Is Morality Rational?

Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Socrates (1787). Though famous for leading a virtuous life, Socrates was condemned to death by the Athenian government.Jacques-Louis David's The Death of Socrates (1787). Though famous for leading a virtuous life, Socrates was condemned to death by the Athenian government.Flickr Thomas Hawk (CC)

When we think of morality, we tend to think of things that we must or must not do if we are to count as good persons. In general, most of us recognize that a moral person does not do things like lie, steal, cheat, murder, rape, torture, slander, neglect duties and responsibilities, and so forth. And we further recognize that a moral person does not merely refrain from such detestable things, but also acts in certain ways that we find praiseworthy, for instance, being generous, kind, honest, respectful, loyal, brave, or self-controlled.

And while we deeply admire moral persons, we also know that morality is demanding of us. Let’s face it, sometimes the moral life can feel like a real drag. And though we may find it relatively easy to be just when things are going reasonably well for us, it is often far more difficult when justice demands that we sacrifice career prospects, harmony in our families, fulfillment of our deepest passions, and, perhaps, even our very lives.

Furthermore, even a casual observer of human affairs might notice that people who have been wildly successful in life are not always or even typically very moral. The self-sacrificing and just person might look around and begin to worry whether she has been exercising poor practical judgment. After all, if practical wisdom is about living well —  and so many immoral people seem to be living well — perhaps carrying out the demands of justice is not our best option.

This raises a difficult philosophical question: Is it rational — practically wise — to be moral and just?

This question is put to Socrates in Plato’s Republic. In the dialogue, Socrates’ interlocutors force him to confront a sordid truth: that the unjust man appears to have the upper hand in life, since injustice allows him to accumulate the money and power necessary to live freely — to live unencumbered by any relations of servitude or need to others.

But Socrates is unmoved by this argument. He contends that “anyone who is going to be blessed with happiness” must love justice both for its own sake and for the sake of its good consequences. He is adamant that justice does have intrinsically good consequences — that justice “benefits its possessor” — though the moral person does not pursue justice only for the sake of those consequences.

This is an argument that appeals to human nature. The idea is that, as political animals, we need to stand in just relations to one another, for we can live well together and be happy only if we have laws that both regulate and promote sound modes of social interaction. This is why the laws of any city in which citizens can flourish and excel must be just. So we can say that justice is in a sense necessary for us — that we must pursue it. The natural desire to live happily together is not a matter of individual choice but, rather, a fact about us as humans. If we accept this picture of human nature, it is reasonable for us to be just — it both befits and benefits us given the kind of beings we are.

Plato was not the only classical author to make this connection between the good man and the good state. It’s a connection that often puzzles contemporary readers, because we have lost the conception of the human person that grounds it. It’s helpful here to remember that it was central to ancient and medieval philosophical traditions that humans possess, by nature, a function or goal that provides a standard against which to measure whether we are living well. Just as it is the goal or function of a knife to cut — such that a knife is good insofar as it cuts well — so it is the goal or function of man, Aristotle argues, to live according to judgments of right practical reasoning, to be practically wise. In other words, virtue only make sense in relation to a given goal or function. So, if the function of a knife is to cut, then the virtue of a knife is its sharpness. Similarly, Aristotle argues that the cardinal virtues — justice, courage, temperance, and practical wisdom — enable us to perform our function well, to live a reasonable life in which we make practically sound choices.

According to this view, because we are rational, political animals, we can carry out our function only together, within the context of a political community. This is a metaphysical claim about human persons as much as it is an ethical claim. For both Plato and Aristotle, it is the political community as a whole that constitutes individual human persons as persons — that is, as rational — because reason is bound up with language, which is shared and precedes any individual. Furthermore, as Aristotle remarks at the outset of his Politics, only a rational animal needs to adopt some general conception of how to live well among others of his kind. And so Aristotle in particular sees a deep connection between rationality and justice: Both are bound up together in our communal, rule-governed life.

To be an individual human person, then, is to be constituted by a political order with other human persons, bound together by common ways of life, addressing one another in terms of what is generally agreed upon as good and bad, right and wrong. Thus a good and flourishing human being is always also a good citizen — one who has the virtues that enable him to participate well in a given community, and who stands in the right relationships to others in that community, pursuing common goods. On such an account, we can never really separate the private good from the common good. They are, for the man who is living well, necessarily one and the same. This means that a good political order is necessary for good persons to flourish.

