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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