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Jul 15, 2016

Why Should I Be Moral?

Smith explains how questions like “Why should I be rational?” and “Why should I be moral?” involve a bait and switch tactic.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said that a person cannot be checkmated if he refuses to play chess. If you refuse to play a game, then you cannot possibly lose that game. In addition, if you agree to play a game, then you have committed yourself to observe the rules of that game.

Suppose Jack and Jill agree to play a friendly game of chess. For his first move, Jack advances his king’s pawn three squares. Jill immediately objects: “You can’t move a pawn three squares; you can move it one or two squares, but not three.”

Jack indignantly replies: “What do you mean I can’t move the pawn three squares? I just did exactly that, so I obviously can do it.”

Jill, thinking Jack might be confused, replies: “That’s not what I meant. I didn’t mean that you are physically incapable of moving a pawn three squares. I meant that it is an illegal move, one not permitted by the rules of chess.”

Jack digs in his heels: “Okay, I understand that, but why should I care about the rules of chess?”

Jill, now suspecting that Jack is doing his best to be a pain in the ass, replies: “You should care about the rules of chess because you agreed to play a game of chess with me. And in making this commitment, you implicitly agreed to observe the rules of chess. I don’t know what you think you’re doing in moving your pawn three squares, but whatever it is, you are not playing chess. You are just moving a pawn around arbitrarily to the point where the piece isn’t even a pawn any more. A pawn, like all chess pieces, is defined in terms of its possible moves, and moving three squares would mean that it is not even a “pawn” any more. You have reduced it to a meaningless piece of wood. You have reneged on your commitment to play chess. If I had known that you were not serious about this commitment, I wouldn’t have wasted my time by sitting down at the board and arranging my pieces. The game of chess cannot provide reasons why you should personally care about rules of the game. That’s up to you. It’s a matter of personal commitment that has no bearing on the game itself.”

This scenario, absurd as it is, can serve as a template for a number of similar “Why should I care about x?” cases, some of which may confuse novices in philosophy, and at least one of which has been taken seriously enough by experienced philosophers to merit extended discussions and debates. This question is: Why should I care about morality?—or, in its more common form, Why should I be moral? This is the question that I will focus on here, arguing that it involves a bait and switch tactic. But before addressing this question directly, I will first explore analogous questions in areas other than ethics.

Jack and Jill are given sheets of paper, each of which has the same column of 20 numbers with 5 digits each. They agree to add up the numbers by hand and see if their sums agree. After they finish their addition, they have different sums. So they decide to add the numbers again, only to reach the same different totals. Then each of them adds the numbers using their personal pocket calculators, and this time they reach the same total. Jill was right, and Jack was wrong. Jack demands a second round, objecting that they may have entered the wrong numbers. The results are the same as before; Jill was right and Jack was wrong in their original calculations.

But Jack objects: “Okay, I agree that by the rules of addition, you were right and I was wrong. But why should I care about the rules of addition? I think I should be free to add numbers in any way I like. If I want to believe that my total was right, then I should be free to do so. Why should I be tyrannized by mathematical rules?”

Jill’s response follows the pattern of her earlier comments about chess. “I don’t care if you want to abide by the rules of addition or not. It’s dumb if you don’t but you have the right to be as dumb as you like. But in agreeing to our little exercise, I reasonably assumed that you cared about those rules and would accept the outcome of those rules to resolve our differences. But that’s not what you did. Having been proven wrong, you did an about face, reneged on your commitment, and demanded that I should somehow convince you that you should personally care about the rules of addition. I frankly don’t give a damn. The point is that you were wrong, with ‘wrong’ being determined by the rules of addition. That’s it, end of story. I wouldn’t have engaged you in this exercise in the first place if I had known that you would not respect the objective outcome. Next time tell me in advance so I don’t waste my time again.”

Many similar hypotheticals could be concocted, but some versions of the same lunacy have gained a veneer of respectability. Consider the question, Why should I care about being rational? Or, to express the same notion in its customary form, Why should I be rational?

I have talked to philosophers who think this is a profound question, or at the very least an interesting question, but its essentials differ not at all from my hypotheticals of chess and addition. If anything, it is an even more egregious piece of sophistry than manifested in my previous examples, because to ask Why should I be rational? is more fundamental. One can get along quite well in life without caring about the rules of chess, and one might even be able to function reasonably well without caring about the elementary rules of addition. Chess is literally a game; and though it would be misleading to label mathematics in the same manner, mathematics is a cognitive discipline with limited scope and well-defined rules.  One can think and speak coherently while remaining wholly ignorant or indifferent to chess and math, but the same is not true of rationality in the broad sense.

