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The Only Reason to Behave Ethically

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At playtime in the early grades, teachers always told us we were supposed to share our toys.

We always did it grudgingly. None of us actually wanted to share them. But we figured there would be consequences if we didn’t, just as there were for not doing anything else they told us we should do.

“It’s not nice not to share,” they would say. And why should I find it preferable to be “nice?” Nobody ever explained that.

Whenever I inquired, I’d hear things like:

“Because it’s important.”

“That’s what you’re supposed to do.”

“It’s the right thing to do.”

I always knew what I was supposed to say, but inside I knew would rather have the firetruck to myself than take turns with some other kid, and nobody ever gave me a meaningful reason why there was something wrong with that.

We grow up with this rigid idea that we should behave ethically, as if the word “should” itself is all the reason we need. Few of us were ever given a genuine reason for why we should want to do “the right thing”, without the implicit threat of being punished or ostracized for not doing it.

The widespread acceptance of downloading music and movies, for example, suggests that human adherence to moral codes has much more to do with the perceived consequences of violating that code than some natural inclination towards fairness. If you think about it, even “obeying your conscience” seems to be nothing other than the desire to avoid unpleasant guilty feelings.

Starting from infancy, “shoulds” pile up in our heads, and it isn’t always clear where they came from. Any given should is most likely just a memory of a memory of something an imposing adult said to you when you were a child.

As a kid, if you press an adult for a reason why you should do the prescribed “right thing,” you probably won’t get anything more convincing than “Well, you just have to,” or “It’s the right thing to do,” or the ever-unreasonable “Just because.”

Did they themselves even know? In hindsight, it seems like all they knew is how they wanted us to behave. A young kid doesn’t stand a chance in a toe-to-toe debate with an adult, not because the adult’s argument is any more sound than the child’s, but only because they’re older and more powerful, and they’re much better at giving you the runaround. They imposed a whole list of unexplained “shoulds” on us because they wanted certain behaviors from us.

Over the years I’ve gradually become more generous, more accommodating, more helpful to other people. I’m less judgmental, and more likely to be fair to others when nobody’s watching. But I don’t think this makes me a better person than I was before, or that this change is because life has been gradually schooling me on what’s officially right and what’s officially wrong.

All I’ve been schooled on is how to best improve my own quality of life. As life went on, I gravitated toward whatever served me to that end, and away from what didn’t. Sharing with my peers, apologizing when I’ve hurt someone, helping people out, being “nice” — these things have been rewarding to me, and that’s why I do them. What other motivation could a person use?

So it seems to me that there is no reason to do “the right thing,” beyond what it does for you to do so. The only reason to behave ethically is to discover its real value to the quality of your life. If you cannot find that value, if it does not add something real and positive to your life, perhaps you should not do those things you always thought you should.

At the end of the day, we behave ethically to serve ourselves. If you are helping someone only because you feel you should, and not because it’s rewarding to you, then how helpful are you being, really?

I’d love to hear what you think. Why should we behave ethically?


Photo by FurryScaly

Laurie August 2, 2010 at 2:26 am

This post made me smile because it reminded me of my Ethics class back in college. And the terror of oral examinations. Anyway.

“If you are helping someone only because you feel you should, and not because it’s rewarding to you, then how helpful are you being, really?”

Kant would answer, “Truly helpful.” Based on his ethics, a moral action, a categorical imperative, isn’t hinged on any condition: I do the good that should be done, whether or not I get anything out of it (i.e. positive emotions, favors); the moral act is rational in and of itself. Later on, Kant goes on to say that as a result of doing what’s right, we move closer to achieving the summum bonum, the ultimate good, the optimal combination of virtue and happiness.

That said, I don’t think acting ethically has anything to do with the positive feelings it generates. (But I’m Catholic, so there’s a certain taste for suffering somewhere. Kidding.) I think my question would be is whether the positive value generated by my ethical action the reason for my action or the result of my action. But I have a feeling this might generate a chicken-or-egg debate.

I grew up reading this big poster in my father’s office, “Never tire of doing the right thing.” So I’m pretty much with Kant on this: I don’t need a reason, even to myself, to do what’s right. (Of course defining what’s right is a whole new argument.) The personal joy I get out of doing what’s right is a reward, I suppose, but motivation? Maybe it’s partly there, but not completely.

David August 2, 2010 at 9:24 am

I just Kant agree with that :)

I don’t believe we are capable of doing anything without a positive or negative incentive. Kant might do the “right thing” and say he’s doing it just because it’s the right thing.