Modern moral philosophers have shied away from two essential aspects of this ancient and medieval conception of the good life: (1) its basis in a normative account of human nature; and (2) its understanding of that nature as essentially constituted by the political community and therefore oriented towards the common, rather than private, good. This is no accident. Once we lose the idea that we are naturally ordered toward political life together we also lose a clear justification for a robust conception of the common good in our understanding of the good life and the proper political order.

However, once human nature was removed from the equation, philosophers needed to revisit the question of the rationality of the moral life. If moral action is not grounded in our nature, can we still say that it is rational?

Some modern philosophers, such as Thomas Hobbes, argue that morality is a matter of enlightened self-interest. Such a view takes human persons understood as individuals —  with private, competing interests — to be the basic constituents of the political order. The question for Hobbes is then whether it is rational for individuals in a state of nature to enter into a contract to form a society that would restrict their freedoms to act in various ways. Ultimately, Hobbes argues, it is in everyone’s self-interest to join society and put oneself under the power of the state, since men on their own would be locked in a state of perpetual war. For most people, Hobbes argues, society is a better alternative to the life in such a state of nature, which, as he memorably describes it, would be “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Adam Smith, the founder of modern economic theory, also looks to the individual as the fundamental unit of his philosophy. Like Hobbes, he understands rational action principally in terms of the ongoing pursuit of self-interest. In his famous Wealth of Nations, Smith introduces homo economicus, the individual who acts rationally by maximizing his returns while minimizing his efforts. Such a man is the engine of the competitive private enterprise economy that was coming into being during Smith’s life. Smith argues that private interest is the best way to secure the common good, which is a secondary and derivative concept in his market-driven society. While the moral life includes benevolence or concern for the happiness of others, we should resist the thought that such considerations should replace self-interest as a motive. As Smith famously argues, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we can expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.”

The Scottish philosopher David Hume is less sanguine than Hobbes or Smith about the prospects for the rationality of the moral life. On a straightforward reading of his texts, he doesn’t allow that morality has anything essential to do with reasoning at all. By his lights, a moral person has well-trained passions and can reliably use the means to get what he desires, but it is his desires that ultimately explain his actions. For, according to Hume, practical reason does not provide a motive for the will; instead, he argues, “reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Of course, Hume still thinks it preferable to live a moral and virtuous life, but only because immorality is distasteful and brings about disagreeable feelings in us — not because it is foolish or irrational.

Hume makes a distinction between the “natural” and “artificial” virtues that brings into sharper relief his distance from the classical understanding of morality. Hume thinks that natural virtues, such as benevolence and charity, are character traits that human beings would possess in their “natural condition,” outside of a social, political order; he contrasts these with the “artificial virtues,” such as justice, which arise from social practices and conventions. We have already seen that for the ancients, a human being outside of a social order — the sphere of social practices and conventions — is in a very unnatural condition, not capable of developing virtues properly at all. For Hume, by contrast, justice is not necessary or natural for man, though it is in his self-interest to pursue it, and he can furthermore be motivated by his sympathy for public interest.

Immanuel Kant is closer to the ancients than Hobbes, Smith, or Hume, at least insofar as he wants to show that morality is a matter of right practical reasoning and therefore cannot be reduced to self-interest. However, Kant’s theory of practical reason forces him to downgrade the concept of virtue and to sideline the notion of happiness altogether. He thinks of moral action as a matter of duty: acting in accordance with rational precepts, regardless of one’s individual or subjective feelings. Hence shared human needs and desires, which are empirical and therefore contingent reasons for action, have nothing to do with true moral principles, which, according to Kant, must be purely formal and come from pure reason alone. To will the good, for Kant, is not to pursue a flourishing life of virtue, as it is for Aristotle, but to be an autonomous self-legislator of the moral law, bound only by the principles of pure practical reason.

