Why do most people behave Ethically?


This question has fascinated me for some time. I’ve often wondered if the reason we behave altruistically is due to some underlying selfish reasons. I have to add something to this, just because someone is aware of a high level fact such as this, doesn’t mean that any of the things that may be explained by such theories – love, co-operation, politics, etc are any less important, nor do I stop to act according to them.
Cosma Shalizi in one of his notebooks on ‘Ethics, Game Theory and Biology’ discusses why we should behave ethically? Specifically some of the issues are things such as ‘why do we fall in love’, ‘why do we follow tit-for-tat’ strategies.
It seems according to the research that the ‘ethics’ we follow do lead sometimes to material success. It seems that ‘be nice to everyone until they screw with you’ is a very good strategy, and of course we aren’t the only animals that exhibit this. Robert Sapolsky in The Uniqueness of Humans cites that ‘tit for tat’ occurs in fruit bats. Yet another example of how we as human beings share characteristics with other animals.
The last comment by Cosma is an interesting one – basically we could have evolved ethics and strategies which lead to material success. Yet it could be possible that material success is in itself vile. The more one learns about science the more one realizes just how flawed our brains are – we make definite errors in logic, statistics, visual perception, etc. For instance in modern physics our intuitions largely fail and have to be replaced by Mathematics. We fail to visualize greater than 3 dimensions, and we definitely struggle with probabilities in Quantum Mechanics.
Since Hume we’ve known that we can’t go from an ‘is to an ought’, just because we favor certain things doesn’t mean it should be that way. So some of the ways we behave may be unspeakably vile. Perhaps the bard was wrong:
” What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the world – the paragon of animals! ” – Hamlet, William Shakespeare


2 thoughts on “Why do most people behave Ethically?

  1. Mirella

    I stumbled upon this site as I was looking up decent definitions of mathematics for an assignment, and ending up scrolling down! 🙂 A book I’d recommend you to read if you’re interested in further exploring this issue of possible intrinsic ethical behavior in man is C.S. Lewis’ “The Case for Christianity”; super short, but really good logic and down to earth reading. It actually started out as a radio talk during WWII and was later turned into a book that was called “Mere Christianity.” But he addresses this issue in a very interesting way; it’s always something I’ve been interested in as well. Exploring man in the state of nature, etc. Also, your last Hamlet citation, if you look at it again in context, Hamlet is being sarcastic. He doesn’t think man is anything much, especially so if in his “to be or not to be” speech he contemplates suicide. (I absolutely love Hamlet, which is the only reason I’d bother mentioning this 🙂 I’ve loved reading this, keep up the good work! Thank you!

    • peadarcoyle

      I’ve got an academic world http://luxembourg.academia.edu/PeadarCoyle/Teaching website, which I put my written notes on. They aren’t perfect but they are the sort of documents that a Graduate student may find acceptable, and I generally find a few lecture notes are sometimes a good starting point, rather than a dense textbook! Wikipedia isn’t perfect but its remarkably good as is Math overflow.
      I’m a fan of C.S.Lewis but I’ve never gotten around to reading that book.
      Thank you for the kind words, its nice to have an audience :).

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