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Ethics and Morality

Does It Pay to Be a Selfish SOB?

Do you really have a good reason to be moral?

We all know people who have gotten quite far in their lives and careers through underhandedness, back-stabbing, dishonesty, and related manner of unethical behavior. But is it worth it in the end?

Indeed, one of the most challenging of ethical questions is "Why be moral?" After all, don't people have a definite advantage if they are willing not to play by the rules? Aren't people who do everything or most things by the book more likely to handicap themselves and thus to finish last?

Here, "morality" refers to the conventional set of negative proscriptions against such things as lying, deceiving, cheating, betraying, tricking, manipulating, using others as pawns, setting others up, seducing, sleeping with the boss, and other underhanded, hurtful, degrading, or mean-spirited things. While not necessarily unlawful, such acts are still wrong by conventional moral standards even if in your self-interest. Of course, people not uncommonly resort to extreme measures to get ahead, including murder, although most would agree that the commission of a felony is rarely in someone's rational self-interest.

In fact, it is often said that immorality never or almost never pays--at least in the long run, and that it's instead usually in your best interest to keep on the straight and narrow. For example, according to this optimistic way of thinking, being ethical in your business practices is more likely to attract satisfied customers and in the end maximize your bottom line. On the other hand, when consumers think they have been handed a raw deal, they will recoil and resolve not to patronize the unethical business in the future. And the same goes for individuals. When you're good, other people come to like and respect you and treat you well. Conversely, when you're bad, your cover will eventually be blown and you'll be the worst for it. At least this is what many people think.

But this line of thinking assumes that the average person has the ability to see through the facade of an artful manipulator. Unfortunately, history is filled with cases in which masses of people, even nations, have been swept away by the sweet, intoxicating scent of candy-coated deception. From the seductress out for the old man's money and the smooth-talking snake oil salesman to the swaggering, megalomaniac statesman, this is an ongoing theme in the saga of humanity.

It is also often said that, even if it means having less money or power, we should still be moral. This is because we tend to feel better, psychologically and/or spiritually; we are more contented and less stressed, and thus happiest, when we do the right thing. But this again lacks evidence. Indeed, there does not seem to be a clear connection between being moral and experiencing less stress. A morally good person can demand perfection and ruminate about it when she experiences inequity in the world. She can become overwhelmed with guilt when she thinks she has done something wrong. Far from having less perceived skeletons in their closets, many moral-minded people ruminate and worry a lot more than many unethical people.

So maybe the morally good person who does not irrationally stress himself out is happiest. But then why isn't the morally bad person also such a candidate if he too is able to avoid irrationally stressing himself out?

Still, there are other ideas of happiness beside that based on the absence of anxiety or stress. For example, Aristotle thought that, everything in nature has a special function or purpose, including human beings. The purpose of a human being, said Aristotle, is to be rational; so a happy, that is, well-functioning person must live life according to reason. This means using your rational thinking ability to control your basic desires and emotions.

For Aristotle this is exactly what makes people good or "virtuous." For example, rationally controlling your fears makes you courageous; rationally controlling your bodily desires such as for food and sex makes you temperate; taking a realistic perspective about your own accomplishments makes you proud; communicating rationally makes you truthful.; and rationally judging others as well as yourself makes you just.

So, for Aristotle, people who possess these virtues are the truly happy people; while those who possess their opposing vices-for instance, cowardice, intemperance, narcissism, dishonesty, and unjustness-are dysfunctional and unhappy. Clearly, for Aristotle, the underhanded, immoral person does not attain true happiness.

A game analogy might be useful here. If you think of life as a game with "rules of life" that define what it is for a human being to live life, then those who follow them and are successful are true winners. On the other hand, those who cheat at life, even if they claim victory, are not really winners, for they have not played by the rules.

Unfortunately, on the road of life, there are often no referees and judges present to sift out the cheaters from the honest players. Further, it might also be questioned whether the rules are really, as Aristotle described. For example, prior to Aristotle's time (the Homeric period) in Greek history, a popular view of virtue was not justice and truth but craftiness. So, the truly virtuous person was not the honest, above-board person but instead the cunning and wily person.

Indeed, according to Friedrich Nietzsche, the conventional concept of morality was the morality of the herd, a morality fit for blind conformists. Instead, the truly respectable person needed to go beyond the conventional concepts of good and evil and to create his own morality. What made this morality "true" was it creativity, its originality, not a pre-established set of norms that were blindly followed. Of course, Nietzsche was an atheist, so he is not likely to draw a following from those who derive their moral injunctions from the commandments of God.

Many religious people think we should be moral because God commands it. But, again this requires faith in God according to your chosen understanding of God and scriptural interpretation.

Yet, in the end, is it some sort of faith that keeps us believing that we should be moral-faith in the good order of nature, in the inherent decency of humankind, in the power of good to (ultimately) triumph over evil, in a benevolent, almighty God?

So do we really have any rational justification backed by evidence for being faithful to conventional morality?

What do you think?

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