How can you lead a moral life?

Almost everywhere I go to talk about ethics, I face some variation of the question: ‘Why be ethical?’ The question flummoxes and depresses me.

That’s partly because I can’t help but feel the question is basically ‘What’s in it for me?’ dressed up with a bit of academic, devil’s advocate flavour. But it’s also because to ask that question at all, you’ve got to have a pretty bleak sense of who people, at their core, really are.

But all the same, there are lots of people who have set out to answer precisely this question. Most of them are somehow connected to the world of institutions — government, business, non-profits and so on. You know, all the groups who studies suggest are haemorrhaging trust.

There’s nothing wrong with answering this question per se — in fact, it’s an interesting and challenging project that’s challenged philosophers since more or less the time the disciplined divorced from theology. But the answers are leaving me more-or-less equally disheartened as the questions themselves.

One common answer has to do with trust. And the thinking fits pretty well into the carrot/stick dialectic. The carrot approach goes a bit like this: data tells us ethical organisations are more trusted by other stakeholders, recruit and retain better staff and might even make more money.

The stick approach goes like this: unethical behaviour leads to a decline in trust, which leads to increased regulation, reporting and accountability. It stifles innovation, restricts opportunities and costs money.

The second answer is alluded to in the discussion of trust: regulation. The reason you should be ethical is because if you don’t we’ll catch you and hold you accountable for what you’ve done. People can’t be trusted to do the right thing, so we introduce safeguards to stop them from doing the wrong thing.

These two arguments boil down to self-interest on one hand and fear on the other. They respond to the part of humanity that is self-interested, petty and manipulative. That’s not necessarily a problem — failing to manage this aspect of humanity usually leaves the most vulnerable to suffer — but it’s an incomplete picture of who we are.

“The more we conflate ethics with trust, regulatory standards or “enlightened self-interest”, the less space we allow for morality to play a salvific role — not just to stop bad, but to make good.”

About 250 years ago, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote The Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals. Kant, in his brilliant but not-very-pithy way, argued that the only thing that has true moral worth is what he called ‘the good will’. The good will is the desire to do good for its own sake — regardless of the effects. Here’s Kant at his most poetic:

‘Even if by some particular disfavour of fate, or by the scanty endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will should entirely lack the capacity to carry through its purpose; if despite its greatest striving it should still accomplish nothing, and only the good will were to remain … then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has full worth in itself.’

I worry that the way we talk about ethics today makes the formation of a good will, or some variation on it, impossible. This is because for regulatory and trust-based approaches to ethics, there’s always something outside morality that serves as motivation. It’s Santa Claus for grown-ups: we behave so we get presents instead of coal. And I’m not certain it works — I’m not inclined to trust someone who has ulterior motives for gaining my trust.

What’s more, it’s not clear how this approach to trust applies to groups who don’t need trust — think ‘too big to fail’ — and don’t have to fear regulation (perhaps they’re the ones who make the law). What reasons do they have for doing the right thing? And how might they define the right thing in a more morally sensitive way than pointing to their clean hands in the eyes of the law?

What is missing from this picture is anything that might generate a deep understanding — and love — of what’s good. The more we conflate ethics with trust, regulatory standards or “enlightened self-interest”, the less space we allow for morality to play a salvific role — not just to stop bad, but to make good.

I wholly understand the desire to minimise harm, prevent wrongdoing and serve justice. I also acknowledge the utility value in speaking the language of people’s desires — if people have been taught to think in terms of outcomes and self-interest, we may as well turn it to our advantage. But the more we do it, the more we entrench a mode of thinking that is at best narrow and at worst antithetical to the moral life itself.

It might still be that in the great moral trade-offs of life, protecting the vulnerable is more important that my high-minded philosophy. But we should at least know what we’re turning our back on — because in stopping people from doing bad, we might be preventing them from ever being good.

This article was originally written for Eureka St. Republished with permission.