But he gains all sorts of intangible rewards, namely the satisfaction of believing he is virtuous, or humble in doing the right thing. Nothing happens without a reason. I don’t think it matters if the do-gooder is consciously thinking of a reward when they do it, or has only a peripheral awareness that doing the right thing has led to preferable results in the past. We cannot help but learn the results of our ethics create in our lives and we can’t prevent that knowledge from influencing our actions.

Adam August 6, 2010 at 8:00 pm

“The Right Thing To Do” is different for each person. everyone has their own vision of what their life should be like and things that help that goal are “Right” and things that hurt that goal are “Wrong”. most people see that being nice and virtuous is a good way to make people like you and having people like you gives you power and influence, so it serves your goal in life of being powerful. therefore, being nice lines up with what it “Right” for that person. but i believe there are people who have goals which are not necessarily served directly by being nice, such as if they wanted to experiment on stuff or just gain knowledge in general. these people aren’t as concerned with doing nice things because they don’t necessarily line up with their “Right”. Thus, based on a person’s “Right” actions, can we guess what they are truly about :)

Dr. G August 2, 2010 at 4:23 am

Interesting question…

I think I have always lived my life according to the idea “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” I am convinced that we reap what we sow. Consequently, if we want to make this world a little better, only ethical behavior will help.

David August 2, 2010 at 9:29 am

I am also convinced we reap what we sow. If my reapings weren’t affected by my sowings, what would be the point of sowing at all? That’s all I’m saying: ethics is self-interested behavior, like everything else.

Uzma August 2, 2010 at 4:58 am

Interesting. Have a number of ideas on this. One, having felt pain, or difficulty, one wouldn’t want anyone else to do the same, so we act ethically and do the right thing, rather the ‘nice’ ‘good’ thing. On a more spiritual note, many see and feel the interconnectedness of all life. So their own sense of ‘i’, begins to dissipate and they act from a place of ‘unconditional compassion’.

David August 2, 2010 at 9:39 am

Ah you bring up two interesting points:

One, having felt pain, or difficulty, one wouldn’t want anyone else to do the same, so we act ethically and do the right thing

If we are sympathetic to the suffering of others (i.e. we suffer over their suffering) then our reason for behaving ethically is still to reduce our own suffering — to improve our own quality of life. If we were indifferent to their suffering, we are missing that incentive to do the right thing.

many see and feel the interconnectedness of all life. So their own sense of ‘i’, begins to dissipate and they act from a place of ‘unconditional compassion’.

This is a huge point, Uzma.

All of this talk about ethics is contingent upon each of us seeing ourselves as discrete beings, separate from each other. This is living from the ego and it is the normal way for people to operate. But we are indeed part of the same whole, so if we are able to disidentify with our own egos, then there is no ‘me’ to receive the normal incentives, and no ‘others’ to do the right thing to. In the egoless state, we may then find ourselves doing virtuous things, just because it makes sense on some deep intuitive level, even if nobody could give logical reasons for that. Yes, ethics becomes something different when it isn’t an interplay between egos.

Uzma August 2, 2010 at 3:15 pm

Ah you do make so much sense on the first point.
Yup, for me, the aim is to let the ego fall away and its hard. To live from that intuitive level you’re talking about. And you’re right, ethics becomes something else without the ego.

Lisis August 2, 2010 at 6:58 am

I love this, D. When you wrote your Purpose of Life post the other day, my favorite line from the whole thing was this:

“Most of us have learned that we can usually serve ourselves better by complying with society’s values than we could by violating them.”

It is exactly what I’ve taught Hunter since he was old enough to do any reasoning at all. It usually makes more sense to follow the rules (unless you are opposed to them deep in your heart, in which case you should by no means follow them) so we can all get more of what we want.

Case in point: kid in his preschool was a smart ass/ class clown/ bully. Every time he broke the rules, it took fun time away from the whole class, and he ended up missing part of recess every day. At one point the teacher seated Hunter next to him at one of the two tables, and Hunter (all of 4 years old) asked the teacher if she could move him to the other table ’cause “the kid” was always breaking the rules and Hunter didn’t want to pay the price for it. So she moved him.

Every choice comes down to a cost-benefit analysis and, if we have any reasoning skills at all, it’s easy to spot the lines we should color within (or deliberately ignore, like compulsory school attendance laws) in order to get what we want. ;)

David August 2, 2010 at 9:41 am

That is so great. Most of us learned right and wrong through doctrine: “X is right, Y is wrong.” We weren’t encouraged (or trusted) to follow our hearts.

