Peter Singer and Agata Sagan in Project Syndicate:
Many people make New Year’s resolutions. The most common ones, at least in the United States, are to exercise more, eat healthier, save money, lose weight, or reduce stress. Some may resolve to be better to a particular person – not to criticize their partner, to visit their aging grandmother more often, or to be a better friend to someone close to them. Yet few people – just 12%, according to one US study – resolve to become a better person in general, meaning better in a moral sense.
One possible explanation is that most people focus on their own well-being, and don’t see being morally better as something that is in their own interest. A more charitable explanation is that many people see morality as a matter of conforming to a set of rules establishing the things we should not do.
That is not very surprising in societies built on the Jewish and Christian traditions, in which the Ten Commandments are held up as the core of morality. But, today, traditional moral rules have only limited relevance to ordinary life. Few of us are ever in situations in which killing someone even crosses our mind. Most of us don’t need to steal, and to do so is not a great temptation – most people will even return a lost wallet with money in it.