Trying to Justify Morality Part 1

Morality in general always seems insufficiently motivated to me. People talk about what is right and wrong all the time but usually ground it in intuition or common sense. But we know that in other domains common sense or intuition will often lead us astray so can we do better?

One problem with discussions of morality is that the alternative is often a straw man. People act as if an amoral person would be a sociopath, acting in a way that would quickly and predictably lead to their own harm. But then the dictates of actual moral codes that people advocate tend to go way beyond the minimum that people need to live in society. So let’s try to determine how a rational amoral person would act, and then see if such a person would get anything out of adding in a moral code.

Let’s imagine an amoral person named Joe. He is a male human. Just like any other animal, he has basic needs and desires that he wants to attend to. When he’s hungry he wants to eat. When he’s thirsty he wants to drink. When he has fecal urgency he wants to poop and when he’s horny he wants to have some sex.  Overall, he basically knows what gives him pleasure and what causes him pain and he’s just trying to maximize the former and minimize the latter as much as he can for the rest  of his life. What other people are up to isn’t really his concern except when it intersects or interferes with his own goals. Since he is a rational human he tries his best to foresee what will help him achieve get what he wants and avoid what he doesn’t.

Joe is confident that going to prison will be unpleasant so he obeys all the major laws. He doesn’t steal or kill or rape, even if maybe he has the urge to do these things sometimes he knows that the risk outweighs the reward.

Joe can see that having more money allows him to get more of what he wants than having less money so he gets the best paying/least annoying job he can and puts effort into it until he feels like he is reaching diminishing returns.  He also makes sure to save some of his money since he can foresee that having too little when he needs it would be a bad idea.

Since he wants to continue to feel good rather than bad and do things that he enjoys for as long as possible, Joe make sure to eat relatively healthy and exercise regularly. He doesn’t overindulge at any one time even though that feels good in the moment because he knows that it won’t feel good over the longer run. When some people tell him that eating meat is immoral or that the animals he consumes suffered in their lives he wonders why they care. Its not like they can experience the suffering of those animals, especially if they choose not to think about it.

As a human, Joe knows he is a social animal. Being alone all the time doesn’t feel good. He likes to talk to people. He likes to laugh and have discussions about movies and whatever people like to do. So he puts some effort into meeting people and being friendly. He knows that if he is too selfish with others then they won’t want to be around him and then he will feel lonely. When he has sex he puts some effort into providing pleasure to his partner so that she will want to do it again.

If one of the people that Joe knows tries to tell him how much he should care about distant strangers who are suffering for some reason or other he doesn’t feel anything about it, but he doesn’t go out of his way to appear “heartless” to that person.

For all appearances Joe is a normal, conscientious and friendly person. He doesn’t cause anyone harm. It could reasonably be supposed that if everyone was more like Joe then the world might even be a better place.

To me this is the strongest vision of what an amoral person is like. An amoral person could also be irrational or impulsive or dangerous but they don’t have to be. So, then the question is what is Joe missing? Is there anything more to life than Joe currently has and would the addition of some sort of moral code make Joe better off or worse off?  And if morality would make Joe better off, what kind of morality would it be?

I think I may have an inkling of some answers to these questions but the purpose of this post is just to set up how difficult the question really is. If you have an idea please leave it in the comments otherwise stay tuned for part 2.

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