Trish Scott August 2, 2010 at 11:03 am

Oh I agree – I erased should and ought from my vocabulary long ago. Every time they come up in my mind or in someones conversation I know something is squirrely. But this video is an amazing thing. I hope you will take a few moments to watch it. “Bestselling author, political adviser and social and ethical prophet Jeremy Rifkin investigates the evolution of empathy and the profound ways that it has shaped our development and our society.” http://scottfree2b.wordpress.com/?s=Rethinking+Human+Nature

David August 2, 2010 at 3:48 pm

Wow, fantastic video, thanks. I’ll definitely write more about empathy and its evolution, from the ideas in that video.

My one reservation is that I don’t agree with characterizing self-interest as an opposite of empathy though. I still think self-interest encompasses all of our motivations, including empathy.

Trish Scott August 2, 2010 at 4:07 pm

I agree. There is nothing like the warm fuzzy feeling you get when you do something nice for someone. I’m hooked.

Lisis August 2, 2010 at 5:32 pm

I think self-interest and empathy are one and the same once you get to the point Uzma was talking about… understanding the interconnectedness of all beings. Helping the community, the country, or the planet = helping myself. Plus, there’s the whole Karma thing.

Anywho… I’m off to watch the Rifkin video. (Thanks Trish!)

michi August 2, 2010 at 12:08 pm

Being nice to others! OMG! Hahaha i looooooove being nice to others!

I think the feeling of being generous (not the haughty thinking of “wow i am SO FUCKING GENEROUS people should praise me” etc) is one of the best in the world. To me, it’s sort of the whole point of being alive! I’m going into philanthropy as a life career, have already begun, this is just so light and happy and joyous a feeling!

As a side benefit, I think maybe if other people experience generosity from others they may be more likely to feel so clingy and needy and hoarding of their own emotional energy/possessions/time/etc, and in the end we all benefit.

But really, being generous is the opposite of being clingy, myself, and being clingy or hoarding or whatever, that’s an unhappy feeling. That’s a feeling of wanting more than I have, a feeling of craving, of dissatisfaction, of distrust that I’m going to be ok in the future, of distrust that the Universe (God, whatever) is going to look out for me.

So: do it because it feels good!

Avi August 2, 2010 at 7:11 pm

hahaha I think I would recognize your writing anywhere, even if your face or name weren’t attached :)

michi August 3, 2010 at 12:29 am

avi! love you too my dear! <3

Neo August 2, 2010 at 2:40 pm

For Bernie Maddoff it was all about “Me” and “I”, he gave no thought to the well being of others, but only of himself. That is the best example I can think of the anti-thesis of Ethics.

David August 2, 2010 at 3:54 pm

His strategy didn’t work out so well for him.

I suspect he didn’t find his life terribly fulfilling, even while he was still getting away with it. Otherwise why would he develop a continued need for so much money?

But we can never quite be sure what thoughts he had about others.

Neo August 2, 2010 at 2:51 pm

I am reminded of a time when my wife and I used to work on the nursery of our church and were able to observe the behavior of 2-4 year old kids. The most prevalent observation that I was able to make was that at that age there is not the concept of “ours”, “we” or the good of the group, but only “Me”, “Mine” or “I”.
I saw many times a 3 year taking toys from others pretty much on a rude and blatant way. At this age they don’t think this is wrong or Un-ethical, all they know there is a toy there that they want and they don’t care this other kids has it. “I want it and therefore I take it”. I don’t they are even aware this other kid that has the toy even exists, they see them as an impediment for them to get access to that toy they want.
I wonder if at this age there is on the minds of these little kids the concept of right or wrong. I am sure this is probably enforced by the fact that these kids at this age are the center of the universe in their homes. Hopefully thru parents observations of these behaviors and applying the proper corrective actions and teachings that will helps kids overcome these natural tendencies. Maybe some members of our society have never been able to overcome this stage of their lives and that why we have some many problems with un-ethical behaviors today.

David August 2, 2010 at 4:09 pm

Yes, and there is nothing that’s intrinsically unethical, IMHO. Kids do eventually learn that it doesn’t pay (long term) to snatch toys away from others, but they start out having to take our word for it. The way I see it, there is no right and wrong, just wise and foolish ways to interact with other people. “Right” and “wrong” are learned concepts only, and we all learn different versions. I wrote about this when I just started my blog: here.

