Why Be Moral?

Justifying why one should behave morally is a surprisingly difficult task. Proposed justifications are found throughout the history of moral philosophy, but these reasons to be moral remain controversial. The fundamental question—“Why be moral?”—still seems in need of a satisfactory answer.

The question can take other forms. Why should I care about morality? Why do moral considerations have normative force? Why are the demands of morality obligatory? However, no matter how it is phrased, it always addresses the foundation of morality—why we believe moral considerations should influence how we ought to act. As Christine Korsgaard summarizes, the question arises naturally as the demands of morality become more burdensome:

“[T]he day will come, for most of us, when what morality commands, obliges, or recommends is hard: that we share decisions with people whose intelligence or integrity don’t inspire our confidence; that we assume grave responsibilities to which we feel inadequate; that we sacrifice our lives, or voluntarily relinquish what makes them sweet. And then the question – why? – will press, and rightly so. Why should I be moral?”1

Because this question addresses the very core of morality’s behavior-guiding force, providing a persuasive reason to act morally seems crucial for anyone who takes moral claims seriously. After all, if we have no clear reason to act morally, moral principles have no impact on behavior, and discussing them becomes merely an intellectual exercise. Therefore, before considering how to apply moral frameworks to contemporary problems, we must offer some reasons for using moral frameworks to address these issues instead of non-moral ones.

Self-Interest and Morality

The practical consideration that conflicts with morality is almost always one’s rational self-interest. While it is often in one’s rational self-interest to behave morally, upholding one’s moral values also frequently demands that she (to some degree) sacrifices the pursuit of her self-interests.

To illustrate this concept, consider acts of thievery. It is almost universally regarded as wrong to steal someone else’s personal property exclusively for one’s own benefit. From a moral standpoint, stealing is (generally) impermissible, and from a prudential standpoint, stealing is often clearly against one’s self-interest. For example, one might decide not to rob her neighbor’s house because her neighbor has a state-of-the-art home security system. The chances of being apprehended and suffering legal punishments (e.g., a fine, time in jail) would be too great to risk. Hence, trying to rob the house would not be in her rational self-interest. In this case, self-interested considerations and moral considerations converge on the same conclusion: she ought not to attempt to rob her neighbor’s house.

But suppose that the chances of getting caught during this burglary are extremely low (perhaps less than 1%) and that the neighbor is extremely wealthy. In this scenario, the risk is minimal, and the payoff is very high. Essentially, as the risk of being caught shrinks or the payoff increases, robbing the neighbor’s home aligns more closely with what is in one’s rational self-interest. Thus, in this second case, it may be in one’s rational self-interest to rob the house. Although committing this burglary is morally wrong, persuading a rational, self-interested individual to refrain from robbing the house is quite challenging. What arguments might persuade this individual to act morally when doing so is against her self-interests?

Thrasymachus’ Argument

Thrasymachus and Socrates may have been the first individuals to discuss why one ought to be moral. Although their exchange in Plato’s Republic concerns justice rather than morality, justice bears some important similarities to morality, even if it might be inappropriate to use the terms interchangeably. Thrasymachus rephrases his main claims on a few occasions, but his essential argument is that individuals should act unjustly because acting unjustly confers greater benefits to an individual than acting justly.

Although Socrates responds to this claim in several ways, his most direct refutation of Thrasymachus appeals to how being just affects one’s overall welfare. According to Socrates, justice is a form of psychological harmony between the three parts of the soul—specifically, the rational part controls the appetitive part, and the spirited part assists the rational part in this task. The appetitive part must be prevented from becoming “so big and strong that it no longer does its own work but attempts to enslave and rule over the classes it isn’t fit to rule, thereby overturning one’s whole life.”2 When the appetitive part or spirited part rules a person’s soul and the rational part is subservient to the desires of either of the other parts, the individual’s soul is unjust, and he lives a poorer life than those who possess a just soul. Thus, the main benefit of being just is that it creates a beneficial state of the soul. Having an unjust soul leads to a very undesirable psychological state: “a kind of civil war between the three parts, a meddling and doing of another’s work, a rebellion by some part against the whole soul in order to rule it properly.”3

Unfortunately, Socrates’ argument is unlikely to convince moral skeptics that they ought to act morally. A purely self-interested individual might not accept the notion that acting immorally necessarily leads to the psychology disharmony Socrates describes. Moreover, such a person might be willing to accept those psychological disadvantages in exchange for the material advantages of immoral behavior.

