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Why should we have morality? What is its purpose? Note that I am not asking, “Why should I be moral?”—a question often posed in introductory philosophy courses. I do not mean to be dismissive of this question, but it raises a different set of issues than the ones we should concentrate on now. What I am interested in is reflection on the institution of morality as a whole. Why bother having morality?
The way to begin to answer this question is just to look at how morality functions, and has functioned, in human societies. What is it that morality allows us to do? What can we accomplish when (most) people behave morally that we would not be able to accomplish otherwise? Broadly speaking, morality appears to serve these related purposes: it creates stability, provides security, ameliorates harmful conditions, fosters trust, and facilitates cooperation in achieving shared and complementary goals. In other words, morality enables us to live together and, while doing so, to improve the conditions under which we live.
This is not necessarily an exhaustive list of the functions of morality, nor do I claim to have explained the functions in the most accurate and precise way possible. But I am confident that my list is a fair approximation of some of the key functions of morality.
How do moral norms serve these functions? In following moral norms we engage in behavior that enables these functions of morality to be fulfilled. When we obey norms like “don’t kill” and “don’t steal,” we help ensure the security and stability of society. It really doesn’t take a genius to figure out why, but that hasn’t stopped some geniuses from drawing our attention to the importance of moral norms. As the seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and many others have pointed out, if we always had to fear being injured or having our property stolen, we could never have any rest. Our lives would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Besides providing security and stability by prohibiting certain actions, moral norms also promote collaboration by encouraging certain actions and by providing the necessary framework for the critical practice of the “promise”—that is, a commitment that allows others to rely on me. Consider a simple example, one that could reflect circumstances in the Neolithic Era as much as today. I need a tool that you have to complete a project, so I ask you to lend it to me. You hesitate to lend me the tool, but you also believe you are obliged to help me if such help doesn’t significantly harm you. Moreover, I promise to return the tool. You lend me the tool; I keep my promise to return the tool. This exchange fosters trust between us. Both of us will be more inclined to cooperate with each other in the future. Our cooperation will likely improve our respective living conditions.
Multiply this example millions of times, and you get a sense of the numerous transactions among people that allow a peaceful, stable, prospering society to emerge. You also can imagine how conditions would deteriorate if moral norms were not followed. Going back to my tool example, let us imagine you do not respond positively to my request for assistance. This causes resentment and also frustrates my ability to carry out a beneficial project. I am also less likely to assist you if you need help. Or say you do lend me a tool, but I keep it instead of returning it as promised. This causes distrust, and you are less likely to assist me (and others) in the future. Multiplied many times, such failures to follow moral norms can result in mistrust, reduced cooperation, and even violence. If I do not return that tool peacefully, you may resort to brute force to reacquire it.
Fortunately, over time, humans have acted in ways that further the objectives of morality far more often than in ways that frustrate these objectives. Early humans were able to establish small communities that survived, in part, because most members of the community followed moral norms. These small communities eventually grew larger, again, in part because of moral norms. In this instance, what was critical was the extension of the scope or range of moral norms to those outside one’s immediate community. Early human communities were often at war with each other. Tribe members acted benevolently only to fellow members of their tribe; outsiders were not regarded as entitled to the same treatment. One of the earliest moral revolutions was the extension of cooperative behavior—almost surely based initially on trade—to members of other communities, which allowed for peaceful interaction and the coalescing of small human groups into larger groups. This process has been repeated over the millennia of human existence (with frequent, sanguinary interruptions) until we have achieved something like a global moral community.
This outline of morality and its history is so simple that I am sure some will consider it simplistic. I have covered in a couple of paragraphs what others devote thick tomes to. But it suffices for my purposes. The main points are that in considering morality, we can see that it serves certain functions, and these functions are related to human interests. Put another way, we can describe morality and its purposes without bringing God into the picture; moreover, we can see that morality is a practical enterprise, not a means for describing the world.
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