Xavier August 2, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Over time I have become more and more uncomfortable with the idea of “ethics”. I’ve mentally come to compare them with the idea of money.
For quite some time, I’ve regarded to money as a mere human fabrication with no real value, leading me to spend it carelessly for my enjoyment as well as those around me who I care about. Being that I’m still young and in college, I feel this is completely normal and almost expected of me, if not something I already expect of myself.
Anyway, getting back on track, similar to money, ethics have taken on a role, or identity even, where they are used to reach personal success; to put it bluntly, selfishly- out of personal interest and rarely anything more. Outside of philanthropy, money is generally always spent in the pursuit of personal gain. Similarly, ethics are also always drawn on in pursuit of personal gain whether it be gratification or under the belief of doing unto others as you would like done unto you.

So what am I getting at? Ethics don’t really exist. They’ve been fabricated and taught to us. They’re unnatural. So what is natural? All subjectivity aside, survival. Think back to microorganisms and such, religion aside (I was raised Catholic and went to science & math heavy schools, currently studying engineering), everything happened to survive, to get better, to grow and spread. Now it makes sense why most of our natural instincts seem so wrong after many years of being “trained” to be ethical. Children act that way because it’s the natural tendency in us to survive, down to the cells that we’re composed of.

Whether or not we let this level of nature continue within and amongst us is another questions. We’ve obviously done wonders together through ethics as a population, makes me wonder what kind of results we’d have if we never really thought twice about our natural instincts to solely pursue personal interests.

KissytheCutie August 2, 2010 at 7:39 pm

Life principles dictate that your personal happiness should not be based on the demise of someone else. Everybody is entitled to homeostasis. Homeostasis is a requirement for life to works its magic…So if you want that principle to be applied to you then you must apply it in order for have balance. Balance is a must because without it energies wont be able to form certain types of bonds

KissytheCutie August 2, 2010 at 7:51 pm

and yes your right..being ethical is self serving but that’s the beauty of the math and the universe…it all works in the end to help you…every bit of it…btw..love the topic…you are real deep thinker..wow..

Haider August 3, 2010 at 3:13 am

Hi David,

Ethics is a topic near and dear to my heart, especially since I’ve experienced living within opposite ethical principles.

When I was at university I was a Muslim extremist, who believed that ethics hinged on selfless sacrifices. Then I began reading the writings of Ayn Rand, and realized that selfishness is a virtue.

I used to believe that ethics was a means to attain rewards in the afterlife. Now I believe that ethics is a code we use to lead a good life on earth. The criterion for success isn’t religious edicts, but nature itself.

What constitutes human nature, and how we relate to the world shapes the ethical principles we “should” live by. And I use “should” not to dictate how people are to behave, or judge them by their actions. “Should” is a connection between actions and values. If you hold a particular value, then – by extension – you “should” behave in accordance with that value.

If you value your own life, then you “should” do some things, and avoid other things. Otherwise, you’ll experience an inner struggle, because your actions are inconsistent with your values.

Pleasure and pain don’t *define* how we should behave. They are indicators of the degree to which we are consistent with our values. When we are consistent, we feel pleasure. When we are inconsistent, we feel pain.

The question then becomes: What are the values and, therefore, the actions we “should” uphold, that are consistent with our nature as human beings?

That way, we develop a consistency between reality, our understanding of reality (i.e. our beliefs), our values, and our actions. Without having consistency between all four rings in the chain, we undermine our happiness.

David August 3, 2010 at 8:06 pm

Hi Haider. This is a great way of explaining ethics.

If you value your own life, then you “should” do some things, and avoid other things.

Yes, “should” is always conditional. It always depends on an “if.”

I should get more exercise [if I want to be in better health than I am now]

You should clean up your toys [if you don’t want to be grounded]

But most of the time that conditional clause is omitted, and “should” is expected to stand on its own as a reason. Learning these hidden conditional clauses — the why and not merely the what of ethics — allows people to finally find the best ways to live their values.

Nico August 3, 2010 at 11:55 am

I disagree with your thesis, David.

I behave ethically for many reasons. Of course, I receive much in return. Friendship comes more easily, people seem to like me and want to help me, I get the satisfaction of living in harmony with my principles, and so on.

However, in my wisest moments, I believe that I can behave ethically for the sole reason of wishing the best for another individual. I don’t think it has anything to do with what I will gain, or even assuaging my conscience. I can imagine myself completely out of the picture, and still wish the best for that person because they are human, and I understand what it is like to be human.

