On Morality, Part 2
What motivates people to act morally? I propose 3 reasons:
- some people buy into a legitimation for particular moral or ethical codes
- some people, as a result of their process of socialization, abide by certain moral or ethical codes as a matter of habit
- some people have sympathy for other human beings, and as such avoid or prevent behaviors that harm others
Most of the debates about whether or not we can be ethical without absolutes—or without morality being built into the nature of the universe—are focused only on #1. On the one hand, some people offer absolute legitimations and suggest that without absolute legitimations there would be chaos. On the other hand, some people deconstruct those absolute legitimations and suggest that we never needed them in the first place—although the explanations as to why we never needed them are amazingly diverse.
It seems like most ethical philosophers today largely ignore #2 and #3. #2 isn’t of much use to us unless we have kids to train or unless we’re elementary school teachers, but #3 is pretty damn important.
In the middle of Huck Finn, Huck is trying to decide between his provincial Christianity—which tells him that he’ll go to hell for theft if he doesn’t return the slave Jim to his rightful owners—and his concern for Jim’s welfare. He chooses Jim’s welfare because he has sympathy for him. #3 trumped both #1 and #2 at the same time.
Female Genital Mutilation is a classic weird case for philosophers debating ethical relativism: if ethics lack absolute foundations, then is it okay for them to do this practice, even though we don’t think it’s okay? should our ethical norms apply to them even if they don’t agree with them? how could they apply universally if they’re not universally grounded?
But it gets a lot less complicated if we turn to #3 and think about whether or not the practice is harmful, and whether or not we give a shit about the people it harms. #3 will motivate when #1 and #2 won’t.
I also prioritize the usefulness of #3 because #1 often won’t work without #3. If I’m talking to a psychopath who is incapable of sympathy, no amount of “absolute” legitimation will convince him of anything.