Why do what we say we ought to do?

‘The true mirror of our discourse is the course of our lives.’ — Montaigne

Whether or not we really believe our lofty moral talk is revealed in what we actually do.  It’s an old and no doubt good thought.  If you really want to see past the smoke and mirrors, watch the hands.  If you say that we ought to help each other, that suffering is bad, that we ought to get people out of bad lives, then, if your words are to stand, you’ve got to take all rational steps to secure the relevant ends.  Your words commit you to doing something:  write some cheques, volunteer some time, stop on the street and lever an unfortunate out of the gutter.  You have some beliefs and you have to act on them, but what is the real connection between principle and action?  Why do what we say we ought to do?

There might be a lot of space between what most of us say and what we do.   Singer makes the point rapidly in  ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’.  He offers this principle:  ‘if it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it’.  He goes on:  ‘if [this principle] were acted upon, even in its qualified form, our lives, our society, and our world would be fundamentally changed.’  Probably the principle is accepted by a lot of people.  Probably few act on it.  Leave the psychology of it for a moment.  Does anyone have an argument which connects principle to action, which pushes the conclusion that we must do what we say we ought to do?

Tall order.  I realize that’s close to asking why one ought to be moral, but who said philosophy is easy?

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28 Comments.

  1. Ahm, what Plato said (in, e.g., Republic)? What Jane Austen said (starting with Sense and Sensibility)? I think there may have been a few things said in between and since.

    For me this question only makes sense from an egoist perspective, through meditation, familiarity practice you come to realise that ethical action is in your long term best-interest, and your actions start to change likewise. Virtue in otherwise is its own reward and I can’t for the life of me see how you can separate out the psychological aspects.

    I say a little more on this in:

    http://senseorsensibility.com/blog/republic-reason-persuasion/

  2. PS: I am sorry for the somewhat garbled comment above–I have had short night.

  3. if i am indifferent to what I say i ought to do then others must be similarly indifferent to me as a moral being – i have no principles. If I have no principles then I cannot be trusted, for to have principles means to, whenever possible – act upon them. I become a creature of instinct or caprice, there being little distinction. I become a socio path in which convenience and self gain are my reasons for action and others do not enter into my calculations as having states of being which have any bearing upon my actions unless they hinder them or aid them. I might therefore only enter into moral contexts in a machivellian sense – for my own self gain and to mask that gain from others in order to use them without direct hostility – I manipulate. But then how do we tell the man of manipulative morality from the “kantian” man of good will in which others are considered as ends in themselves. Here the states of others must affect me, or more coldly – my judgements as to what I ought to do. But we want more than a rational calculation, otherwise we seem to fall into a mere calculus. But is a calculus that engages the benefits to others one that necessarily requires a deep sense of empathy?
    We want to be nice people not just someone who says and does nice things (morally) dont we? Do moral principles require not just action but something like a good heart?

  4. I’m not sure what you’re saying.

    Are you saying: What makes us think that moral truths imply that we have moral duties?

    Or are you asking: does believing that one has a duty to do B mean that one has a duty to do B?

  5. Kyle, I think James is asking if anyone has a good logical argument for acting ethically.

  6. I don’t think that there’s any logical connection, if that is the question, between believing in an ethical principle and acting on it or rather most people, myself included, have a set of ethical principles for public display or even for our own self-image (that is, a bit of self-deception about who I am) and another set of principles, often less lofty and at times fairly unconscious, upon which we act.
    Hence, in a certain sense we always act on our ethical principles: however, we often don’t to admit to others or to ourselves what our real code of values is.

  7. The question is a tautology; what you’re asking is “do we have a moral obligation to act morally?”.

    If we don’t have a moral obligation to act morally, then morality is a meaningless deceit.

    If we do, one might ask why we have that moral obligation? And so on.

    The tautological problem arises because moral codes are an evolutionary invention, developed over millenia of human interaction to enable some semblance of order among members of our species. Since these codes have no objective basis and are subject to free-rider issues, they are frequently ignored by individuals. In many situations, two moral codes come into conflict with each other, and the resolution of the conflict depends on the priorities of the individual involved. A different individual might make a different call, when put in the same situation. This can happen even when the prioritization of the moral codes involved is generally accepted by society. We ‘ought’ to do A, because society says A is right; but we do B, because in that situation B is more important to us.