The Appeal to Divine Sanctions

Socrates does consider a different argument, one based on religion, which would provide alternative support for behaving morally. He suggests that immoral individuals will fall out of the gods’ favor and suffer for their immorality in the afterlife. Although Socrates ultimately abandons this argument, modern variations of it exist and have some persuasive potential. Nearly all modern religions place an emphasis on acting morally. Typically, moral behavior is mandated by God, and the deity provides guidance on what actions are moral and immoral. Moral individuals are rewarded in the afterlife or their reincarnations, and immoral individuals are punished. This view that God is a moral lawgiver and that acting morally consists of obeying God’s commands is commonly known as Divine Command Theory.

Unfortunately, any argument based on divine reward or punishment in the afterlife or a subsequent life encounters a variety of problems. In order for such an argument to have any persuasive force, one must establish that the religious beliefs on which the argument is based are the correct set of religious beliefs. However, contemporary debates concerning the existence of God, the nature of God, and the possibility of an afterlife are ongoing and remain essentially unresolved. A nonreligious individual will not be swayed by an appeal to a specific religious doctrine, and neither will a religious individual who adheres to a different doctrine.

Some religious doctrines are also fairly unclear about what constitutes moral and immoral behavior. In some cases, early passages in certain texts prohibit a behavior that is later endorsed or vice-versa. Additionally, acts which some religious texts condemn have become morally acceptable in mainstream society. For example, the Old Testament book of Leviticus contains a myriad of laws (e.g., do not grow multiple types of crops on the same field, do not shave) which have no legal or moral standing in contemporary society.4

The unclear ethical degrees of various deities raise a significant problem for those who wish to reconcile morality and self-interest through divine rewards or punishments. Even if one accepts the truth of a particular religion and wishes to act morally in order to avoid punishment in the afterlife, the lack of clarity on what constitutes moral behavior could cause the individual to behave immorally due to sheer confusion. A simple solution to this problem is to base ethics around principles which are not dependent on any religious view, but once moral principles cease to be based on religion, morality no longer has God’s commands as its foundation.

A different worry about God’s commands is discussed in Plato’s Euthyphro. In his conversation with Euthyphro, Socrates asks one of the most famous questions in the history of philosophy: is an action pious because the gods command it, or do the gods command the action because it is pious? This ancient question can be easily modified into the modern puzzle known as the Euthyphro dilemma: is an action morally good because God commands it, or does God command an action because it is morally good? Regardless of how one replies to the question, the answer reveals substantial concerns about Divine Command Theory.

If an action is good because God commands it, then morality becomes an arbitrary doctrine. On this view, telling the truth is considered morally good if God commands it, but telling lies is also considered morally good if God commands it. When an action and its opposite can both be considered morally good, morality becomes arbitrary: depending on what God commands, any action could be moral or immoral regardless of its nature or consequences.

Another difficulty with this response is that claiming “God is good” becomes tantamount to saying “God obeys his own commands.” In other words, the notion that God is good becomes a meaningless statement because goodness consists in any possible set of actions God chooses. In order for the concept of goodness to be meaningful, God must have some reason for commanding certain actions and forbidding others.

Now we should consider what happens if we respond to the Euthyphro dilemma in the opposite way: suppose God commands certain actions because they are good. This answer avoids the undesirable outcomes of the other but has a fundamental problem of its own. If God commands certain actions because they are good, this implies that God has a meaningful (rather than arbitrary) reason for making these commands. Hence, when we ask why God commands us to do something, there will underlying ethical principles that provide the basis for the command. However, in recognizing the existence of these principles, we also recognize that morality is no longer based on God’s commands. Instead, morality is based on the principles that underlie the commands, and these principles exist independent of God. On this account, morality is acting in accordance with ethical principles, and God’s commands are not necessary for either the discovery of these principles or adherence to them.

