The Fun of Morality

Many modern people–maybe many people at any time–think that morality is an impediment to their fun.  Almost any human being can sympathize with this view.  But maybe the truth of the matter is the other way around: that life without morality would be no fun at all.  I don’t here mean that life with no morality would turn out to be no fun because other people more powerful than ourselves would also be liberated from the restraints of morality, and the unchecked exercise of their power would make our lives not fun but wretched.  That is true enough, but not the point at which I am driving.

Rather, I mean to suggest that, apart from any such consequences arising from the behavior of other people, life for the person without morality would be devoid of fun, or of interest.  Moralists tend to disdain the less serious as treating life, wrongly, as a game.  But let us grant for sake of argument that life is a kind of game.  Even so, a game with no rules is no fun.  There is no way to tell if you are doing it well and thus no way to get any real satisfaction out of it.  The poet Robert Frost famously dismissed free verse with the observation, “I’d just as soon play tennis with the net down.”  Without the discipline of rules, he implied, there is no challenge, and with no challenge no satisfaction.


These thoughts came to me as I was reading the excellent Monsignor Ronald A. Knox’s book, In Soft Garments, a collection of conferences he gave for undergraduates at Oxford when he was the Catholic chaplain there.  Here is the passage in question:

The art of living depends upon living by a rule of conduct, and it is that, really, which lends zest and interest to the performance.  Of course, it’s true that we’ve got to make a living, and that struggle lends a certain zest and interest to life; but so far we are no better off than the beasts–they too must struggle for their daily food.  But man, as an intellectual creature, is meant to have a fuller life than this; he has a character to form of which, under God, he is the architect.  And any form of art demands rules that you are to work by, laws of harmony, laws of proportion, and so on.  To be the artist of his own character, man must have laws, outside of himself and higher than himself, to which he is to conform his operations. . . . A man who is entirely unmoral, if such a creature could exist, would be one who has never tasted life at all.”

We often think that the moralist is boring.  On this view, it is the amoral person who is boring.




  • Eric Johnson

    You make some great points. Cheating never brings joy. Breaking the rules also never brings joy unless the rules are inaccurate. It’s possible to have rules that over time, are recognized as not being moral simply because new information becomes available and we, as humans, recognize that these rules need to be updated.



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