Morality and self-interest

Morality cannot be ultimately based on self-interest

Kurt Baier maintains that morality is ultimately based on self-interest.

“Moralities are systems of principles whose acceptance by everyone as over-ruling the dictates of self-interest is in the interest of everyone alike, though following the rules of morality is not of course identical with following self-interest . . .

The answer to our question `Why should we be moral?’ is therefore as follows. We should be moral because being moral is following rules designed to over-rule self-interest whenever it is in the interest of everyone alike that everyone should set aside his interest.”

K.BAIER, The Moral Point of View, Ithaca 1958, p. 314.).

Kurt Baier, an avowed atheist, maintains that we do not need religious belief to safeguard morality. His argument is that morality is simply based on self-interest without reference to religious values.

Now, it is obvious that self-interest does play a part in morality. It is especially operative if we do admit religious values. For acting morally also establishes our self-worth. The costs of our morally good actions are offset by the gain in inner, spiritual and religious value. That, of course, is in our self-interest. For since the moral order constitutes the peak of reality, our moral actions make us share in what is best, highest and dearest from a human point of view.

But Kurt Baier excludes that kind of self-interest. He restricts self-interest to earthly values. If I respect other people’s property, they will respect mine. If I don’t harm people, they won’t harm me. In that sense, he says, it is in my interest for everyone to act in the right way.


voteLet us analyse his argument. It seems to consist of three logically connected statements:

  • It is in everyone’s best interest for everyone to be moral (where `everyone’ includes me).
  • Therefore it is in my best interest for everyone (including me) to be moral.
  • Therefore it is in my best interest for me to be moral.

All three statements are questionable. How are we sure that it is in everyone’s interest for everyone to be moral? It may be that the collective interest of society is served by everyone being moral, but does that necessarily apply to me as an individual? If I have committed a murder and am pursued by the police, it would be much to my advantage if the police were to accept a bribe and let me go. The immoral acts of the police might not be to the good of society, but it certainly would serve my self-interest.

Moreover, why would it be in my interest for me to be moral when everyone else is? Surely this is a fallacy. If everyone else is following the rules of morality, it surely is best for me to use this opportunity to my profit. Suppose no other businessman sells arms to terrorists – it leaves the coast free for me to do so and make handsome gains. The fact that others behave in morally acceptable ways does not make it more profitable for me to do so. The opposite will often be true (see: G.I.MAVRODES, “Religion and the Queerness of Morality”, in Rationality, Religious Belief and Moral Commitment, ed. R.AUDI, Ithaca 1986, pp.221-222; R.BRANDT, Ethical Theory, Englewood Cliffs 1959, pp. 375-378).

In other words, the self-interest theory collapses. Morality will only stand if I perform morally good acts because they have a value in themselves, whether I profit from them or not.

The general interest of the species may well have something to do with the origins of human morality. But could it ever be the ultimate ground for ethical behaviour? Who determines what is in the general self-interest of the human race? Baier’s concern for the underprivileged could well be countered by the factual observation that in evolution the weak are eliminated ruthlessly and that by helping the weak we are hindering progress.

Morality has deep roots

The truth is that most of us know in our bones that it is not our own self-interest that creates our rights and duties. Our deep and universal human experience is that there are values outside us that govern our life, that some actions are good and others evil, and that it is worthwhile to sacrifice even one’s own life for the sake of others. Morality must have some deeper grip on reality than an atheistic view allows.

Rather than being based on self-interest, morality derives its force from the `inherent human dignity’ and `inalienable human rights’ of other people. For persons differ from things. We may use things for our own purposes, for our self-interest, we may not so use people. We bake bricks to build a house. We cook a cabbage and eat it. But we may not use another person like that. Because people are not means, they are ends. Another person is always an individual, an end in himself or herself.

Consider the case of a sex maniac who rapes women and then does away with them. Just think of all the documented cases, from the Ripper murders in 1888 till the recent thirteen bodies of young women found buried in the garden, basement and bathroom of a single house in Gloucester. Such cases sadden and abhor us. But why?

It is worth thinking about this seemingly obvious example a little more. Why are we so horrified by what a sex killer does to young, innocent women? Let us try to put possible reasons into words.

1. The thought of their suffering makes me unwell. When I think of the fear, the pain, the humiliation these poor girls had to undergo, my flesh recoils and my heart cringes. The thought of it is unbearable.

This is a precious feeling of sympathy, an intuitive recognition of evil. But by itself it would fail, unless I discover the underlying reason. I may also cringe at watching a surgeon perform a messy operation, though I know it is for the patient’s good. Moreover, if I scrutinise my feeling carefully, it could be that I resent more the discomfort to myself than the injustice inflicted on the girls. To get rid of my disturbed feelings, all I need to do is to put the awkward facts out of my mind and switch my attention to other things; a strategy people frequently adopt when confronted by the sufferings of others.

2. The killings upset public order. If we were to allow selfish individuals to attack and harm other people, our streets and our homes would no longer be safe. We have to curb violence by locating the criminals and putting them behind bars.

This is obviously a good reason. The common good requires that unruly members of society be kept from inflicting harm on others. By checking the level of crime in society we are in fact protecting ourselves.

But can this be the only reason, or a sufficient reason by itself? Suppose that the serial killer only picks off girls infected with Aids? By eliminating them he may actually do a service to society. Or suppose that the country is overpopulated anyway. By reducing the number of inhabitants, is he not serving the common good . . . ?

Arms dealers who supply terrorists with bombs and explosives know these will kill innocent people. They may well say that they are just availing themselves of a free market, and the free market is for the common good . . . ?

3. Wrong, you may say. Individuals don’t have the right to determine the common good. If Tom, Dick and Harry decide what is good for society and what isn’t, we are still unsafe. It is the community that lays down the law. And the law requires that we respect everyone’s life and person.

You say that it is the community that lays down the law. Granted. But can the community take human lives, except in cases of self-defence or punishment? Could parliament decree that it is for the common good that certain classes of society be purged: the terminally ill, the severely handicapped, the mentally disabled? It is obvious from the Declaration of Human Rights that it may not. People have inalienable rights as persons which they do not receive from the community, but which the community has to respect.

Where do people get these rights from? What is our human freedom ultimately based on? There must be some frame of reference within which our dignity as human beings receives its complete and ultimate meaning.

The roots of morality, therefore, do not lie in common self-interest, but in respect for what we are. They lie in our being created and dependent. They lie in our being part of a universe where we have to respect the rights of others , and ultimately the authority of the Reality that gives us existence.

Morality exists because we are not the centre of the universe. We receive, but we also have to give. We are called upon to respond to the gift of life by a free and responsible self-giving on our part, a giving which may demand sacrifices, but which is at the same time a giving that will make us share in what is greatest and noblest in the universe.


The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

View the following film on the meaning of conscience