I’ve always taken issue when people make a sweeping claim that everything people do is out of self-interest. Yes, self-interest probably motivates most of our behaviour. Perhaps for some people, even most, it motivates all of their behaviour. But I believe one can transcend self-interest and behave ethically in the interest of helping another in their own journey through this strange thing called life.

David August 3, 2010 at 7:59 pm

But your wish for that person’s welfare is a desire. Of yours. It is personal gain, but that doesn’t mean it’s selfish.

It is interesting what you say about being out of the picture though, and I think you’re on to something. Uzma brought up a huge point I hadn’t thought of: the traditional conception of ethics assumes that we all see ourselves as separate human beings from each other — operating from the ego, in other words.

This is the normal way people interact with the world, picturing themselves as a finite being, who owns certain things and doesn’t own other things. But we know it isn’t the only way. If the ego can be transcended (and clearly it can, even if only rarely) then we can transcend self-interest like you say.

If the Buddha’s fabled “I, Me and Mine” are truly out of the picture, there cannot be self-interest, because the giver and the recipient are not separate entities that can gain or lose anything.

The ego is a fascinating topic with a million implications. I’ll do an article about it soon.

Great comment Nico, thanks.

Joy August 3, 2010 at 12:16 pm

Hi David,
I had to think about this one a bit…
At this stage of my life, I choose ethical behavior because I believe that we are all One..I know my thoughts, actions, words..toward myself, toward others affect the Energy that we each share..So, I act ethically as I relate to myself, and I act the same with the World. Motivation: golden pure Energy results in ease filled, wonder filled moments..we may all soar with it..so I work on golden pure Energy so that you may soar, and my heart then soars with yours..I work on golden pure Energy so that I may soar and take you with me..My purpose on this Earth is not to see what I may experience while here, my purpose is to allow my experiences to grows yours and yours to grow mine so that I have more to share…

Steps August 3, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Nice work. You asked some insightful questions and demonstrated some good points like, “Few of us were ever given a genuine reason for why we should want to do “the right thing”, without the implicit threat of being punished or ostracized for not doing it.”
Let me ask this, when we were 5 or 6 years old, would we have understood the true reason to behave ethically?
Behaving ethically IS “the right thing to do” AND
this is evidenced by, some would say Karma, others “what comes around, goes around”, and (Dr. G) “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” I am convinced that we reap what we sow”, and.by your (David) declaration that by behaving ethically, you are serving yourself.
~All are One~

David August 3, 2010 at 7:49 pm

when we were 5 or 6 years old, would we have understood the true reason to behave ethically?

That’s a great point Steps.

I’d guess no, probably not in most cases. I suppose it has to be enforced at first, which is interesting because it means it takes some maturity to comprehend the direct value of ethical behavior.

I wonder if some adults ever comprehend it completely. For example, a Tony-Soprano-type character evidently never quite gets the value of ethics, beyond avoiding punishment or guilt. It makes me think that experiencing the value of ethical behavior first hand requires a person to step out of their ego a little bit.

Michael August 3, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Ah, another age-old debate. At this point, however, I have given up most debates; what is their point? Everyone will stand by their own view and we will reach nowhere.

From my experience, both personal and external, I feel that most of us are compelled to do only what rewards us the most, whether being the “right” or the “wrong” thing – or if you want to put it that way, the lawful or the unlawful, the constructive or the destructive, etc. But then such meaning may be twisted by what we see as one side or the other, so it is in fact pointless to even bother going there.

There are some, however, that honestly are compelled to be selfless and selflessly nice. Yes, perhaps in a pyramid sort of way these people are acting so in part due to the rewards of such behaviour, some more than others (hence the pyramid), but there is a tiny percentage of people that aren’t expecting a thing. Rather, they act ethically because that is constructive to others and to themselves and that alone is its own reward.

In the end, those who claim they act in such way only for the others’ well-being are unconsciously being given a meaning, a purpose in life. But is that selfish? Can they be called selfish if the reward they are looking for is the well-being of all?

When I see someone in need, my legs start moving towards that person before I even realise that I am walking. I don’t willingly hurt people because I want to see everyone happy. The sheer thought of such an action saddens me, and if I ever do hurt someone, I almost can’t forgive myself. The only “wrong” things I do are tiny and only affect myself, and yet people won’t believe this when I tell them that the worst I would allow myself to do is, say, jaywalking. Would you say I am selfish and just want others to see me as nice? The truth is they do not; and yet, I cannot help myself but to act this way.

Some people just cannot help to behave ethically – what would you say of that?

