Monthly Archives: August 2014

Why be Moral?


WHAT is even moral in the first place? For something to be seen as moral I think it needs to pass both of these tests:

  • Society’s standards are followed. In other words, the rules and standards of the society you live in largely define what’s “moral” and “right”. An example makes my point. Is killing babies wrong? Well it’s not seen as wrong in the Pygmy tribe in Africa. If twins are born one is killed. This is done because the conditions they live in are so harsh that both children will invariably die if both stay alive. Thus you just can’t say killing babies is a universal wrong. “Wrong” is societal dependent. … But the next point is also relevant.
  • No other people are unnecessarily hurt. I take this point from the famous writer Robert A. Heinlein who wrote: “Sin lies only in hurting other people unnecessarily. All other sins are invented nonsense.” By that definition the killing of babies by the Pygmy tribe is okay (per above bullet) because it’s necessary.

With the above definition of morality in hand, here’s WHY you should (and should want to) behave morally:

  • Psychological self-reward. Doing the “right” thing makes you feel good about yourself. In other words, doing “right” boosts your self-image (in seeing yourself as a “good” person). Note: What one sees as “right” usually equates to the societal standards you were raised in (more later on this).
  • Feeling that you fit in as a member of society. We’re “pack animals”. We’re hard wired to be part of a social group. By following your social group’s rules and standards you fit into your group. You also gain survival advantages from being part of a group.
  • Risk/reward pay off. Following society’s rules/standards is usually a net benefit to you. Typically, if you go against society’s controls on your behavior the risk will outweigh the reward. For example, if you rob a bank the risk of getting caught (and jailed) generally outweighs the reward.

Notice that the above bullets (on why to behave morally) are pretty much selfish in nature. That’s no accident. I think people are indeed generally motivated by self-interest.

But, but, but what about …

1. Religion.

Many think religion defines morality. I don’t. Religion does not define morality for a society. Rather, it’s the other way around (with society defining religion).

For example, the religious standard of “thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” is generally a good moral rule to have (and one that many societies have independently developed). Such a rule helps keep the family unit strong and thus helps children be raised to be productive members of society. This societal based need (to keep parents together) then got pulled into being a religious standard (and not the other way around).

2. Personal morality.

Many see their own personal morality as being the way to define what’s moral. In other words, as long as they are following their conscience (their personal standards) they see themselves as a moral person. These personal standards may or may not overlap society’s standards (which also pulls in religion).

But the problem with personal standards is they can too easily become a whatever-you-want-it-to-be standard that lets you justify anything. Often a person will expand their personal definition of morality to include their behavior (even if bad).

For example, let me use my bank robbing example again but in a different way. Suppose your personal standards see robbing a bank as okay? Does that then make it moral? It might to you. But the far more relevant view of the morality here is society’s standards. And society’s standards say robbing a bank is so immoral that you’ll go to jail.


I have a longer blog on this same topic at: