Why do good?



Strategic and moral reasons

There are two categories of reasons for “doing the right thing”: strategic and moral reasons.  Strategic reasons are the “rational” reasons of self-interest; and moral reasons are to do with what is right and wrong.  In practice, our reasons are mostly a mixture of the two.  

Over the course of the evolution of human morality, what started in the earliest humans as strategic social activities and motivations aimed at cooperation eventually became “moral” activities with corresponding motivations.  


genuinely moral beings ... are genuinely concerned about the well-being of others and ... genuinely feel that the interests of others are in some sense equal to their own

When I donate money to a beggar on the street, [some people] would argue, what I am really doing is attempting to enhance my reputation in the eyes of others.  But why the really?  Why can I not be doing both?  Nothing makes for a better behavioral decision than something that achieves two goals at once: I help the poor person for whom I feel genuine concern, and I enhance my reputation at the same time – win-win.  The fact that I have strategic motives is undoubted, but I also have generous and egalitarian motives, and whenever possible I do things to fulfill them all simultaneously.  And when they conflict, many considerations determine which one wins out, but in any given situation my generous or egalitarian motives can in principle win out, as people demonstrate every day as they sacrifice themselves for others.  

Michael Tomasello – “A Natural History of Human Morality




Possible reasons for doing the right thing:





I have through all regions wandered;

Still have I none ever found

Who loved another more than himself.

So is one’s own self dearer than another,

Therefore out of love to one’s own self

Doth no one injure another.


The Buddha






Let them not do the slightest thing that the wise would later reprove.

The Metta Sutta


As we grow from childhood to adulthood, we increasingly judge ourselves as we judge others.  We do so at first because we imagine what others must think of our motives when they see us acting in a certain way.  Since we want to be admired, we want to conform, within reason, to the expectations of others.  But at some point a remarkable transformation occurs in how we judge ourselves.  We desire not only to be praised, but to be praiseworthy.  As Adam Smith put it, “man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely.”  Thus we are often embarrassed when we are praised without deserving the praise.  

Just how this transformation occurs is not well understood.  

James Q Wilson – “The Moral Sense”


Humans are a cooperative species, and to this end, we have a “cooperative identity”.  This has an external aspect: how others see us as cooperative: our reputation; and an internal aspect: our conscience: how we see ourselves as cooperative.  Our reputation is a measure of our worth by others.  Our conscience is a measure of our worth by ourselves: our self-esteem.  

Each individual is the no. 1 most important person in their own life, and so, our own opinion of ourselves matters more than that of any other person.  

If I do not have a conscience then this source of self-esteem is unavailable to me.  




Moral feelings  

It feels right (good) to act ethically, and it feels wrong (bad) to act unethically.  

The compassionate species





If you harm somebody, or act unfairly, and other people find out, then you will have a poor reputation (and some explaining to do).  





See cooperative identity



Love and friendship

Money and power cannot buy love and friendship, cannot replace them, and cannot compete with them when it comes to making us happy.  They are empty substitutes at best.  We have two sides to our social nature: competition and cooperation.  Money and power satisfy the competitive side, but not the cooperative one.  

When person A helps person B:

See stakeholder principle, unconditional love




Long term positive consequences for “me and mine”

If ethics are defined as helping in response to need, and fairness, then both of these have good long term consequences in the form of a good reputation, a good conscience, and the good will of others.  




Good for society

We try to behave properly in order to uphold the cooperative situation – in order that our social enterprise does not fall apart through lack of commitment or trust.  So we follow and enforce principles of compassion and fairness in order that everyone involved is motivated to keep playing the game nicely together.