Ethics is a set of rules that promote the wellbeing of society as a whole. Which gives us a reason to be ethical; we are part of society, so we want it to prosper. Of course we can’t assume that everyone wants to be part of society, but nothing is stopping them from leaving if they don’t. And while the rules of ethics then wouldn’t apply to them, as they wouldn’t be part of any society, it wouldn’t make any substantial difference.
But of course people are not really free to leave society. There are few places nowadays where some society doesn’t reach. And in fact there isn’t even much of a choice in the way of societies, especially for the people on the bottom who are the most likely not to want to be part of society. Well, even so, there are still reasons to be ethical. For starters society is going to do its best, through both official and unofficial means, to force you to be ethical; for example, people will tend to shun you if you aren’t ethical. Thus everyone has reason to act ethically, at least when other people are watching. And, if you have to act ethically, it requires much less effort simply to be ethical rather than putting on an act (since being ethical will at least make you happy with acting ethically).
So, technically, everyone has at least one reason to be ethical. But I’m not entirely sure we should be satisfied with this state of affairs. As things stand people don’t really have a choice; even if you don’t want to be part of society it doesn’t matter, you don’t have the ability to opt out. In a way this reminds me of conscription. Some people want to be in the army, and thus they have a reason to be good soldiers. But many don’t want to be in the army, but they still have reason to be a good soldier, because if they aren’t they will be shot. But conscripts don’t generally make great soldiers. Although we might tell them: you would be happier if you just convinced yourself to want to be a soldier, it won’t make many of them to change their minds about being a soldier. Instead they will keep looking for any way out, will desert if they can, and will do the absolute minimum.
I think many people may be in a similar situation with respect to acting ethical, except, unlike being conscripted into the army, there isn’t any real chance of escape. They do their best to appear ethical, but they don’t really put any effort into it. And I think the lack of a real choice aggravates the problem. If leaving society completely was a real option I don’t think many people would take it. But the fact that they have the option, and the fact that they don’t take it, would make them feel more committed to society and ethics (because of cognitive dissonance; if they choose to stay in society, even if their real reasons are purely practical, they will come to believe that they want to be part of society). The existence of this option would also take a lot of pressure off of society. The people who don’t fit in, either because they can’t or don’t want to, could leave, as well as the poorest of the poor, and others mistreated by society. And this would leave us with a society of people who honestly want to be part of it, and thus who have a real reason to be ethical.
But how could we give people this option? There aren’t wide, open, spaces within traveling distance where people could revert to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. Nor do most people have the ability to revert to such a lifestyle, even if there were such spaces. And changing societies isn’t a live option either. Most modern societies are structured around capitalism, so leaving your society for one of them is just to exchange one rat race for another; if you are trying to escape the entire system these small differences are not what you are looking for. And the societies that are genuinely different are usually undesirable places to live. However, I think we could create the option to leave if we wanted to. All that it would take would be to designate several large areas as anarchy zones, and to provide transportation to them. And, since most people can’t survive on their own, there would have to be regular airdrops of supplies. None of this is prohibitively expensive (certainly cutting back on a war or two could provide enough money). And the gains to those of us who remain may very well be worth it. Their existence alone takes a certain psychological pressure away. Moreover creating them might very well be the ethical thing to do, because is it really ethical to force someone to live a certain way, even if it takes the form of not giving them alternatives?