The Morality of Self-Interest

I’m current enrolled an on-line course in Politics through the University of Oxford and am struggling.

As might be expected, there are many ‘high concepts’ being tossed around like ‘rights’, and ‘freedom’, ‘justice’ and ‘equality’. But the thing that really puzzles me is how all these seem to find their way back to ‘ethics’ and ‘morality’.

Now, I think we all agree that we will need to disagree on what ‘morality’ means but in the back of our minds we’re feeling pretty good about it because, after all, it’s a ‘high concept’, right?

The problem is, however, that even a quick look through history  – see A Short History of Ethics by Alasdair MacIntyre (Routledge Classics, 2002) for an excellent overview – shows loud and clear that for although ‘morality’ has meant many things to many people the bottom line has always been – ouch – morality = self-interest.

  1. To the ancient Greeks, morality meant ‘fit for purpose’ – a man who performed his socially allotted 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 vacuum.  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.

The problem I’m having with all this is wherever I turn, the ‘moral’ trump card is being played. Lawmakers say that because their laws at not ‘unjust’ the people have a prima facia moral duty to obey them. Even the American Constitution weighs in on this.

How? Well, it’s a road map to how some people are going to tell others what they can and cannot do – and that if the map is followed, the laws forthcoming will be ‘just’ and hence morally binding upon us.

Even the idea of our ‘rights’ as citizens comes into play especially regarding our ‘freedom’ (of choice). This is because in order to have that freedom, we need a moral space in which to pursue it.

And oh, by the way, freedom cuts both ways – as Rousseau said several centuries ago, one can be ‘forced’ to be ‘free’ – and worse, one can be forced to obey ‘morally’ justified laws that he or she doesn’t like in order to protect the ‘freedom’ of others.