    It’s all relative, I’m afraid.

  8. That helps.

    Chris @ 10.06 and maybe Polo and maybe Jonathan: what do you say to the person thinks that self interest can’t be a motivation for a moral action — morality just is putting another’s interests before your own?

    Amos: maybe there is an (informal) logical connection or anyway something like it. If you act in accord with your principles you are being consistent with them in some sense. Maybe that’s a nonmoral reason to act morally.

    Kyle: nothing about duties, really.

    It’s not, I hope, just the question, why be moral. It’s something else. You’ve got a person who already assents to a moral principle. What line of thought goes from that principle to action? It must be at least less than obvious, if, as Singer suggests, so few of us act in accord with principles we hold.

  9. I think it may be instructive to consider how the word OUGHT is used in our day to day verbal exchanges. This may not equate to a philosophical consideration of of the word but may show that it really is a word which practically promises nothing, and really holds us to nothing. We seldom do things, which we have prefixed with ought. If somebody says ought, it nearly always means he/she knows what it is the best or moral thing to do, but cannot or will not, do it. Think of the number of times you have said “I ought to –” and then nothing more of any great consequence has been done. In my experience ought gives no guarantee that action will be taken or that there is a constraint to act. To say that we should act out in accordance with ought does not to my mind square with the meaning of ought as it is commonly used, thus ought does not commit one to action in this universe of discourse i.e. day to day verbal exchanges. “I will” is a far stronger expression and the disposition to actually act also accordingly stronger than that accompanying ought. When our employer says he will pay us at the end of the week we are far more confident if he says he will rather than ought, somehow ought has no compulsion to it. I doubt that those who perform moral or altruistic acts often go through a ought phase, they just get on and do it. The question was “Does anyone have an argument which connects principle to action, which pushes the conclusion that we must do what we say we ought to do?” I cannot think of a reply to this. A principle surely has to cover differing states of affairs in the World and every difference makes a difference. The actions of human beings are difficult to predict there are always exceptions, and ought if it is to make any sense at all should always presume can and this is not always possible. If as suggested, we must do what we say we ought to do, unpleasant consequences can be the outcome. Adolph Hitler in his early days, may well have decided he ought to engineer the extinction of World Jewry and accordingly put into action the means so to do, with devastating effect. I cannot think of any principle for ought such that I must or must not perform a certain action. I surely am free to do anything I please or am capable of. Of course I may get myself into a lot of trouble but that is beside the point I am trying to make, which is never pin your faith that anyone who says ought will actually act, or will ever be made to act, if he does not want to. Even if he does act it may not be for the best outcome.

  10. James: I would say what Plato and many others would have said that your narrow short-term interest and broader long-term interest are in conflict.

    Modern notions of strong materialism (entirely inconsistent with both logic and evidence in my opinion), by imposing strong limits on how long the long-term can be, hobble this argument somewhat, and certainly spoil its logical structure. Also the idea that negative actions will ultimately catch up with you is very useful, and Plato spends some time at the end of Republic driving these points home.

    In other words the dichotomy between yours and my interests is a false dichotomy and the appearance of a zero sum game is false.

    The trade off is between greedy, narrow, short-term interests that strategically undermine our search for happiness.

    To answer you original question, the only way to get ourselves to act thoroughly ethically is to become deeply acquainted with this truth, and to form the habit of acting ethically, all of which requires sophisticated psychologically-joined-up support systems. Merely reading and comprehending a logical argument is not enough.

  11. I have written short article at

    http://senseorsensibility.com/blog/why-be-ethical/

    explaining why I think classical approaches to this problem are really important from a psychological perspective. It really is worth penetrating what people like Plato and Austen were trying to say, that it is in our rational best interest to act ethically, and to become thoroughly convinced of this is a valuable step in supporting ethical action and realising stable happiness.

