Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Department of Lost Things: Moral Motivation

As announced previously, we now have a Department of Lost Things.  While our post heading might suggest we’ve lost our moral motivation, today is one of our better days on that score.  Yesterday, not so much.  Still, there are things we wish we knew, ways we wish talk of moral motivation had swerved back in the day.

Lost:  Why be Moral?  Poor Folks Edition

We wish knew what might have happened to the why-be-moral question had it been asked without the jewelry.  From what we see, this question swerved at the Ring of Gyges and so a whole trajectory of thought confesses its origins right there:  Why be moral if you can get away with whatever you want?  That question strikes us as rich.  Not “rich” in the sense of full of depth, but “rich” in the sense of being a rich folks’ query. 

By the time anyone has the language or cognitive resources to ask, “why be moral?” they also already have a social existence that grounds the question.  For a rich person, it seems compelling to wonder why I should be moral if I could get away with anything I want.  The wealthy and the comfortable are free to see this in a variety of ways:  morality as a barrier to full exertion of power and morality as a possible path to even better living, to name just two.

But, we wonder, how different would inquiry into the question be if it had originated with the poor? The social situation of the question seems to be a difference that makes a difference.  A poor person would be asking the question embedded in a social existence in which “morality” is already suspect.  And not because morality is the thing standing between me and some excellent jewelry-induced adventures, but because morality might well seem like a bogus construct that hasn’t done me any favors.  Or because I’m just too hungry and tired to see the point of much beyond securing survival a little bit longer.  Such is to say that the question seems transformed if given an inflection of hopelessness and righteously cynical despair.  Maybe asking the question from poverty would expose how very much the question already is and always was social?  And make far less plausible and compelling all the answers dwelling on the individual’s motivations for morality?  We don’t know.  That’s why we wish a poor folks’ swerve in why-be-moral question had happened.


  1. Basically I agree, but I'm not sure I buy 'morality might well seem like a bogus construct that hasn’t done me any favors'.

    There's plenty of morality in any society that the rich don't see or don't understand. 'Stop snitchin' is a moral injunction. Sure, those outside the charmed circle are more likely to be sceptical of the morality of the rich, but that scepticism is moral. That leaves it possible for the poor to face a 'why be moral?' question with internalist, motivation-type, answers too.

    I think that the right response to either form of 'why be moral?' is something like: 'You think it's all up to you? Awww, bless your little cotton socks'. The idea that everything is about your own choices is definitely a disease of the rich because, for them, it is, until illness comes along. So, I think I'm probably quibbling about minutiae here.

    I love this blog BTW, and I love the idea of swerves not taken too.

  2. Yes! Maybe a better way to have put it would be that if it started in poverty, the internalist, motivation stuff would be several clicks down the list of things to talk about... not the first and sometimes only thing. But there too, I think there's something quaintly entitled about the cotton socks version of the question. Which may be my new way to describe this.