F. H. Bradley on ‘Why should I be moral?’



The problem of the amoralist

The problem of the amoralist is the problem of answering the question ‘Why should I be moral?’ so as to give an amoralist a reason to be moral. The problem would be solved if one could do this. But some philosophers think that the question itself is a bad one and so that the problem ought to be rejected, not solved. F.H. Bradley sounds as if he is taking up this position in his 1876 essay Why should I be moral? But, in fact, he rejects what he treats as the normal way of understanding the question, yet does offer a reformulated version of it.


An argument for answering the question

Before making a case for rejecting the question, Bradley considers an argument for why the question is a good one. Anyone who thinks that the question ought to be rejected needs to be able to identify a problem with this argument.


Here is how Bradley states the argument:

“To ask the question Why? is rational; for reason teaches us to do nothing blindly, nothing without end or aim. She teaches us that what is good must be good for something, and that what is good for nothing is not good at all. And so we take it as certain that there is an end on one side, means on the other; and that only if the end is good, and the means conduce to it, have we a right to say the means are good. It is rational, then, always to inquire, Why should I do it?”


This argument can be reconstructed as follows:

(1)  For any instruction to do something it is rational to inquire into the end or aim of doing that thing.

(2)  The instruction ‘Be moral’ asks us to do something.

(3)  To ask ‘Why should I be moral?’ is to inquire into the end or aim of doing what the instruction ‘Be moral’ asks us to do.


(4)  It is rational to ask ‘Why be moral?’


An argument against answering the question

Here is an argument Bradley presents against answering the question:

“But here the question seems strange. For morality (and she too is reason) teaches us that, if we look on her only as good for something else, we never in that case have seen her at all. She says that she is an end to be desired for her own sake, and not as a means to something beyond. Degrade her, and she disappears; and to keep her we must love her and not merely use her. And so at the question Why? we are in trouble, for that does assume and does take for granted that virtue in this sense is unreal, and what we believe is false.”


The argument here against answering the question can be reconstructed as follows:

(1)  Whatever is against morality is against reason.

(2)  To answer a question one must accept all assumptions of the question.

(3)  An assumption of the question ‘Why should I be moral?’ is that morality is not an end in itself, rather at best a means to an end.

(4)  Accepting this assumption is against morality.


(5)  To answer the question ‘Why should I be moral?’ is against reason.


The arguments that Bradley presents give rise to a dilemma over whether or not to answer the question. The argument against motivates him to inquire into the background commitments of the assumption he identifies.


Bradley’s analysis of the assumption

Bradley observes that the assumption identified – that morality is at best a means to an end   must depend on one of two background doctrines:


(i) Nothing is valuable as an end in itself. Whatever is good is good only as a means.

(ii) There is something which is valuable as an end in itself, but it is not morality.


Bradley thinks that if we point out a range of things that morality is good as a means for achieving, then whoever asks the question will not be satisfied, and this reveals that their background doctrine cannot be (i):

“If we said to them, for example: “Virtue is a means, and so is everything besides, and a means to everything else besides. Virtue is a means to pleasure, pain, health, disease, wealth, poverty, and is a good because a means; and so also with pain, poverty, etc. They are all good because all are means. Is this what you mean by the question Why?” They would answer No. And they would answer No because something has been taken as an end, and therefore good, and has been assumed dogmatically.”


Bradley observes that since the person asking the question must be committed to doctrine (ii), they too must reject the question of ‘What for?’ except they must reject it for whatever end they have in mind, while the person committed to morality must reject it for virtue. Therefore while they might appear to be pursuing the requirements of rationality in asking, ‘Why should I be moral?’ whereas people who try to be moral without having an answer to this question appear to be dogmatic, actually they are not less dogmatic.


A reformulation of the question

Bradley comes to the following conclusion about the question he has analysed:

 “Has the question, Why should I be moral? no sense then, and is no positive answer possible? No, the question has no sense at all; it is simply unmeaning unless it is equivalent to, Is morality an end in itself; and, if so, how and in what way is it an end?”


I think Bradley’s belief is that if one wants to formulate a question which must be addressed because it is required by rationality, then the ‘Why should I be moral?’ question must be formulated as he does in the quotation.


Bradley thinks that the voice of moral consciousness tells us to regard morality as an end in itself and that this in itself gives us reason for doing so.



Bradley, F.H. 1876. ‘Why should I be moral?’ in Ethical Studies. London: Henry. S. King & Co.