We are not just machines of egotism. There is much more to the human being than that.

We spend so much time looking for hidden goals in our actions that we forget to actually believe in ourselves.

David August 3, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Hi Michael. From what you’ve written I’d still guess that you behave ethically because it adds more value to your life than behaving unethically. It doesn’t need to be a conscious deliberation. You don’t have to identify what you gain. But clearly all of us have acted on both sides of the fence, at one time or another. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say we gravitate to what has produced the best results for us.

“Selfish” is a loaded word, because it has become a derogatory way of describing self-interest. Self-interest doesn’t need to put anyone else out, and in fact I believe the most personally rewarding thing a person can do is serve others. I do not believe that there is a person alive who is in the habit of serving others, and does not find it personally rewarding in some way.

Michael August 4, 2010 at 5:53 pm

Hello, David!

I do understand what you say and there is truth to it, yes. However, you make it seem as if we avoid acting unethically because we are afraid of the consequences to ourselves. Though that might be true to many, it certainly is not true for all. I, for one, avoid acting unethically because I am afraid of the negative consequences to others. Or rather, I don’t want them to experience that which I wouldn’t want to experience myself.

Is this self-interest? Is it selfishness? Why would I be bothered by what befalls others that does not concern me? Do I gain anything from others’ happiness if it does not directly involve me? Yet that is why I act ethically. I am not afraid of suffering negative consequences. I simply do not want others to suffer so.

My gravitation is towards what produces the best results for others primarily and for myself secondarily. When it affects me alone, then I take my well-being as the primary goal. This does not mean, of course, that I never behave unethically. However, I do measure the consequences. I cross a road while the lights are red only if there are no cars coming – if I do get hit, it’s my own fault. I do download things every now and then, but if I didn’t, I wouldn’t buy them either, so there is no loss to the artists, publishers or whatsoever.

When it does matter, I choose others’ well-being above mine. Do you know what I will get in return? Seeing other people happy. Perhaps it is self-interest, but it is a bit of a distorted one, at that.

David August 5, 2010 at 7:19 pm

Hi Michael. I don’t mean to suggest that fear is the only motivator. But ethics are introduced to us at a young age, and we’re given no reason other than “we should” or “it’s the right thing to do.” Many of us grow up honoring these ethics even if we never identify exactly why we fulfill them beyond this “should-based” reasoning.

I, for one, avoid acting unethically because I am afraid of the negative consequences to others. Or rather, I don’t want them to experience that which I wouldn’t want to experience myself.

I guess my argument is that this too is a self-interested motivation. If you were indifferent to the consequences for others, it wouldn’t affect your choices. But you dislike something about causing trouble for others, so you consciously avoid doing it. I definitely gain something from the happiness of others, I’m sure you do too.

Riskboy August 3, 2010 at 7:43 pm

I havent gone through all the comments so i might be repeating wot somebody said…

To me it seems most people confuse right and wrong with good and bad, when we are growing up we are brainwashed into thinking that doing good is doing right. The churches promote this and the parents enforce it unto their kids. therefore morality as we know it is built on fear, fear of what might happen if u do something bad, fear of the reaction from other people involved. To make matters worse, to ensure that kids behave morally even when alone, our parents tell us “God is watching you all the time”.

As we grow older we learn that a lot of people are very selfish, and we end up as the victim always, because these people take advantage of our giving nature.

Something interesting about elephants is that, during the dry season, pregnant female elephants can force miscarriages or if they have a small calf they will usually let it die, to make it through the dry season. Lets look at this if done right and when done morally;

1. if done right; “Elephants let calves die” – without being pressured to produce milk for calf the elephants can survive through the dry season and mate again to make more calves.

2. if done morally “Killing an innocent calf is wrong” – If the elephants were to take care of the babies they would starve and die before the next wet season, the baby elephants without their parent’s care would also die from starvation or predators, then all the elephants die out…

If ever humans were stuck in a similar situation they would be pressured by morals to take all the food and give it to the young leading to catastrophic wipeout of the whole human species…

So is it worth it to enjoy the pleasure of helping other but miss opportunities that would made you enjoy life to the fullest? most rich people have found a way of maintaining a good image while being ruthlessly selfish. I know most people will say they dont care about a lot money they want just enough, but none of us really know how much is enough, so we tend to give ourself less than enough thinking if we take more others wont have something left…

Yu August 3, 2010 at 7:43 pm

Funny, I was thinking about this on the way to work today.
To me it seems clear that there are no objective moralities. Doing something “ethical” for others, or even no one in particular is rather awarding to me, not because of the right to praise I get. I feel like over my short of years living so far I’ve acted both like a douschebag and an angel. While I was at that, I noticed the reactions of other people, and noticed that they usually seem to like it better when I’m nice to them and I’m ethical. Of course I don’t feel like this should interfere with how I actually think but I’ve come across enough people in my life to know that they would prefer certain actions over others. Its a more pleasant way to look at the world.