Regrettably, these observations have devastating implications for reconciling morality and self-interest. Once morality is no longer based on what God commands of us, morality and self-interest can no longer be reconciled through God’s decrees. If ethics encompasses principles which mandate behavior beyond the scope of what God wants (or does not want) us to do, how do we justify acting morally in situations that God has not clearly addressed (to our best understanding) where our self-interest is compromised?

One response to Socrates’ question leads to the deterioration of morality as a non-arbitrary concept. The other leads to a dissolution of morality’s dependence on God’s commands. However, there is perhaps an even greater flaw in attempts to reconcile morality and self-interest through an appeal to otherworldly rewards and punishments. This flaw lies in one’s motivation for acting morally. Typically, God is considered all-knowing. Hence, God would know about anyone’s motivations for being moral. Is moral behavior valuable when motivated purely by self-interest in avoiding punishment in the afterlife? Kai Nelson once addressed this issue with a candid question: “Could we honestly, in our heart of hearts, think highly of a person whose only reason for not beating up on his child is that he is afraid that if he does he will go to hell?”5 Moreover, would God reward such a person in the afterlife for his moral behavior, knowing that the individual was motivated to do the right thing entirely by self-interest and not by concern for another’s well-being or a sense that it was just the right thing to do?

Contemporary Answers

Some contemporary philosophers have tried to respond to moral skeptics in ways that avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors’ arguments. Gregory Kavka states that the typical fear of attempts to reconcile morality and self-interest is that it will fail unless forced to rely on “an outdated and implausible appeal to divine sanctions.”6 Nevertheless, Kavka believes this reconciliation is possible through a combination of external sanctions (threat of punishment) and internal sanctions (guilt, empathy, etc.) for most individuals.

However, Kavka makes a troubling concession: he does not believe that immoralists—those dedicated to living immorally when moral behavior seems to be a disadvantage to them—can be persuaded to behave morally through rational argument. He thinks that those unwilling or unable to see and experience the benefits of living morally will remain unconvinced. In fact, he calls the reconciliation of morality and self-interest “hopeless” if taken to an extreme because no one can “expect to convince a clever immoralist that it pays everyone to act morally on every specific occasion of in any sort of society.”7

David Gauthier proposes a different type of reconciliation. He defines morality as “a system of principles such that it is advantageous for everyone if everyone accepts and acts on it, yet acting on the system of principles requires that some persons perform disadvantageous acts.”8 Gauthier’s strategy is to show that the system taken in its entirety is to an individual’s advantage even though certain particular acts will be disadvantageous. Morality (as a system) benefits everyone because the overall advantages gained (e.g., trust, security, fair treatment) outweigh whatever minor disadvantages may be encountered as a result.

Although Gauthier believes his explanation offers a compelling answer to the question “Why should we be moral?”, he feels a more specific question such as “Why should I be moral in this particular situation?” cannot always be answered with his explanation. While it may be in an individual’s interest for morality to be endorsed by the general population and for each individual to act morally in most cases, other prudential considerations might give an individual good reason to violate her agreement to be moral in certain situations, especially when we consider that the morality of oneself rarely affects whether others act morally. At this point, such a person would request a reason to be moral which did not appeal to the moral system itself, but Gauthier asserts, “The individual who needs a reason for being moral which is not itself a moral reason cannot have it.”9

This aspect of Gauthier’s conclusion is fairly consistent with Paul W. Taylor’s thoughts on the relationship between morality and self-interest. Taylor argues that the choice between whether to endorse morality or self-interest as one’s primary goal is an ultimate choice, a choice of the highest principle.10 Any attempt to provide a reason for preferring one rather than the other relies on the use of principles which are part of the framework of the ultimate choice. In other words, one can only defend the choice to act morally using moral reasons and the choice to promote self-interest using prudential reasons.

