What’s the Point of Living Morally if We All Die the Same?

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Reader’s Question

I have had one question lingering in my mind for a very long time, and no one has satisfied me with their answers. Some people hurt everyone so badly with their words, they don’t care about others at all, and they are so deeply selfish. However, they put on a very good act and appear to have a noble personality. These people live without any morality yet get to enjoy a nice life. These selfish and immoral people don’t get punished like what is described in all of grandmother’s moral stories. So, what is the use of leading a life based on moral values?

Psychologist’s Reply

Because of our evolutionary heritage, human nature certainly seems to be based on self-interest. Because our distant ancestors who were most concerned about themselves (and their families) were most likely to survive and have offspring who survived, we have inherited those tendencies. Still, humans are not entirely selfish, and even our self-interested distant ancestors could not have survived had they been too selfish. The majority of our evolutionary history occurred while humans lived in groups of 100-150 individuals, many of whom were related to each other. This group size is important because it meant that daily life revolved around interacting with kin and non-kin, yet everyone likely knew something about everyone else.

In relatively small groups, selfishness and immorality are kept in check through social reputation, and people responding to one another accordingly. So those individuals who were so selfish as to be harmful to others were likely killed, driven out of the group, or at least ostracized. In contemporary culture, however, the size of communities is too large to police the personal reputations of everyone we meet. It’s easier to fake being a “good” person. We have formal laws in an attempt to compensate for the relative lack of social policing, but it’s still possible for individuals to get away with a fair degree of antisocial behavior, especially of a low-level nature.

You mentioned grandmother’s morality tales, and indeed socializing the child listener was the whole point of telling them. Such stories teach the young how they should behave. Similarly, all of the major religions have codes of conduct, stories to illustrate them, and declared rewards and punishments for following (or not following) the moral code. That’s not to say that people always follow what they were taught at home or in religion, but the purpose of such teachings is to curb selfishness and immorality. The hoped for result is that individuals incorporate the teachings into their self-views, thereby feeling guilty if they violate moral teachings. Or, at the very least, individuals are hoped to avoid immoral behavior out of fear of divine intervention and punishment.

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Some people never develop a sense of guilt and, if they lack religious beliefs, can indeed become quite selfish, taking advantage of others and seemingly enjoying the results. Those with religious beliefs frequently take solace in the assumption that such individuals will be punished in the long run (afterlife?). However, non-religious people have to decide how they will choose to live, and what ethical principles provide the most satisfying personal life. It can be difficult to realize that life is, ultimately, unfair, and that there may not be the universal system or rewards and punishments that made grandmother’s stories so reassuring.

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