Consider, for example, the foundations of rational thought, namely, the three self-evident axioms of logic—the Law of Identity, the Law of Non-Contradiction, and the Law of the Excluded Middle. Suppose Jill catches Jack in an outright contradiction and Jack asks a now-predictable string of questions: “So why should I care about contradicting myself? Why should I accept the Law of Non-contradiction? What game are we playing that would compel me to accept that axiom?”

Jill replies: “We are not playing a game in a literal sense, only in a metaphorical sense—or in the sense of what Wittgenstein meant by a game. The “game” in this case is to avoid speaking nonsense. If you declare that the same proposition is both true and false at the same time and in the same respect, or that two contradictory propositions are equally true at the same time and in the same respect, then you are literally speaking nonsense. You are vocalizing sounds with no meaning. Now, if you don’t care about babbling incoherently for the rest of your life, with the consequence that no one will take you seriously because they won’t have the slightest idea of what you wish to say, then that’s up to you. It’s a personal choice whether you wish to point and grunt like a monkey rather than communicate with intelligible words and sentences like a human being.”

At this point Jack becomes annoyed at Jill’s curt dismissal of his questions. “Wait a second! I asked you a profound philosophical question, Why should I be rational? But instead of giving me a plausible argument that might convince me that I should be rational, you responded with little more than a sneer. After all, you might have said I should be rational because that would make me happier, and stuff like that.”

Jill snaps back: “Suppose I had said that you should be rational because it would make you happier. You would merely have dragged me deeper into your cesspool by asking, So why should I care about being happy? And there is a more serious problem here. You demand that I provide a rational argument that might convince you to be rational. You want a non-contradictory and intelligible argument that might convince you to avoid contradiction and speak intelligibly. In your very questions lurk implicit commitments to consistency in reasoning and arguments on your part. It’s the same bait and switch tactic that you pulled with our game of chess. You bait me into a game (in the metaphorical sense) but then, after I agree to play the game with you, you switch contexts and ask me why you should care about the rules of the game in the first place.”

Now let’s consider the main question at issue here: Why should I care about morality?—or in its abbreviated, more conventional form: Why should I be moral? Let’s look once more at what Jack and Jill have to say.

Jack: “Suppose I agree with your argument that x is the moral thing to do. Why should I care?”

Jill: “If you are asking why you should personally commit to the standard that objectively justifies x as moral, then I could say that the moral standard, having been rationally justified within the discipline of ethics, creates a moral obligation. But this would be pointless, since you would merely ask why you should be rational. As I said before, there is no way for anyone to persuade you of this if you reject the foundations of rational persuasion.”

Jack: “What do you mean by moral obligation?”

Jill: “By moral obligation I mean rational obligation as applied to actions instead of to beliefs. Just as a rational person will feel obliged to base his beliefs on rational cognitive standards (coherence, evidence, etc.), so a rational person will feel obliged to base his actions on rational moral standards. Of course, if you arbitrarily repudiate the conclusions of both epistemology and ethics, then you will have rendered yourself personally immune to both cognitive and moral persuasion. But your stubbornness and irrationalism in these instances have no bearing on the validity or objectivity of those disciplines per se. Neither discipline was developed with your convenience in mind. There is no cognitive discipline called epistemology exclusively for Jack or ethics exclusively for Jack. These disciplines apply universally to every person. Insofar as these disciplines generate rational conclusions, they also generate cognitive and moral obligations.

“You cannot be compelled to accept these conclusions and the obligations they entail. You will accept them only if you respect the conclusions of reason in thought and action. You are free to be as irrational or immoral as you like, even if this leads to a miserable life or even to your imprisonment or death, but your choices in these matters are irrelevant to the validity of epistemology and ethics qua cognitive disciplines. The question Why should I be moral? is ultimately a demand that someone provide you with a motive to be moral. But motives are psychological, not philosophical. If you have no desire to believe what is rational or to act according to moral principles, then we are at a stand; you have rendered yourself impervious to rational persuasion, and that’s that. Nevertheless, your personal beliefs and choices will not cause your beliefs and choices to be any less irrational or immoral. The disciplines of epistemology and ethics will remain intact even if you have no interest in them, just as mathematics will be unaffected by your disregard for its rules and conclusions.”

Three cheers for Jill!

This is part of a series