David August 3, 2010 at 8:13 pm

That’s how I think of it Yu. Being a douchebag hasn’t really paid off for me. But clearly it’s the best strategy some people have found.

You reminded me of one of my favorite sites:


Yu August 4, 2010 at 7:05 pm


also interesting to note tho origins of the word:

Martin August 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm

Ethical behaviour doesn’t necessarily mean people are acting in their self interest. People do make choices that are self sabotaging. They make bad choices because their mind has been conditioned to respond that way; it is in their nature, instinct or education. Not all the choices people make follow reason.

That being said, I do believe people should act ethically because it will help improve their life. The question is how can we change our nature?

David August 5, 2010 at 7:00 pm

I agree… acting in a self-interested manner doesn’t mean you’re acting in your best interest.

Murali August 4, 2010 at 9:03 am

Back to me, isn’t it. Self interest is really the driving force, even we are being “selfless.” Keep up the good work, of course, for my own selfish interest :-)


Drew Tkac August 5, 2010 at 10:08 pm

What I should do and what I want to do. The difference between these two things result in pain, conflict and paying lots of money to psychotherapists. The greater the divide the more money you pay. Well just kidding.

But I think there is some truth here. Trying to teach a kid what he or she should do usually results in some crying, indicating pain. Slowly that behavior is modified. Hopefully it is re-channeled or redirected so that we can fit in and play nicely with others. But doesn’t the underlying emotion still remain?

We use our minds to think through the consequences of our actions. But that is our mind, not our emotions.

I read a good book titled “Emotional Intelligence.” One of many points in the book was that we do not teach our kids how to deal with their emotions. This results in a society that is conflicted, unhealthy, and swallows their emotions.

I think that ethics sits on top of this mind-emotional conflict. Teaching our kids, and ourselves, how to properly channel emotions would make this dilemma a bit easier resulting in better ethical decisions without sacrificing our well being.

Nea | Self Improvement Saga August 6, 2010 at 9:39 pm

This is a pretty controversial post. And I love that! I’m totally over doing what “should” be done. I decided a few years back to follow my heart. I’ve learned (and I’m still learning) to listen to my intuition instead of responding to fear, guilt, or some need for approval. Sometimes people are displeased because I may not make a choice that they agree with, but I continue to make choices that I can live peacefully with.

tpsychnurse August 12, 2010 at 12:54 pm

I agree with you, David. Kindness begets kindness. But the most potent motivation now arises from a tremendous sense of gratitude. Gratitude for a way to see the world in a less threatening way and for a chance to make choices that lead to contentment instead of struggle.

Cheryl August 13, 2010 at 7:16 am

Because at the end of the day, I feel at peace if I have not screwed someone out of something rightfully theirs, not even a better parking spot.

wind August 28, 2010 at 2:01 pm

I think , there is nothing like right or wrong attitude,reaction or whatever you say.
I agree that we should ethically just because we feel some positive from it.I don’t know exactly but my motivation is that things become positive themselves with me if i behave ethically.
But we should always tell kids to behave ethically because i think their mind is not enough mature to take appropriate decisions so if they behave ethically in general automatically on average their life will run smoother.
But when we become bit elder we must realize that nothing is like right or wrong all these things are just responses for which we get more responses so we must choose those responses which we want to give for many reasons.

Michael Belk @ethical behavior December 11, 2012 at 9:24 pm

David, I agree we do want some in return for acting ethically, but it can not be your only reasons.

Ethics are meant to be unwritten rules we abide by because of our inner beliefs.

The deal is if we treat others how we want to be treated someone else will treat you better than you expect to be treated.

It is karma, It is also a way of life. I can not tell you how much good has happened to me, probably not because of what I do but it is my belief system.

john January 2, 2013 at 8:25 am

very nice post i want to learn more breaking values should ,ought.all rules and values are imposed by society .when you go to self forgiveness .all this values and rules are inner mind block opposes your self forgiveness.