For Kant, the idea that you should be just because justice is a matter of human flourishing or excellence is, in fact, a rejection of morality rather than its vindication. Whereas Plato and Aristotle argue that the just or moral life is noble or beautiful — obviously the best way to live — neither would claim that there is an absolute, unconditioned rational demand to be moral. Moral excellence will appeal to the noble and wise soul — the one who grasps the truth — and not to the base. And while the unjust man is irrational, according to Plato and Aristotle, this is not because he violates some formal imperative of pure reason. Instead, to be unjust is to pursue the lesser goods of human life, rather than the highest goods — to be lacking in practical wisdom. It is the goods of human life (understood as ends) that are basic to this account, and these come from our nature.

It follows that for Kant what regulates rightful interactions between persons is not some common vision of communal life forged by bonds of civic friendship, but rather basic principles that respect one another’s capacity to make free, autonomous choices as individuals. Because Kant rejects any robust conception of human nature as the ground of ethics (like Hobbes, Smith, and Hume), he also decouples the notion of moral action from that of the common good.

What are we to make of these competing accounts of practical reason? Is it possible for philosophers to make progress on the fundamental questions of the rationality of morality, the nature of the human person, and the role of the common good?

My own view is that we would do well to take a more interdisciplinary approach to these big questions — even philosophers need to be held accountable to data. If we look to psychology, for example, we find that individuals who primarily focus on their own good tend to score poorly on important measures of well-being. Recent work by the psychologist Dan McAdams, for instance, suggests that the more one works towards a genuinely common good, the better one’s overall mental health and flourishing are likely to be. And this, in turn, suggests that there is something important about human nature being directed toward common goods — about the human need to be connected to something greater than oneself. Psychologists call this connection to goods beyond the self “self-transcendence,” and many positive psychologists see it as a crucial feature of well-being.

These results would not surprise Aristotle and perhaps should not surprise us either. But such scientific findings do put pressure on any theory of practical reason that neglects the common good and human nature — giving us reason, perhaps, to return to an older account of virtue and practical reason that places these notions front and center.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How can we know our own nature and the good?
  2. Is the good life really a matter of wise practical judgments?
  3. Should the common good have priority over the individual good in a proper account of virtue? Of political life?

Discussion Summary

The discussion here raised a number of difficult and central issues in moral theory. First, there is the problem of whether our primary focus should be on the assessments of acts — i.e., the kind of human act that is performed — or the reasons or motives for performing those acts. This is a perennial problem, one not explicitly addressed by my essay. Second, whereas I focused on conceptions of practical rationality, an astute reader points out that such conceptions surely hang on our definitions of good and evil. I would now like to address both of these points.

With respect to the first problem, I would like to suggest that act and agent assessment, while clearly distinct, are still closely aligned. It is true that one can do the right thing for the wrong reason; for example, a professor might spend much of his time diligently grading his student’s papers, but not because he wants to help them improve or because he sees it as his duty, but because he’s always looking for ways to avoid spending time with his family. For such a person, although he does something good, he does so imperfectly, because he does not do it for reasons that relate to the goodness of the act itself. This is a problem, because doing the right thing in such cases is not making him a better person. It is still true, however, that we would prefer that he do the right thing, rather than tell him to be “true to himself.” No one should be true to himself if his true self is corrupt. Moreover, we can always hope that the professor might come to enjoy doing the right thing. Repeating good acts can make them less onerous and more pleasing, and the professor may well come to see the right reasons for grading diligently.

Notice how, in my discussion of the connections between agent and act assessment, I spoke of reasons that connect to the goodness of the act. This brings us to the second fundamental question, the notion of goodness at the heart of my account. Although I cannot adequately defend it here, I think that we ought to understand goodness in terms of ends or goals. What is good for a thing depends on what a thing is, and what a thing is can be grasped in terms of its purpose, end, or goal. If we adopt such a view, we cannot escape the question: What is a human being? That is, what is the purpose or goal of human life? Our notion of what is good will hang on our answers to these questions — and our notion of right practical reasoning along with it.

My complaint with much of modern and contemporary theorizing about practical reasoning is that it has either ignored such questions, or it has answered them in ways that neglect our true nature as social and political animals.

New Big Questions:

  1. How and why does performing certain acts make us better or worse human beings?
  2. Can we adjudicate between competing conceptions of the good?