  12. Hi Jmes,
    I read this post before any comments had been made, and there was something about it that didn’t sit right with me. I figured what it is.
    Are you sure you want an argument “which pushes [forward]the conclusion that we must do what we say we ought to do?”
    I assume you mean “we” in the universal sense. In my experience those with the most and strongest moral principals are ones I would hope never act on what they feel they ought to. For an extreme example, consider the person who believes it a moral mandate to kill doctors who perform abortions.
    Also, I wonder what a true skeptic’s take on the idea of rampant action according to “oughts” would be?

  13. James,

    Am I right in saying your question is effectively: Why do people appear to hold certain moral views, but not act on them?

    In my experience those with the most and strongest moral principals are ones I would hope never act on what they feel they ought to.

    I’m not sure I follow, Ralph. Wouldn’t people with the strongest moral principals be more likely to act on them? And I don’t see that “the person who believes it a moral mandate to kill doctors who perform abortions” necessarily has a stronger belief than I do that (say) it is wrong to torture people for their political views.

  14. Stephen,
    I took James’ question,
    “Does anyone have an argument which connects principle to action, which pushes the conclusion that we must do what we say we ought to do?” as a search for a convincing argument which will get people to act on their principals.
    All I said was that that might not be desirable on a global scale.
    Also, you might very well have stronger moral beliefs than our anti-abortionist, but I don’t see any action connected to your beliefs whereas if the anti-abortionist acts on his beliefs an innocent person ends up dead.

  15. I think that Ralph is saying that fanatics generally hold stronger ethical beliefs that a skeptical soul like I does: that is, a fanatic is surer than he is right than I am and thus, more likely to act on his beliefs, given his dogmatic conviction. One of the many reasons that I would never kill anyone for ideological reasons is that I’m not so certain that any given ideology, philosophy or theology is true. Yes, I’m not sure that skepticism is true either.

  16. Hi James,

    I’ve read 3 times and still I’m not sure. Are you agreeing with Montaigne? “Whether or not we really believe our lofty moral talk is revealed in what we actually do.” Did you mean that?

    Can’t we believe it’s wrong to do X, yet be tempted into doing X? The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.

    I tend to think belief is one thing, action is another. It’s actually helpful for people to make that distinction when reading Singer (and the like). That way they can feel free to think through the issues, without feeling it’s going to immediately cost them anything. They can think freely, then realize that he’s right (!), then spend some time with a belief/behavior mismatch, then (finally, hopefully) correct it.

    But maybe what you’re really getting at is why we ought to correct the mismatch.

  17. Drat. There’s a lot of good stuff here to respond to, but I’m booked tonight and have to flee. I’ll try again tomorrow.

    Meanwhile, good to hear from you Jean. I think I do mean that — that you don’t really believe x if you don’t act in accord with x. Probably it will only make sense with some watered-down notion of belief. Or maybe something, dare I say it, French, having to do with authentic belief. I was trying to make sense of Montaigne, and maybe that’s what got me down that weird path. The question which arises from that sort of thought, why do what we say we ought to do, is what really bothers me.

    Stephen: I’m not after an explanation of the divergence, but an argument which might connect principle to action.

    Maybe Don and Ralph: agreed that a lot depends on what we mean by ought. I’ll have to think about that.

    Very sorry…must dash.

  18. Ralph,

    Also, you might very well have stronger moral beliefs than our anti-abortionist, but I don’t see any action connected to your beliefs whereas if the anti-abortionist acts on his beliefs an innocent person ends up dead.

    Sure, but the problem there is the nature of the belief that the anti-abortionist holds, not the strength of it. The problem isn’t that the anti-abortionist is so sure of his convictions that he’s willing to kill an innocent person, it’s that he doesn’t see the person as innocent – so it’s the nature of his belief, not the strength. So I guess I just don’t share your or Amos’ concern with the strength of the beliefs as such. And I don’t think the nature of the moral per se is relevant to James question.

  19. James,

    It’s not, I hope, just the question, why be moral. It’s something else. You’ve got a person who already assents to a moral principle. What line of thought goes from that principle to action?