Eric March 27, 2013 at 7:27 am

Hey, David. Thanks for an engaging post, for inviting responses and for interacting so thoughtfully with those who’ve replied. It’s all been a delight to read. I linked here from Thought Catalog (and am glad I did, because now I’ve discovered Raptitude). That’s why my comment comes years after everyone else’s.

I think you rightly point out that the proverbial “should” adults offer children without any supporting warrant is insufficient to establish what “should” implies: namely, that we have objective moral duties, things we “should” do independently of our feelings toward them (e.g., a duty to share a fire truck even when you’d rather not). You capture the difficulty Hume had in deriving a prescriptive “ought” (your “should,” I think) from a descriptive “is.” (I.e., this is the way things are, but why ought I act in one way rather than another?)

You go on to say, “The only reason to behave ethically is to discover its real value to the quality of your life,” and I agree that in many cases acting “ethically”—helping/not hurting others—will help you reap personal benefits, but I have some serious concerns about using self-interest as a foundation for ethics. I’ll outline two.

First, it seems to remove from the picture the value your ethical actions provide others, at least in any sense aside from personal investment, thereby rendering instances of self-sacrifice or altruism, behaviors traditionally held in the highest ethical esteem, worthless. If, for example, a mother living in a combat zone dives on a stray grenade to save the lives of her children, has she done something morally praiseworthy? Regarding self-interest it seems that any good feeling she gets knowing her children might be spared is fleeting and only outweighed by terrible pain and the obliteration of her own life. If her primary concern is self-interest, then this is about the worst thing she can do. (BTW, what do you think of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development?)

Second, self-interest provides a basis not only for ethical behavior, but for behavior most would deem unethical, like theft. I grant most “unethical” behavior will reap negative personal consequences in the long run, but for the sake of argument let’s say it can be managed socially. Imagine an extreme case: A sadist tortures little children for fun. He’s never caught and the enjoyment he gets from it only increases the quality of his life. Is this acceptable, ethical, or at very least ethically neutral, behavior?

One might point out I seem to be assuming a sort of overarching moral standard, as if we can speak meaningfully of morality/ethics totally apart from our own interests or subjective ideas about it, as if those “shoulds” pounded into me as a child have piled up and I’ve come to actually believe them—and I am. For you note adults’ difficulty in providing reasons for their shoulds and say, “It isn’t always clear where they came from. Any given should is most likely just a memory of a memory of something an imposing adult said to you when you were a child.” But is that true, or is it possible there are real reasons behind the shoulds, even if they escaped our teachers?

I think the answer hinges on whether or not human life is intrinsically valuable. If each person has real, objective worth—i.e., worth that holds regardless of whether anyone recognizes it or not—then using that as a starting point we can reason our way to a moral system in which we find equally real, objective moral duties imposing themselves on us, and I should act in accord with them because, in a very genuine sense, everyone else’s life is just as important as my own. However, if human life is merely the by-product of a morally indifferent universe and it has no more or less value than we give it, then we find ourselves with no objective “oughts” and ethics is only a sort of cause/effect system wherein I add a certain input in order to obtain the desired output. For instance, I may treat others well in hopes that it yields positive consequences for me, but there’s nothing morally praise- or blameworthy about it. I’ve skipped hundreds of years and a few million pages of moral philosophy here, and I may be leaving out gradations between the two alternatives, but you get the gist. So then the question becomes, Does or can human life possess intrinsic value? and from its answer will follow whether or not there is any reason to do the right thing other than what it can do for you.

I personally believe we should behave ethically because God, whose very nature constitutes good and grounds our moral duties, has made us each with inextricable moral worth reflective of his own essence and, as an authority capable of issuing moral directives, asked us to treat others as we wish to be treated, even when it conflicts with our own self-interest.

I’d love to hear what you think! Please pardon any typos.

Zach December 10, 2013 at 1:37 pm

Eric! Awesome post. I love the points you bring up. I’ve always felt that without cases of altruism, there’s very little evidence that morality is not just a rational way of balancing actions and consequences. I still can’t put my finger on why altruism exists though. My one issue is that you conclude by saying God is reason enough to behave morally…Nietzsche said God is dead, and in many cases, for many people, this is true. I think the only way to believe in god is having faith, which is not necessarily reasoning. Are you saying objective morality can’t exist without God? If we go off the basis that there is no God, how can altruism be explained? I’d hate to think that altruism is just the result of karmic conditioning, where we do it only because we’ve ingrained into ourselves that we ought to do it. Like a sort of false sense of cause/effect. If anyone is still reading this thread, let me know your thoughts.

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