‘Morality is its own reward.’ Discuss.

With a topic with so many answers, I must first examine the use of this in daily life. The Theist may often ask the Atheist ‘how can you know what is right or wrong without a god to ask or a book to read it from?’ To which the Atheist replies ‘Morality is it’s own reward’. What does he mean by this, and is it true? Morality as Empathy

People do what they need to survive. If a rich country, such as the UK exploits the natural resources of another, such as the fish of the Ivory Coast and that population as a result falls into even more extreme poverty, crime rates will rise. Murder rates will rise, theft and corruption too. Are the people becoming ‘more immoral’ because of the wrongs done to them? Is the local fisherman-turned thief wrong, or is the European trawler man wrong, or is the bureaucrat behind the exploitation wrong, or was the society that corrupted him wrong, or was the tax payers buying their everyday items and funding the trawlers wrong?

Ultimately we are all the same, we are all consciousness, and we would do the same thing and have the same belief system if we had experienced the same life experiences with the same genetic surface for the experiences to stick to.

Let us say, for the sake of argument that the blame lies with the corrupt bureaucrat, who by with the least effort of merely ticking a box can prevent the horrific exploitation from happening. But how could a person who is ‘just like us’ make such a horrid decision? It is because of his own belief system. He feels his pain more than that of others; or rather he fears his pain more. He fears that if he were not corrupt, the lack of money would cause him more pain to himself than the mass suffering he is causing at the moment.

This corrupt bureaucrat is like a badly connected brain cell in the body of life. His morality and actions do not take into account the whole.

Re-Defining Morality and re-asking the question:

If the corrupt bureaucrat is described as moral in his own way then surely everyone is moral, for he represents the bottom standard (or near enough). This cannot be the case. Therefore morality must be about recognizing other life as important. In many cases this may mean recognizing that other life is more important than ones own and behaving as such. If believing other life to be as, or more important than ones own, how can morality be its own reward?

Living by Conscience

There is the simple notion of a rewarding feeling when one has done good. As Abraham Lincoln so aptly put it: “When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. And that is my religion”. This ‘you get what you give’ philosophy has its limitations. For example, much of the aid donated to be given to third world countries either doesn’t make it to the country due to corrupt middlemen each taking a slice, or it can have the effect of making the people it goes to dependent on further aid. The people who made the donation may go about feeling good, but they have only fuelled the problem. Overall however, if more people did what they thought was right rather than doing what they knew to be wrong, the world would be a better place.

Morality is subjective and localized

I feel I must emphasise that morality is not about the rights and wrongs that an individual causes directly or indirectly. It is something else, subtler. For example, by the end of the British taxpayers lifetime how many soldiers will he have funded to kill innocents? How many child labourers with his supermarket shopping? How many square meters of rainforest would have been chopped down for the palm oil in his food? Someone who continues to contribute to these things in ignorance is not immoral. It is with knowledge comes the ability to make a choice.

Aristotle (1958) says that “the good is that at which all things aim”. He decides that politics is the best subject of study in order to do good because it allows for the good of a community or nation, rather than serving the good of the individual. He goes on to say that “[good is] for the sake of which everything else is done.” Everything is done to enable the continuation existence, so as outlined previously, all life is a whole and doing good is doing what a person thinks is most beneficial to that whole. To observe history and find an infamous character that committed mass murder that turned out to appear beneficial later (any ruler that forged a nation by invasion), that individual was still bad, because in their individual timescale they were bad. It is impossible to judge whether overall in the history of everything someone’s deeds caused more good than bad.

Another question whether there really is a choice in what we do. Moore (2005, 4) attempts to divide up out actions into voluntary and involuntary “In many cases, there certainly are a considerable number of different actions, any one of which we could do, if we chose.” Moore calls these actions voluntary. He goes on to explain that when making a decision, we assess the balance of pleasure and pain that the action will cause. He says that “[every action] either causes and excess of pleasure over pain, or an excess of pain over pleasure, or neither.” While this accurately describes the decision making process, it omits the important point that we do not and cannot possibly be aware of all the consequences of our actions and so we are guaranteed to make incorrect judgements even if we think we are doing the right thing.