The pivotal consideration, according to Taylor, regards how an individual wishes to define her identity. The choice about whether we wish to be a supremely moral or supremely self-interested person is essentially arbitrary, but it is also overwhelmingly important. In making this ultimate choice, a person is making a decision about the type of person he or she wishes to be, thereby shaping her personal identity. These ultimate choices cannot be avoided because they are essential to a person’s development, and so the burden falls on individuals to choose the type of people they want to be and the type of lives they want to live.11

One might object to Taylor’s approach by claiming that the foundation for morality becomes too fragile. Once we are aware that morality is based on a choice about what type of person we want to be, we might find it too easy to choose to be an immoral person. But this objection assumes that a person’s character is far more malleable than it actually is. Nielsen reminds us that people do not typically become moral or immoral based on philosophical discussion and reflection:

The foundations for one’s character are developed through unconscious imitation way before perplexity over morality can possibly arise. Unless a man is already ready to run amok, he will not be morally derailed by the recognition that in deliberating about how to act one finally must simply decide what sort of a person one wishes to be.12

Hence, Taylor’s explanation may be more promising than the objector supposes, and for whatever reason—perhaps because it is just a basic element of human psychology—people generally prefer being moral to being immoral. For the great majority of people, there is something to be valued in acting morally, even if it is not that it serves one’s individual interests.

Taylor does provide a means for moralists to demonstrate how acting morally is a rational component of their worldviews (because acting morally contributes to a moralist being the type of person she wants to be), but it will not suffice to convince an immoralist, who presumably wants to be a purely self-interested person, that she should change her view of who she wants to be. Of course, at this point, we might wonder just what it will take to convince an immoralist that her position is mistaken. We must consider the possibility that no answer we can offer will suffice to persuade her. Demonstrating that those of us who adhere to morality’s demands have good reason to do so might be the best we can accomplish.

But perhaps this outcome is not one that should bother us. One worry about attempts to bridge the gap between morality and self-interest is that these projects may lose sight of morality’s fundamental nature. When I choose to keep a promise, am I really keeping it only because (in some way) I will be worse off if I fail to keep it? And if keeping a promise is against my self-interest, does that suddenly mean that this moral obligation no longer binds me? Moral obligations are generally considered binding on us even if they clearly conflict with our self-interests. We adhere to what morality demands because it is the right thing to do, not because we are somehow better off for doing so. Thus, perhaps attempts to reconcile morality and self-interest are misguided—this reconciliation would eliminate all moral values by reducing them to prudential values, and it seems clear that when we speak of acting morally, we are speaking of something quite distinct from acting our self-interests.

Answers from Ethical Theories

Regardless of how the disputes about the relationship between morality and self-interest are ultimately resolved, some of the most fundamental reasons to be moral can be found within ethical theories themselves. Although these reasons may be unconvincing to those who see no benefits to moral behavior beyond how it serves their self-interests, most people do not endorse strictly non-moral values and do not act solely to promote their own interests.

Different ethical theories posit different explanations for why we ought to be moral. Those who follow utilitarianism, the doctrine that we ought to act to promote the greatest general happiness, would argue that people should follow the doctrine because it would create the greatest good for the greatest number of people in a society. Those more sympathetic to Kantian moral theory may believe that all human beings have a dignity—a special moral status inherent in all rational beings—and that this dignity compels us to show both ourselves and others unconditional respect. Virtue ethicists may claim that we must cultivate moral character traits because they are a crucial component of a virtuous person.

Social contract theories advocate moral behavior because it promotes social cohesion and enables everyone in society to live better. Some of these theories aim to eliminate discrimination and protect individual rights. Others strive to limit government intervention to promote individual liberty. Obviously, the protection of individual rights and personal freedom are in the self-interest of individuals. These observations reveal the merits of Gauthier’s claims about how the system of morality is beneficial. Moral frameworks are a pivotal component of any functional society.

Morality in Society

Despite the complications related to reconciling rationality and morality for individual behavior, explaining why people ought to be moral in a broader context proves much simpler. No society can exist without a moral foundation. The ongoing practice of moral principles by members of a society is a necessary condition for a society’s stability and prosperity.

