This was done for a first year philisophical ethics course a few years ago. It is a response to the questions, "Why should we be moral?", and "Why should I be moral?".
Morality, it seems, exists at two levels, identified separately of each other, yet inevitably intertwined: that is the social, and the individual. It is the consistencies and relationships between these two levels which will be the focus of this paper, while discussing, mainly, Hobbs’ answers to two related ethical questions. Firstly, “Why should we be moral?”, that is, why should a society or group of people instill moral codes into their social system, and what are the merits of these ethical principles, and secondly, “Why should I be moral”, that is, within a systems governed by morals or otherwise, what reason does the individual have to abide by moral principles, providing that he or she could get away with not doing so, and gain an increased quality of life, or an increase for those around him or her.
Social, or group morality, refers to the moral actions and systems in place within a society, or sub-society, consisting of a number of people. This morality is often embedded into a culture through the use of religion and government, through the writing of laws and the teachings of religious or other such higher order principles. It is, essentially, a tool to maintain peace and a reasonable standard of living for all within its boundaries. All societies to date have had some sort of moral code. The contents of this code do not need to coincide with that installed in current western society, the system needs only rules that are enforced (through the use of actual prosecution via laws, or simply in that violation of these laws will cause harm to come to whomever breaks them) and agreed upon by its members to meet the criteria.
Individual, or private morality, is the moral code by which one (IE. the individual) decides to live by. Most often is it dictated to and directly influenced by the moral code of the society in which one lives. For the purpose of simplicity, let us take any hypothetical society posed to be an altruistic one, wherein morality exists to best serve all of the members of this society, and to increase the standard of living for all concerned. In effect, the purpose of the laws and ethical principles within this culture is to create peace and the highest quality (highest in that the most pleasure is reached by all) of life.
Now that these two levels of morality have been established and defined, the question of why they exist at all can be asked. Why should a group of people decide on rules to govern themselves with? Why should we be moral? The alternative is, of course, a system in which each individual acts in whichever way he or she feels will suit him or her best. Individuals would live by their own moral codes, whatever they may be, without any sort of unification or universalisation.
Thomas Hobbs (1588 – 1679) was under the belief that this setup would institute a very low standard of living, and be very undesirable for all living within it. He described this system as the ‘state of nature’, and believed that it would lead to a life that was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Hobbs explains that humans have desires, and as such, these desires often conflict, causing humans to become enemies with one another. In a system that doesn’t adhere to moral law, according to Hobbs, these disagreements will end up in violent conflicts. Looking at the alternative in such a negative light, it seems reasonably self evident why moral laws should be in place; at least, why societies of people would want to have an ethical code by which to live. Common sense tells us that nobody would want to live in such a state that they have to fight, rape and steal for everything they have, and have such things done to them, when they could live happily and with the safety and provisions they need catered to.
So, it seems, the first question posed and answered by Hobbs is a very straight forward one, easily answered using common sense. The much harder and more in depth question is that of Why should I be moral?
This question implies two things. Firstly, it implies that the individual whose morality is in question is living in a society, one which is governed by moral law. The purpose of this law is, for simplicity’s sake is to ensure the wellbeing and peace of all of its members. It is, as far as can be established, a society built on altruism, and one in which the people follow these rules almost explicitly. Secondly, it implies that this individual is perfectly able to break these laws and get away with it. That is, no justice system will be used to punish him. His only restriction is his own ‘conscience’. In this instance, then, what is this individual’s motivation to abide by the altruistic rules of the society in which he lives, knowing perfectly well that he could get away with, and be better off for, breaking them?
Unfortunately, with regards to this question, Hobbs’ The Leviathan offers very little in the way of specifics. He illustrates clearly his views on the nature of human beings, and shows the vast benefits of communal, moral life. He doesn’t, at least insofar as I can ascertain, offer a sort of individual morality, which applies to the situation. Perhaps, then, the answer lies in the analysis of the two main categories of ethics: utilitarian, and deontological.
Strict utilitarianism, or act-utilitarianism, however, cannot answer this question. It in fact supposes that the opposite is sometimes better. By working off a system of consequence, one can morally justify certain actions that differ from what the society in which one lives would deem ‘moral’, simply because they produce the maximum amount of pleasure. This proves sketchy in situations whereby the act that produces the greatest good involved killing to save another, or breaking promises simply because an even slightly better option has presented itself. It, therefore, does not answer the question, “Why should I be moral?” in the context presented by Hobbs.
There is another form of utilitarianism, called rule-utilitarianism, which may offer some hope. Its foundation is based in that of general rules, the applications of which produce the most pleasure on the whole; even if in individual situations it does not. Following this, people ought to follow moral law laid down, so long as this rule produces the most amount of good when followed by everyone.
While this is a fascinating system, its application still does not properly answer the question. What is needed is some sort of intrinsic value within the very act of being moral, which causes the “ought” statement to ring true. Kantian or Deontological systems offer this very intrinsic value. The ethical opposite of utilitarianism, deontological ethics suggests that there are certain actions, governed by principle, which have value simply because they are the right thing to do. These include keeping promises, not killing another human, etc.
These values are referred to as being agent neutral intrinsic values, which suggests that they have a value completely separate from the consequences of their application. Within this system, an answer to the question, “Why should I be moral?” can perhaps be formulated. This theory would suggest that the individual ought to be moral, because the act of morality has an innate value. As such, when applied to the situation postulated by Hobbs, it can be seen that following moral law because of its innate and intrinsic value seems to guarantee mass application of social moral law, causing the altruistic society explained above to flourish, and achieve its goals.
While this may not be the best answer for some (if not many), it is perhaps at least, a step in the right direction. By identifying morality as residing in a domain in and of itself, it is possible to attach to it a value as important, if not more important, than the greatest individual happiness. With this value outweighing the need for egoistic greed within an altruistic moral system, individuals can follow moral law without having to question its merits, causing the moral system to work smoothly. Both the social and the individual aspects of morality would work together.
Thomas Hobbs, The Leviathan. In Louis P. Pojman, Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Published by Wadsworth, 2002).
Chapter 5, Utilitarianism. In Louis P. Pojman, Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Published by Wadsworth, 2002).
Chapter 6, Kantian and Deontological Systems. In Louis P. Pojman, Ethical Theory: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Published by Wadsworth, 2002).