Class Essay: why be moral?

(1) Glaucon and Adeimantus ask us to consider why we should behave morally. This is often referred to as a version of the Immoralist’s Challenge. Spend a paragraph explaining the challenge, as described in the reading, and responding to the challenge with an argument of your own. Is there any good reason to act justly for its own sake? 

Glaucon argues that “committing injustice is by nature good” (359a) and that “no one is just willingly but by necessity.” (360d) According to his argument, it is only the social contract (by which I protect myself from you in exchange for protecting you from me) which causes people to act justly; if someone were able to behave unjustly toward others without penalty, he says, they would certainly do so unless they were “extremely pitiful and stupid.” (360d) Glaucon illustrates his claim using the story of the ring of Gyges, which makes the wearer invisible and thus powerful without consequence (i.e. beyond the reach of punishment for bad behavior). He then describes a hypothetical just man and a hypothetical unjust man, and purports to show that the unjust man will be happy and successful while the just man will be a miserable failure. In my view, Glaucon’s argument conflates influence over other people, and the pursuant ability to satisfy base appetites such as sex and hunger, with happiness per se. Glaucon ignores more basic components of human happiness such as self-esteem, relationships, authenticity and integrity, and spirituality and instead assumes that power and pleasure are the basic constituents of happiness. Reading his argument, one gets the impression that happiness is a consequence of material wealth and power, which seems to me to be an inaccurate description of human psychology (and one which has been widely criticized, e.g. in the satire American Psycho). I conclude that Glaucon is correct to claim that material pleasure and influence can be conducive to a person’s happiness; however, they are by no means sufficient. Glaucon’s analysis of the relationship between justice and happiness concentrates on that subset of situations in which behaving unjustly contributes to happiness; moreover, he ignores more basic constituents of human happiness with which unjust behavior is in conflict.

(2) Suppose that Gyges finds, not one ring, but two. Both rings have the same magic power. Put yourself into Gyges’ sandals, and imagine that your conception of happiness is the same as his. What would you do with the second ring? Briefly explain the rationale behind your answer. You will need to start by explaining Gyges’ conception of happiness.

Gyges’ conception of happiness involves appetite and power: starting as a lowly sheepherder, he uses his ring to seduce the queen and seize the throne. (360b) Granting a second person the same power of invisibility (with a second ring) would not advance either Gyges’ ability to satisfy his appetites or his power; indeed, a second ring-holder would represent a mitigation of Gyges’ power, since he would no longer have exclusive invisibility, he’d have to worry about being deceived himself by the other ring holder, and outsiders would have more opportunities to learn how defend themselves against the rings’ powers. Therefore, it seems to me that Gyges would most likely destroy the ring or otherwise endeavor to render it useless.

(3) Consider the ethical theories from the Timmons reading. Which theory, in your assessment, gives the best rationale for why someone should be moral, (for example, in the Gyges example)? What rationale would that theory give and what are the strengths of that explanation? You will be graded on how clearly you explain, and how well you defend, your answer.

Timmons outlines (in addition to relativism and divine command, which he practically dismisses) six moral theories: Consequentialism, Natural Law Theory, Kantian deontology, Rights-Based Moral Theory, Virtue Ethics, and Prima Facie Theory. It seems to me that none of these theories give a satisfying account of why one ought to act morally. Each takes that for granted, and instead attempts to show how to do so. Indeed, it’s not clear that any moral theory could non-circularly argue this, because statements about what should be necessarily presume actionable values, which is precisely what a moral theory is supposed to demonstrate. I’d suggest instead that people simply are moral in the sense that we have values built into us. Different people may have different values, but there is no conscious being which entirely lacks values. (I should clarify that I’m not advocating relativism: I’m not endorsing the equality of all values, but rather observing that we find our values in ourselves instead of discovering them in the world.) The role of moral theory, then, is not to provide but to clarify these values, so that we are able to make our actions conform to our values–in other words, make what we’re doing conform to what we (really) want to be doing. Therefore, it seems to me that PFD gives the least unsatisfying account of why one ought to act morally, because PFD makes the provisional nature of its duties more obvious that its competitors. Looking at NLT or Consequentialism, it’s easy to suppose that there is some metaphysically basic, universally valid value or rule to which everyone really ought to conform. PFD does not suggest this.

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