Why Be Immoral?


Developing themes in the work of Thomas Hill, I argue that servility is an underappreciated but pervasive reason for moral transgression. Recognizing servility as a basic cause of immorality obliges us to reconsider questions about the rationality of morality. Traditional answers to the problem of the immoralist, which tend to be stated in terms of enlightened self-interest, fail to properly engage the problems posed by 'servile immorality.' In response to these problems, I develop a Humean version of a traditionally Kantian strategy for substantiating the rationality of morality: (i.e.) agents' conceptions of themselves commit them to accepting morality's authority. Servile behavior implies cognitive dissonance, which can restructure or dissolve those particular desires, beliefs, and projects that constitute agents' most highly valued contingent conceptions of themselves. I conclude that agents have reason to abstain from servility even on a parsimonious Humean account of practical reasons.

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  1. 1.

    Aristotle (2005, 1166a).

  2. 2.

    Christine Korsgaard (2005) calls it “the normative question;” Alan Gewirth (1981), “the authoritative question.”

  3. 3.

    For notable exceptions, see Vogler (2002, p. 5) and Gert (1998).

  4. 4.

    The motive of servility in some respects resembles Rousseau’s notion of amour-propre, which plays a central role in his theory of immorality.

  5. 5.

    See Korsgaard (2005).

  6. 6.

    There is disagreement about the relationship between motivating reasons and normative reasons. According to reasons internalism, having an available motivating reason to ϕ is necessary for having a normative reason to ϕ. Reasons externalism, in contrast, denies that normative reasons must be capable of motivating us. For a recent discussion, see Shafer-Landau (2003, p. 165-189). Externalists will therefore deny my assumption that showing that the balance of reasons favors morality from the point of view of agents themselves is necessary to showing that it is rational to be moral. Defending reasons internalism is beyond the scope of this paper; however, as Korsgaard notes, philosophers’ attempts to answer the moral question are often conducted on the assumption that an answer must address the first-person position—and thus the motivational commitments and propensities—of the agent seeking a justification for morality. Korsgaard (2005, p. 49ff.) offers Hume, Bernard Williams, Mill, Kant, and possibly Aristotle as examples. Thus, although some will reject my assumption of reasons internalism, my argument proceeds in accordance with an established approach to answering the moral question. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pressing me to clarify this point.

  7. 7.

    For a similar criticism and formulation, see Nozick (1974, p. 228)

  8. 8.

    For a classic study of conformity of normative opinion, see Crutchfield (1955).

  9. 9.

    For an overview, see Zimbardo (2007).

  10. 10.

    For discussion, see Browning (1992).

  11. 11.

    For the comparison to Reserve Battalion 101, see Browning (1992, p. 168). For the comparison to Abu Ghraib, see Zimbardo (2007, p. 324-379).

  12. 12.

    The guards were told “that they must maintain ‘law and order’ in this prison, that they were responsible for any trouble that might break out” (Zimbardo et al. 1973, p. 40).

  13. 13.

    Zimbardo writes, “Everyone and everything in the prison was defined by power. To be a guard who did not take advantage of this institutionally sanctioned use of power was to appear ‘weak,’ ‘out of it,’ ‘wired up by the prisoners,’ or simply a deviant from the established norms of appropriate guard behavior . . . [A]ll of the mock guards at one time or another during this study behaved sadistically toward the prisoners” (Zimbardo et al. 1973, p. 49).

  14. 14.

    For a summary of the experiments, see Milgram (1975).

  15. 15.

    Similar themes are explored in Hampton (1993).

  16. 16.

    Milgram’s description recalls Aristotle’s (2005, 1166b) claim that those who act badly “are in internal conflict, and have an appetite for one thing but wish for another . . . [T]heir soul is in a state of civil strife, and one element in it, because of its wickedness, grieves in abstaining from certain things, while the other element is pleased; the one draws them this way, the other that, as if tearing them apart.” Commenting on the above passage, Jean Hampton (1993, p. 153) writes, “If Aristotle is right, the harmful preferences of people not only toward themselves but also toward others cannot be considered authentic preferences of those selves, because they are the product of people in turmoil, who cannot author preferences satisfactorily.” Self-authorship, in Hampton’s terms (p. 155) involves a decision to develop interests and projects that are “ones you want, and not ones that others prefer that you want (and perhaps try to persuade you to want).” Hampton argues that the latter sort of interests can be other-regarding in an objectionable way.

  17. 17.

    The account of servility presented in Hill (1991) appears to understand servility as a stable, broad-based character trait. However, we can work with a concept of servility that characterizes a type of action in the manner suggested above in much the same way that the concept of courage can individuate a type of action as well as a type of character. We cannot conclude on the basis of the empirical evidence surveyed here that the individuals in (1) were servile as a matter of character; nevertheless we can correctly describe their behavior as servile.

  18. 18.