7 Responses

  1. Dropisco says:

    Smith’s ‘derived’ good arguably makes an afterthought of morality and accords more closely, and less edifyingly, with an inhumane fatalism.

    • Jennifer A. Frey Jennifer A. Frey says:

      I’m not sure that I can agree with you that Smith makes an afterthought of morality or that he was especially fatalistic either. I read Smith as one of many thinkers who are trying to fit traditional moral norms into the framework of a newly organized (and rapidly evolving) society. Of course, in the end I think that Smith got things backwards. That is, instead of looking to how society shapes man in fundamental ways, he focused instead on how individuals shape society, and he did this primarily by understanding us as agents making choices within markets. I think that is already a distortion of the human person. On the other hand, we would do well to acknowledge the extent to which market forces do shape and constrain our choices, for better or worse.

  2. tnmurti says:

    I think the morality of the act and the morality of the person or agent have different standards of judging.

    Moral act: Based on reason, the act is judged on the basis of whether it has the potential to result in the “common good” or the good of others (i.e., other than the agent). Reason decides whether the act is moral.

    Moral agent: Motive determines whether the person is moral. The agent must be motivated by some concern for the good of others. (The concern need not be based on emotion alone, but can be based on experience/knowledge.)

    • Jennifer A. Frey Jennifer A. Frey says:

      I think you are correct to point to the importance of motive in the analysis of the goodness or badness of human acts. Someone can do a good human act — like almsgiving — for the wrong reason (in order to pad her resume for college, say). Such an act would not be virtuous, because it is not done from the right motive. I did not mean to downplay motives in my piece. As a virtue ethicist, I think there is a fairly tight connection between acts and character: Persons who do good acts consistently, for the right motives and in the right circumstances, develop good characters, and a person with a good character is a good person, full stop. As for the connection between reasons and motives, I suppose I think they are tighter than you are suggesting. People might give alms for good or bad reasons, but their reasons will be connected to their motives in deep ways. Motives are also notoriously difficult to discern — we can be deceived about why we do the things we do. For this reason, the analysis of the goodness of the act is the most fundamental.

  3. Michael Lang says:

    The fundamental issue in making these sorts of arguments is the definition of “good.” All moral arguments have “good and evil” as the root of the moral system. None of the moral systems of which I am aware have a definition of “good” that facilitates easy integration with the brain’s reasoning facilities. The definition always seems to depend on something other than the common framework that supports reasoning, another way of thinking, as it were.

    There is a notion of good that rests on empirical principles, as required by our reasoning facilities, and it is based on the notion of order or, more specifically, “increasing order.” If good actions are defined as “actions that increase the degree of order in the universe,” then it is straightforward to integrate moral judgement with practical reasoning. I have built an elegant system that accomplishes this integration.

    • Jennifer A. Frey Jennifer A. Frey says:

      This is an astute observation about the centrality of the account of good. In the Aristotelian tradition, good is identified with ends. So, what is good for an oak tree (like strong deep roots) is what allows it to realize it’s end: the flourishing, mature stage of life of its kind. Aristotle and Aquinas both argue that virtue is good for man insofar virtue allows us to attain our characteristic ends, all of which are realized in common with one another in political society. They also both argue that the good life for man is that which is in accordance with reason, and they understand reason as a natural power in us that is ordained to the realization of our natural good.

      This notion of goodness is not empirical (it does not track what in fact happens to be the case with most oak trees or most human beings, since it could be the case that the majority is for some reason deficient or defective in various ways), but like all notions of goodness, it would be subject to a variety of empirical tests. For instance, if it turned out that no oak trees or no humans were doing anything remotely like what Aristotelian-Thomists argue is normative for the species, this ought to give us serious pause.

      It is also worth noting that reason itself is “natural” in this tradition. Both Aristotle and Aquinas argue that the first principles of practical reason are real human ends and goods, and that reasoning goes well insofar as it enables us to realize these goods in our particular choices. And both think this is in fact borne out by the empirical evidence: most humans, across cultures, have wanted the goods they identify in some form. In this case, we would need to look to anthropological data to see if the claims about human desire for human goodness are in fact borne out.

  4. tnmurti says:

    Thank you. I understand we can judge a person for his morality based on the consistency of his moral acts. This is a better way than discerning his motives.

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