Qualms beget alms

Does the average person need “engagement with complex ethical theories” to be a good person? This is the type of question that keeps weirdos like me and Adam up at night. In order to reply to Adam’s query I need to call upon an expert witness, Arthur Schopenhauer, On the Question of Motive. The key excerpt is in audio form here:

Schopenhauer asks us to imagine two young men, Caius and Titus, each passionately in love, each with a different girl, each thwarted by more favored rivals. Both resolve to kill the rival that stands in their way, “but when they come to actually prepare for the murder, each of them, after an inward struggle, draws back. They are now to give us a truthful and clear account of the reasons why they abandoned their project.”

For Caius, we are given a menu of explanations from which to choose, each representing a famous “complex ethical theory” from the history of moral philosophy. Perhaps Caius says,

I reflected that the principle I was going to apply in this case would not be adapted to provide a rule universally valid for all possible rational beings; because I should have treated my rival only as a means, and not at the same time as an end.” Or, following Fichte, he may deliver himself as follows: “Every human life is a means towards realising the moral law; consequently, I cannot, without being indifferent to this realisation, destroy a being ordained to do his part in effecting it. …

For Titus, the situation is different. Indeed, it’s not even possible to tell if he’s ever been acquainted with a “complex ethical theory” of any stripe. Thus spoke Titus:

When I came to make arrangements for the work, and so, for the moment, had to occupy myself not with my own passion, but with my rival; then for the first time I saw clearly what was going to happen to him. But simultaneously I was seized with compassion and pity; sorrow for him laid hold upon me, and overmastered me: I could not strike the blow.

Now Schopenhauer:

I ask every honest and unprejudiced reader: Which of these two is the better man? To which would he prefer to entrust his own destiny? Which is restrained by the purer motive? Consequently, where does the basis of morality lie?

I know how I answer. Titus embodies an indelible moral character, motivated purely by compassion, while Caius comes off as an amoral keener who could be persuaded back to murder by a particularly convincing footnote refutation. The basis of behaving morally, then, lies not in any philosophical treatise or divine command, but by cultivating our moral sense. Qualms beget alms.

This doesn’t eliminate the value of philosophy per se, but should definitely feed into how one sets their priorities. At the very least, any person who concentrates on living a life of compassion will run ethical laps around the man of manuscript, who is just as liable to become tricked by the latest sophist as he is to discover the first and only Grand Unified Theory of not being a dick.

In addition to the comments we receive below, there is some lively conversation taking place on Reddit connected to this post that can be found here.