    Kant (2002, p. 187) writes that servility involves “belittling one’s own moral worth merely as a means to acquiring the favor of another.”

  19. 19.

    Indeed, one of the striking features of Milgram’s and Zimbardo’s experiments is that their subjects were, by all accounts, psychologically normal.

  20. 20.

    I am grateful to an anonymous referee for bringing out this idea.

  21. 21.

    In the limit, we have Rousseau’s (1984, p. 136) description of “social man” who “lives always outside himself; he knows how to live only in the opinion of others, it is, so to speak, from their judgement alone that he derives the sense of his own existence . . . Everything is reduced to appearances, everything comes to be false and warped, honour, friendship, virtue . . . [W]e have only facades, deceptive and frivolous.”

  22. 22.

    For further discussion of the relationship between an individual’s character and her projects, see Bernard Williams (1981b).

  23. 23.

    Jean Hampton (1993, p. 150) emphasizes that self-authorship involves a conception of one’s “personal needs,” i.e., that which “one requires as a particular personality or self, and is subjectively defined, arising from a person’s decision to be a certain way, to have certain aspirations, and to undertake certain projects—all of which are up to her to determine.” Hampton underscores the importance of those traits and goals that differentiate us as individuals, in contrast to traditional Kantian accounts of obligation that focus on that which we share as rational beings.

  24. 24.

    On internalization and compliance, see Kelman and Hamilton (1989), p. 110).

  25. 25.

    Kelman and Hamilton write, “Behavior adopted through internalization is in some way—rational or otherwise—integrated with a person’s existing values. It becomes part of a personal structure, as distinguished from a set of social-role expectations. Such behavior gradually becomes independent of the external source” (1989, p.109).

  26. 26.

    Bicchieri (2006, p. 194) also suggests a link between internalization and cognitive dissonance.

  27. 27.

    Cognitive dissonance can occur in a variety of ways. However, for simplicity’s sake, I leave some aside.

  28. 28.

    See Aronson (1972, p. 93).

  29. 29.

    See, for instance, Mussweiler et al. (2000).

  30. 30.

    I do not mean to suggest that individuals ought to accept the validity of their beliefs uncritically, ignoring countervailing evidence. But the Duplicitous Newcomer’s purpose in speaking against her political beliefs is not to question their validity; rather her purpose is to signal to others that she belongs, i.e., that she is not questioning their beliefs.

  31. 31.

    There is evidence to suggest that we diminish the importance of values that are precluded by our behavior. “If [a person] has tried to quit smoking and has failed, he is committed to smoke. Thus, he becomes less intensive in his belief that smoking is dangerous” (Aronson 1972, p. 95). If you are unable to stop smoking, smoking seems less harmful. Perhaps if you are unable to assert yourself, then the failure to do so seems less harmful.

  32. 32.

    On the sour grapes syndrome, see Elster (1993, p. 54).

  33. 33.

    Of course, because this argument relies on empirical assumptions about human psychology, it should not be construed as asserting that agents necessarily have reason to abstain from servility.

  34. 34.

    I am grateful to an anonymous referee for suggesting this argument.

  35. 35.

    The psychology of conformity is more complicated than what is indicated by my examples alone. An anonymous referee notes, for example, that some individuals hid their Jewish identity during the Inquisition for years without losing it and that, more generally, people are sometimes strengthened in their resistance to a public culture in virtue of being forced to publicly conform. However, the individuals in these cases differ from those in the cases I present in virtue of conforming for the sake of some further valued end. My examples feature individuals who seek conformity for its own sake. To be sure, this need not be the case for all examples of conformity. Indeed, conforming for instrumental reasons does not seem objectionable in itself; conformity is disconcerting primarily when individuals defer to others for no further purpose.

  36. 36.

    A similar point can be made about the sort of person from whom we seek approval. Milgram (1973, p. 76) notes that his subjects enjoyed the feeling of pleasing the experimenter. But the experimenter had done little to demonstrate that he was the sort of person the subjects should be interested in pleasing. Milgram even replicated the experiment at an office building in Bridgeport, Connecticut without any visible affiliation with Yale in order to discover the role Yale’s prestige played in eliciting obedience. He found that “the level of obedience in Bridgeport, although somewhat reduced, was not significantly lower than that obtained at Yale” (1975, p.69). There is an important distinction between an indiscriminate desire for approval and a reasoned desire for the approval of those one has reason to respect.

  37. 37.

    For a useful discussion of the so-called “foot in the door” technique, see J. Freedman and S. Fraser (1966).


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Thanks are due to David Schmidtz and two anonymous referees for this journal for their comments.

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Correspondence to Christopher Freiman.

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Freiman, C. Why Be Immoral?. Ethic Theory Moral Prac 13, 191–205 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10677-009-9183-5

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  • Servility
  • Practical identity
  • Thomas Hill
  • The normative question