The Moral Maze of Self Interest

Last evening I was listening to BBC 4’s ‘Moral Maze’.   Inspired by the badminton cheats at London’s Olympic Games, the guest speakers worked their way through the Moral Value of Sport.

A noble cause.

But although they hammered on for 30 minutes (many interesting points were made), no one even bothered to query what was meant by the word ‘moral’.

This is not a problem isolated to the BBC.

With Pluto in Capricorn, it’s little wonder ‘morality’ is on everyone’s lips.   It all sounds rather high and mighty – but in reality it’s all superficial and – let’s be honest – glib.

For although ‘morality’ has meant many things to many people [1]  – the bottom line has always been – ouch – morality = self-interest and how moral is that?

  1. To the ancient Greeks, morality meant ‘fit for purpose’ – a man who performed his socially alloted function was virtuous or moral.  If a man wanted to get on in the world, it was in his self interest to be as moral as possible.
  2. With Christianity, morality meant doing what God said to do.  Clearly it was in one’s self-interest to do this because  Heaven was much preferable to Hell.
  3. By the Enlightenment (17th and 18th centuries), morality meant doing what was best for society.  A man was obliged to do so because of his contractual obligations (either to his government or his fellow men). Given all the bloody revolutions at the time…well, I suppose you get my drift.
  4. With Kierkegaard (early 19th century), morality meant fulfilling your obligations – which meant everything that didn’t make you happy.   Although at first glance, its hard to see how this would be in one’s self-interest – but when you realise (1) that Kierkegaard embraced a radical form of Protestant Christianity (2) and he believed the only alternative was the pursuit of self-satisfaction, then it all makes perfect sense
  5. Nietzsche (late 19th century) believed men now lived in a moral vacumn.   After all, if God were truly dead (and we killed Him), then it only made sense one might as well do as one pleased (he called this the ‘will to power’).
  6. Then come the reformers (early 20th century) – for whom morality meant to do as they said –  after all – God was on their side.
  7. By the late 20th century & early 21st century – in midst of media madness, morality can be summed up as ‘you got to look right to be right’ – ( I believe this is attributable to Strom Thurmond)  – and there’s little doubt it’s in everyone’s self interest to do just that.

[1] See A Short History of Ethics by Alasdair MacIntyre (Routledge Classics, 2002) for an excellent overview.

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