters are debating whether they would be unfaithful to their wives if it were 100% certain that no one would ever find out. The Billy Crystal character says he wouldn't stray, because "I would know."

bmiller said...

Starhopper you're right.

Too bad that quote didn't come from "Ben Hur" or something more critically acclaimed. :-)