    Okay, here’s how I was looking at it: If the moral I assent to is “we should give to charity”, then I give to charity because that’s what I believe. That is my moral: that I should give to charity (be it money, time etc). What more connection do I need? Intuitively, I do not separate the principal from the act.

    I think I struggled to get what you were asking because of this; I see it as a bit of a contortion to separate the notion of a moral principal, and the notion that you would apply it in some sense. (That’s not to say there aren’t people who don’t do just that in practice – purport to hold ethical/moral views that they don’t act on – but there are psychological and social factors involved there that you can’t separate out; that’s not a purely philosophical issue.)

    I think in a way I agree with the first part of what Polo wrote. You’re essentially asking: “do we have a moral obligation to act morally?” Put it this way: if you believe there are morals, then wouldn’t you believe you should act on them? That is, one of your moral principals should be that you act on your principals. It may be an implicit moral that goes with any other moral principal, a bit like Prior’s claim that every statement features an implicit assertion of its own truth. The moral is its own call to action.

  20. Stephen.
    You’re probably right, but I’m not arguing the point you attributed to me. I’m being far more simplistic.
    Here’s James again:

    “Does anyone have an argument which connects principle to action, which pushes the conclusion that we must do what we say we ought to do?”

    The way I read the above is that James is asking for an argument which would convince people to do what they say they ought to.
    My comment is that, sure, I’d like people with moral (my type of moral) beliefs to act on them. But there are people who judge their beliefs to be moral that are far from what we would find acceptable and would not like to see them enacted.

  21. Ralph,

    Let me see if I understand you. You are separating two claims:
    (a)we ought to do what is moral
    (b)we ought to do what we think is moral (or as James phrased it, we ought to do what we say we ought to do)

    From what I gather, James is trying to justify (b) but you would caution against that, given that some people believe things to be moral that you think are immoral. If we justify (b) we potentially justify people doing immoral things (or at least things we disagree with). These are things I thought as well after reading the post.

    But on the other hand, we do want to be able to hold people to their word. I think it might help if we think of an expressed principle as a promise of action (ex: “I hold the principle that stealing is wrong” is equivalent to saying “I promise not to steal”). Certainly there is a logical expectation that action follows a promise. If we did not consider promises to be binding in that way, a promise would be meaningless, leading us to a kind of contradiction.

    I must say, these are very difficult ideas to balance.

  22. Ralph,
    The point of yours I was contending was (my emphasis): “In my experience those with the most and strongest moral principals are ones I would hope never act on what they feel they ought to.”

    It’s probably just a ‘quibble over wording’ thing then, as I pretty much agree with what you say in your last post about some people believing things to be moral that are unacceptable and we wouldn’t like to see enacted.

  23. It’s not easy to pin this down, and that’s my fault for not being as clear as I could have been. Let’s make it more concrete and see if that helps.

    Suppose someone has an ordinary view about human suffering. ‘It’s a bad thing, and we ought to do something about it.’ But suppose that person doesn’t do anything about it. What argument can you put to her to swing her into action?

    Not everyone is like Stephen @9.09, alas. Most of us believe the truth of all sorts of principles, but we don’t act on them. Can reason shove us in the right direction?

  24. I have been trying to get my head around this idea that someone could systematically do things that they truly believed were not in their interest and I can’t make any sense of it. Of course we all have a tendency to greedy, short-term selfish action, but like nearly all greedy algorithms it is _very_ sub-optimal.

    Any coherent theory of ethics must be able to deal with the idea that our habits and beliefs can be in tension.

    Pushing this further, it must also be worth considering whether there is any situation where people will counteract their habitual tendencies if they don’t think there is in any way in their interests–and I am thinking of very broad rationales here–i.e., anything at all, including a general fear of the nihilistic consequences of total selfishness.

    It seems to me that the proper task of philosophy ought to be to work out what those rationales are (what is in our strategic best interest) so that a rational bridge between belief and action can be constructed, thereby facilitating ethical action.

