Human beings are self-interested. While this may not always be the case, we certainly have our moments. If you ask, say, your co-workers to lend you a thousand dollars, you’d expect them to ask in turn, “What’s in it for us?” I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making decisions that put your concerns over those of others, just that self-interest may clash with concepts like rationality, morality, and virtue. If I ask someone to do the right or reasonable thing, the response may again be this question of what benefits being moral or rational carry.
The way I see it, reason doesn’t have a goal in itself; rather, it’s a means to an end that’ll get you where you want to go, but doesn’t have a direction built into it. Like a rabid dog that has its sight on reaching a destination against all obstacles, the rules of logic and reasoning provide us a way to make sense of the various data accessible to us and harness them to meet an objective. If you’re starting a business or solving a math problem, you can use reason to help you accomplish these things. On the other hand, I can’t tell you to simply be rational if you’re in a state of idleness. So far, we don’t have to worry about the above tension of human selfishness—selfish and selfless individuals alike would employ rationality, if they wished to be efficient.
Extending the metaphor, morality provides the direction of where you ought to go. Imagine an archer with a bow-and-arrow. The archer points the bow where to shoot (morality), and the arrow follows through with speed and decisiveness (rationality). Here, we run into difficulty with egocentric thinking—self-interest exerts undue influence on where you point your bow. With this in mind, I see three primary strategies for how we act: (1) what you do abandons your notion of morality altogether for the sake of pursuing your own devices, (2) self-interest is incorporated as a pillar of your moral system in the form of ethical egoism, or (3) you remain ethical and selfless in your conduct.
Now, we should address this question of why someone would want to choose the virtuous paths of cases (2) or (3)—why shouldn’t someone abandon altogether their sense of morality? Because we have values. We care about things, and we assign a degree of importance to concepts like justice, liberty, equality, love, life, and happiness. There’s no reason you have to give a hoot about any of these things—there’s nothing in it for you. They’re just things most everyone in our society today ends up valuing, whether out of natural inclination, social pressure, or both. These six aforementioned values mold a person’s morality by instilling in them a rudimentary sense of what right and wrong look like.
Finally, I’d like to briefly defend the existence of a purely altruistic act—namely, that the third category of actions may actually exist. It’s true that most people’s conception of morality, including mine, tips the scale in favor of your own interests. Given the choice to kill either your mother or two mothers unbeknownst to you (same age, health, benefit to society, etc.), I doubt anybody would end up adhering to the strictly utilitarian doctrine of greatest good for the greater number—nobody would kill their own mother. Though, even if most people and most actions are conceived out of self-interest, that doesn’t mean they all have to be.
When we weight pros and cons when making a decision, our intellects have some authority as to what considerations are and aren’t made. If I give a dollar to a homeless person, it could be to feel better about myself or it just as well could be out of concern for the other person’s well being. Which is to say that as a conscious, rational decision-making agent, I get to decide what’s on my list of pros and cons. I could have thought originally, “Wow, everyone around me who sees me giving this dollar away would think I’m such a superb human being.” Quickly thereafter, I could see how superficial this reason is and scratch it off my list. Let’s say I work on my list a little bit and reach a point where none of the reasons compelling me to give this dollar away are related to me; if I give the dollar away sticking to this list, I’ve made an altruistic decision.
I remember having this conversation with my brother when he used a small, interesting kink in the argument to try to flip it on its head. “Sure,” he said, “Let’s say you’ve just given this dollar away because you thought it was the right thing to do. But you only do the right thing because you want to.” Crap, now all of morality is for yourself. The workaround I see to this challenge is not wholly satisfying, but in my opinion valid. You can appeal to the definition of morality—remembering that you derived it from your values—and establish that because morality tells you what you ought to do, you will do just that. It’s a statement of fact. I, Mohit Mookim, will do the right thing. I don’t make any attempt to justify or qualify the statement; it’s the cornerstone of my moral system, and it’s just what happens.
While I may raise more questions than I ask, I hope I’ve untangled at least some of the tensions between these behemoth topics of rationality, morality, and self-interest.