Philosophers often wonder why people act ethically. Because ethical behavior seems to be the norm we speculate that there must be some reason for it. Thus, partly motivated by a desire to explain the phenomenon, we form theories that demonstrate that ethical behavior is rational, or motivated by self-interest, or some intuitive grasp of universal goodness. Although many of these theories may agree with our intuitive sense of right and wrong, and may even make a reasonable code to live by, they fail to explain why we should be ethical, leaving us to wonder at the actual reasons that people are good more often than they are bad.
If we aren’t motivated by ethics itself we might suppose that we are motivated by the consequences of not being ethical instead, leading to a negative theory of ethical behavior, namely that people behave ethically because they are afraid of punishment, and that if there were no penalties people would simply do whatever they desired (see the ring of Gyges). However such theories don’t quite match up with our experience. It seems plausible that if someone were to grow up without some kind of reinforcement they might become immoral, but most adults seem to have a natural aversion to doing wrong. There are many times when it might be easy to steal or take advantage of others, but for the most part we restrain ourselves, even though the possibility of being punished is extremely remote.
Since we can’t understand why people are ethical by examining ethics and its associated rewards and punishments it is time to look for other kinds of explanations. One way to understand the origin of ethical behavior that doesn’t depend directly on ethics itself might be to take a page out of Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell, and argue that ethical behavior has come about as the result of societal evolution. Of course societies don’t have children or DNA, but that doesn’t mean they can’t change over time in an evolutionary manner. Societies with beneficial customs and practices survive and flourish, and if their neighbors are weaker their influence extends until those other cultures have been subsumed into them, a process analogous to competition between animals. There is also natural variation within a culture in the practices and beliefs among people of different regions and different times. Together these two factors of variation and competition almost ensure that the development of cultures is a process that corresponds in many ways to the evolution of a species.
Our hypothesis then is that the behavior we now consider ethical has been selected by the evolutionary process to be beneficial to society as a whole. It is a corollary to this that societies whose population acts unethically will either collapse, or at least be noticeably weaker than their neighbors. If we examine what behaviors are considered ethical in our own society it certainly seems to support this theory. For example behavior that tends along utilitarian lines (behavior that is for the good of everyone) is more generally accepted as ethical than behavior motivated by rational self-interest (what is best for the individual). Societies whose members act only in only their own best interests will be less productive and weaker than those whose members act with the interests of others in minds as well (see the tragedy of the commons), and thus the societies with more utilitarian ethics survive to perpetuate these customs while their neighbors do not, resulting in our modern moral sensibilities.
Of course we must also explain ethical variation in different societies. We know from history that societies with different ethical standards can be competitive with each other even over long periods of time. Since we assume that the ethics of a society contributes to its success we must conclude then that a balance between societies with different ethical standards (assuming other factors such as natural resources are held constant) means that there is more than one set of maximally beneficial ethical principles. For example I earlier presented the idea that justice and ethics were separate concepts (see here). Since some societies seem more focused on what I called “ethical” principles and some seem more focused on principle of justice, and since they seem to be equally successful, we might conclude that these principles are equally beneficial to a society (which would explain why our moral intuitions have a hard time choosing between them).
However if the benefit of ethical behavior is really to society and not to the individual why do people act ethically? Clearly we have some immediate motivations to be ethical (from punishment, ect), but I suspect that none of these reasons are objective, in the sense that if we were to encounter someone without any ethical sensibilities there would be no way to convince them to act ethically, even if they were perfectly rational. It seems that the best explanation for our observed ethical behavior is a kind of gentle indoctrination. We are surrounded by pressures to act ethically from birth, and by examples of other ethical people, and so we end up acting ethically ourselves. Not surprisingly there is a biological component as well, our natural feelings of sympathy towards other people, which reinforces the ethical principles we are raised with. Is this really all there is to why people act ethically? Of course we try to justify our actions to each other, by appealing to one ethical theory or another, but I think the existence of sociopaths proves the non-existence of objective reasons to be ethical. Here I am referring to the clinical sociopath, who feels no sympathy towards other people and no remorse (they are lacking the biological reinforcement for ethical standards). Such people can be extremely rational, and may even refrain from acting immorally most of the time because they fear punishment. Their mere existence however demonstrates that there is nothing intrinsically motivating about ethics; there are no reasons that we can give to convince the sociopath to do the right thing for its own sake.
Should we abandon our ethics then? No, because there are practical reasons for us to be ethical. Perhaps we simply wish to get along with other people, or to satisfy our natural feelings of sympathy, or perhaps we want society to continue to prosper so that our children can enjoy it as well. What we should give up however is a search for objective principles that we cannot possibly find.