    It seems to me that modern philosophy, and I really mean Enlightened, secular philosophy, is determinedly irrational and romantic at root, on top of which great edifices of rational thought get constructed.

    For those who are interested I have posted a short article on this at

    http://senseorsensibility.com/blog/when-you-are-not-going-to-be-ethical/

  25. James,

    I think you should stop apologising–your post has generated a pretty interesting philosophical discussion; it has served us very well.

    And I think it was pretty clear. Your latest formulation is almost a word-perfect formulation of the Buddhist position, so any Buddhist discourse, suitably tampered to avoid reliance on karma and rebirth would do very well (and there are no shortage of such Buddhist-lite literature).

    As I have been saying Republic, properly understood, was answering this question, as was Jane Austen. Both of these authors are interesting because they didn’t lean on heavy mystical metaphysical structure (though Plato brought it in at the end of Republic), concentrating mostly on straight-up psychological arguments.

    I don’t think anyone has written up Austen’s philsophy properly–that is something I am trying to do being in the blog phase at the moment (see punkphilosophy.com).

    Knowingly or not, isn’t the Enlightement’s philosophical tradition at roots irrational and romantic. Modern philosopher will happily rationalise the hind legs off a donkey but they really don’t want it to go all the way down, but to preserve that all-important gap between belief and action?

  26. Not everyone is like Stephen @9.09, alas. Most of us believe the truth of all sorts of principles, but we don’t act on them. Can reason shove us in the right direction?

    I’m saying on a purely philosophical level, it is rationally wrong to separate the two. If people do as you say, I think that’s psychological, and thus I can’t see how you can leave the psychology out of the argument, as you originally asked. I’ll try again with my case for seeing act and principal as going hand-in-hand (again, I mean philosophically, not necessarily psychologically or sociologically).

    If we take something fairly uncontentious as our principal: “One should not torture helpless animals”. You “act” on that principal by… well, by not torturing animals. You don’t need another argument to connect your ethical principal to your (lack of) action. No one would even think to ask if there was one. I don’t think it is any different if your principal requires a proactive application.

    If you accept the philosophical argument for Moral X, you do not need an extra philosophical argument connecting X to “acting on X“. If you accept “we should help the poor”, you do not need an extra argument connecting that principal to acting to help the poor, any more than we need a separate argument connecting “we should not torture animals” to your lack of animal torture.

    Suppose someone has an ordinary view about human suffering. ‘It’s a bad thing, and we ought to do something about it.’ But suppose that person doesn’t do anything about it. What argument can you put to her to swing her into action?

    Ah, that’s a little different to how I’ve been approaching this, then. But to me the flipside of that question is why do people not act on their beliefs? I don’t see how you can separate the social/psychological aspects of this out, as you asked. If someone mistreated animals despite genuinely believing that we shouldn’t, we could only assume they had a psychological disorder of some nature. In your example, the argument that convinces her of the moral in the first place should also convince her “to swing her into action” because as I said above, that’s really the same thing. So either there are psychological factors involved in her genuine belief vs. not-acting on belief, or she just doesn’t really believe what she claims to believe.

    I will add that I know many people who do believe we should help reduce human suffering, and none of them don not do at least something to alleviate it. It seems to me to be relatively rare that someone genuinely accents to a moral principal but does absolutely nothing to apply it.

  27. I’ll just add a couple more points:
    1) the above is very much aimed fairly theoretically at this question: “You’ve got a person who already assents to a moral principle. What line of thought goes from that principle to action?”

    2) I wonder if James is not really just asking if there is an argument for why we should act altruistically. I note James “more concrete example” wasn’t all that concrete. Yes, lots of people voice vague platitudes about how human suffering is bad, and we should do something about it. But that’s so vague it’s hard to see how to assess what they really mean, and whether they do anything to “act” on that belief.

  28. Principles and belief are inter-related, perhaps inconsistently so but still intrinsic.
    To act on them is based on self identity, the inner knowledge of a moral condition and therefore obligation. Not to do when we say we ought is to cause within one the conflict or shame that a person seeks to avoid, the inner recrimination that the actor would minimize.

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