To put these arguments together, we may make our decisions using Moors sliding scale, but we can choose to omit certain truths about the consequences of our actions. We can both veto the observing of some consequences, while being genuinely ignorant of others at same time. This makes morality completely and utterly subjective and irrational. As Nietzsche (2002, 10) put it: “To supply a rational foundation for morality… inspires laughter.” However, with total subjectivity comes objectivity. Everyone is different because they have lived in different times and places. If we could somehow all momentarily live on top of each other on a pixel, we would have the same personalities and experiences and make the same choices (such as desiring to be on top of the pile!). No doubt an observing alien will judge us all very badly for not helping the slum dwelling masses on the other side of our pixel called Earth. The point, is that the laws of nature are the same everywhere.

Kant’s a priori vs a posteriori

In his foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals Kant (1989) says: “The good will is not good because of what it effects of accomplishes or because of its adequacy to achieve some proposed end; it is good only because of its willing, i.e. it is good of itself… Usefulness or fruitlessness can neither diminish nor augment this worth”.

Kant (1989) goes on to explain that an action is motivated either by the formal a priori principle or the material a posteriori incentive. He says that moral value cannot be given to someone performing a good deed due to the material incentive, even if the material incentive goes to other people. He believes that the principle of sticking to a good law that was previously invented is how moral value can be given. “This pre-eminent good, which we can call moral, is already present in the person who acts according to this conception, and we do not have to expect it first in the result”.

Kant gives a brilliant example of whether it can be morally right to make a promise that can’t be kept when in difficult circumstances. He examines the possibilities of what would happen if he did tell the lie. He says that the loss in ‘credit’ could be worse than the problem he currently faces. Then he realizes that he is basing his decision on an apprehensive concern with the consequences rather than sticking to his law. He asks himself: “Would I be content that my maxim should hold as a Universal law for myself as well as for others?” He decides he cannot make the false promise because that would mean willing the making of false promises in difficult situations to become Universal law.

Louden: Character of the Agent vs Consequences of the Action

These are Louden’s (1984) equivalent terms to Kant’s a priori and a posteriori. Philosophers seem avid to divide up these two ways of addressing morality. I see little reason for this. In reality, we live using a combination of both. Being rational beings we can’t help think up the basic consequences of our actions. For example, I don’t decide to go to Sainsbury’s to buy some bread because it is ‘morally right to continue living’. I go because I will feel hungry without a sandwich. On the other hand, slightly longer term plans may be made around a moral value, such as deciding to go on a hiking holiday instead of a partying holiday in order to have a go at writing a novel in the evenings, because being creative, productive and healthy is morally right and drinking to excess is not. However, the consequences (in this case the side-effects) are part of the decision making process too. They are inseparable.

Louden (1984) says that, “Character is not a permanent fixture, but rather plastic. A more reliable yardstick is sometimes needed.” He says that if we can lose skills over time we can also lose virtuous characteristics and so in those cases the practical consequences of the actions must be addressed. Using both of these moral methods makes good sense, because “only virtue ethics with its agent perspective, allows us to differentiate tragic heroes from fools”. By “tragic heroes” Louden is referring to good people who despite their best efforts have made an error in judgement, such as in the Greek tragedy Oedipus.


As previously explained we cannot attempt to know all the consequences of our actions and so the long-term consequences are irrelevant when addressing questions of morality. However, I argue that in the short and observable timescale of someone’s life morality is its own reward by the positive effects it has on the lives of others. This is the Utilitarian principle of ‘the greatest good for the greatest number’. Kant argues that morality is fundamentally its own reward, regardless of time span or consequences.

To summarize, people and other life forms are moral agents who represent divine values, played out in digital reality format. As Ovid (1949) put it: “He alone will be wise, who’s well known to himself, and carries out each work that suits his powers.”


Aristotle. (1958) Moral and Intellectual Virtues (The Free Press of Glencoe).

Moor, G.E. (2005) Ethics (Oxford University Press).

Leiter, B (2002) Routlege philosophy guidebook to Nietzche on Morality (Routlege, London).

Kant, I. (1989) Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals (Orlando Holt, Rinehart and Winston inc)

Louden, R.B. (1984) On Some Vices of Virtue Ethics, American Philosophical Quarterly, 21

Ovid. (1949) The Art of Love (Stravon Publishers, New York).


QR Code
QR Code morality_is_its_own_reward (generated for current page)