Many behaviors (e.g., killing, stealing, lying, torturing) are prohibited (with few exceptions) in every stable society. Imagine a society in which no prohibition on murder existed and murderers of innocent people were not punished. This society would be horrifying. Everyone would be at a constant risk of being killed by other citizens who sought their resources. A similar phenomenon would occur if no prohibition on theft existed. Without a way to own and protect individual property, citizens could freely take the possessions of others through deception or brute force. As a result, citizens could not have any sense of stability or security.

It is clearly in citizens’ rational interests to uphold and enforce these basic moral principles. In fact, it seems doubtful that any society could exist for any extended time without the codification of some basic moral principles. Hence, regardless of how one evaluates the importance of individuals acting morally under all circumstances, morality remains a crucial component of societies, and moral rules must (at least generally) be followed for societies to exist and confer benefits (convenience, security, stability, etc.) to citizens.

Moral rights are also an essential aspect of societies. It is in citizens’ rational self-interest to have certain unconditional rights and for morally arbitrary differences (e.g., race, sex, eye color) between individuals to be inconsequential. Without the endorsement of these principles, some groups will be arbitrarily harmed and others arbitrarily rewarded. This could work to an individual’s self interest if he or she were in the benefited group, but the existence of unjustified inequalities among members of a society hinders social cohesion and may trigger revolt by oppressed groups. Such outcomes are in no one’s self-interests.

Morality in Finance

A common perception about any financial system, especially in the economic system of capitalism, is that it ethics does not play a role in its practice. On this account, finance and morality are two distinct entities. The goal of financial transactions is to make profits by selling goods and services. Many believe that ethical considerations are simply omitted from this framework and that financial institutions operate using non-moral principles.

Although this belief is relatively common, morality is a crucial, undeniable aspect of virtually every financial transaction. When purchasing goods or services, customers assume they have been properly informed about what they are buying, that they can attain a refund (unless otherwise specified) if they are not satisfied, and that the sensitive information they relinquish to make the purchase (e.g., credit card number, bank account number) will be kept confidential. Without trusting the seller to adhere to these conditions, very few transactions would occur.

Trust between buyers and sellers underlies financial transactions, and financial ethics underlies this trust. Consumers will not trust corporations, financial firms, or businesses that make false claims about their products, fail to honor their agreements, or engage in other morally objectionable behavior. Of course, a financial institution’s reputation is only damaged in this way if the unethical behavior is made public, and there are some circumstances where these institutions can conceal their actions sufficiently to avoid any bad publicity.

However, the relationship between finance and morality is more fundamental than merely an incentive to avoid bad publicity. Financial institutions operate under a societal framework of morality and are assumed to act morally. Nearly everyone would agree that deception and theft are generally reprehensible practices, regardless of whether or not they occur in the context of financial transactions. The purpose of financial ethics is to expand on these observations and provide solutions for moral dilemmas in finance through the application of ethical principles.


  1. Korsgaard 1996, 9. Original Emphasis.
  2. Plato 2009, Republic 442a-b.
  3. Ibid., 444b.
  4. Lev. 19 (King James Version).
  5. Kai Nielsen 1990, 51.
  6. Kavka 2006, 101.
  7. Ibid., 102.
  8. Gauthier 1967, 461-462.
  9. Ibid., 470.
  10. Taylor 1975.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Nielsen 1989, 193.


Gauthier, David. “Morality and Advantage.” The Philosophical Review 76, no. 4 (1967): 460-475.

Kavka, Gregory. “The Reconciliation Project.” In Ethical Theory: Classical and Contemporary Readings, 5th ed., edited by Louis P. Pojman, 101-13. Belmont: Wadsworth, 2006.

Korsgaard, Christine. “The Normative Question.” The Sources of Normativity, edited by Onora O’Neill, 7-48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Nielsen, Kai. “Why Should I Be Moral?” In Why Be Moral?, 167-195. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1989.

—. Ethics Without God. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 1990.

Plato. Republic. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. 2009. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.html.

—. Euthyphro. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. 2009. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html.

Taylor, Paul W. Principles of Ethics: An Introduction. Belmont: Wadsworth, 1975.

Written by Trevor Hedberg, 2011.