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How To Be Really Good

Robert Griffiths considers what it takes to actually be a mensch.

Research shows that most people think of themselves as nice people (see for example, ‘People think they’re nicer than they actually are’, Rachel Hosie, Independent, 13.3.17). What they seem to mean by this is that they do little things to help people, such as give up a seat on a train. This is what many people probably think being a ‘good person’ involves – doing good things. However, the same people admit that very often they do not help if it involves a more significant sacrifice. So, if they think of themselves as good, and they think of being good as doing good things, they realise that they are not as good as they could be. They are quite good but they could be a lot better.

Peter Singer has argued that if we see being good as doing good things, and if we really want to be good, then we have a moral obligation to help others up to the point where if we help them any more we would make ourselves worse off than they are (see for example, ‘Famine, Affluence and Morality’, 1972). Singer admit that not many people would live like this, and in later writings he has played this obligation down, suggesting that people who want to be good should only give up to 25% of their wealth to those less well off. But it’s clear that, deep down, he thinks the more demanding principle holds as a moral requirement.

Loveless Goodness

Singer’s view is based on his Utilitarian approach to morality. In Utilitarianism actions are judged morally good in so far as they promote the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people. Therefore the best action is the one that promotes the best consequences in this sense. Singer at his most demanding exhorts people to do the most good they can do.

But if we are concerned about being a good person, it is not clear that the Utilitarian approach is the most helpful philosophy. As is often pointed out, Utilitarianism is an action-centred ethic that is not interested so much in the question of what makes a person good but more in what makes an action good. It is perfectly possible for a quite unpleasant, or even an essentially horrible, Utilitarian to consistently do good things. Thus, someone who hated the human race, and didn’t want to do it any good, but whose actions accidentally benefited people, could rate morally highly with Utilitarians. Someone might even come up to Singer’s standards of doing so much good that they can’t do any more without becoming worse off than those they’re helping, but in a very grudging way, conscious of severe obligations but fulfilling them joylessly. They would be like Mrs Pardiggle in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House (1852), who is moral everywhere – “I am a School lady, I am a Visiting lady, I am a Reading lady, I am a Distributing lady; I am on the local Linen Box Committee and many general committees; and my canvassing alone is very extensive – perhaps no one's more so” – but joyful nowhere.

By contrast, many would argue that if you are a good person then not only will you do good things, you will do them in a certain way. It is probably not necessary that you are jolly, but a minimal requirement would be that you at least want to do them – that you want to be good. Utilitarianism allows you to do good without wanting to, so it misses some of the advice you would need to follow if you’re interested in being a good person. This is because Utilitarianism isn’t really that interested in good people, it is only interested in good actions, however awful are the people that do them.

One might of course take the opposite line, that being good doesn’t have that much to do with wanting to be good, and that you can be a good person quite grudgingly and miserably. Indeed, some moral philosophies seem not only to allow you to be unenthusiastically good, they make a virtue out of doing things merely out of cold duty. The most notable of these philosophies was developed by the eighteenth century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Kant basically argued that a person does good by observing their moral duties, and not because they have a desire to do so. They may not want to do the good action at all; and indeed, on Kant’s theory, they seem to be more praiseworthy the less they have a desire to do good and the more they are motivated purely by a sense of duty.

But like a Utilitarian, Kant can be accused of not really being interested in what makes a person good, only in what makes an action good. This shows itself most clearly in Kant’s frigid argument that the most morally worthy person is the one who acts solely from duty rather than from some possibly warmer motive, such as affection or love. On Kant’s view, a father who hates his son but nevertheless helps him from a sense of duty would be more morally worthy – in effect a better person – than a father who simply loves his son and helps him without duty coming into it. As Phillipa Foot was fond of pointing out, for Kant, being a good person has nothing at all to do with wanting to do good, only with having an overriding sense that one ought to do good. As in the Utilitarian view, here looms the spectre of the entirely joyless moral actor doing good things with a heavy heart. Not a particularly good person, surely.

We can of course imagine a good person having a strong sense of duty; but we would value more highly a person whose sense of duty was allied with a strong desire to bring about what duty requires. The good father, for instance, is surely the man who honours his duty to his child and also loves the child. His motives, we suspect, will be a complex mixture of both duty and love, which cannot be separated in Kant’s rather clinical way.

Unselfish Philosophers
Unselfish Philosophers? Peter Singer, Immanuel Kant, Phillipa Foot, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Victor Hugo
Image © Miles Walker 2022. Please visit mileswalker.com

Excessive Virtuousness

Those unhappy with the lack of interest shown by Utilitarians and Kantians in what makes a person good have often been drawn to Greek moral philosophy, particularly to the views of Aristotle. The Ancient Greek word ethos, from which we get ‘ethics’, meant character, and Aristotle’s famous work the Nichomachean Ethics is largely devoted to showing his son, Nichomachus, what makes a good person. As such, Aristotle’s ethics is usually described as agent-centred, not action-centred. His primary concern was good people, not good actions.

Aristotle tended to think that good actions would flow once the goodness of the person was in place. He argued that a good person is in possession of certain virtues – character traits that dispose one to both be and do good. Among the virtues Aristotle claimed the good person has are the four cardinal virtues of courage, temperance, wisdom, and justice. But being virtuous doesn’t just mean doing good things. The brave person doesn’t just do brave things. Aristotle is at pains to point out that they want to do brave things. If they don’t, then in the truest sense of the word ‘brave’, they are not brave. Ultimately, a brave action can only be done by a brave person, and, when so done, it is done with pleasure. A brave person wants to be brave, a temperate person temperate, and a just person just. The overall result. apparently, is the good person. And the good person is happy and satisfied, a far cry from Singer’s calculating do-gooder and Kant’s joyless drudge.

But there is an awkward problem for Aristotle’s particular concept of a good person. Aristotle’s good person, while embodying a number of virtues that were clearly valued in ancient Athens, may be doing far less good than Singer’s good person.

This is partly due to how Aristotle conceives of virtue. Aristotle sees each virtuous trait as a happy medium between two extremes which are vices. Thus, bravery is a virtue, but a deficiency of bravery is cowardice, which is a vice, while an excess of bravery is rashness, which is also a vice. So Aristotle’s virtuous person is, above all, someone who acts in a very reasonable way in particular situations. But there is clearly a sense in which being a good person – and Singer’s view captures this sense very well – involves a certain excessiveness in one’s behaviour, such as in a comparative excess of generosity, or of love. Although conceding that generosity is a virtue, Aristotle is careful to point out that only an appropriate degree of generosity is a virtue. He would no doubt be aghast at the suggestion that the virtuous person would make as many sacrifices as Singer demands of his Utilitarian paragon. This is particularly so because for Aristotle, and for Virtue Theory in general, there is a requirement that the virtuous person flourishes as a result of being virtuous. Virtue theory carries a strong sense that being virtuous involves living well. Indeed this is considered as one of the primary motivations for virtue: you will achieve eudaimonia, or happiness – you will live well and flourish. However, our conception of a good person is probably more in line with Singer’s self-sacrificer than it is with Aristotle’s moderate benign aristocrat.

The difficulty with the Aristotelian conception of the virtuous life is that the self remains too important to itself. The truly good person cannot be so concerned to flourish; rather, their over-riding concern is that others should flourish. Nor can they content themselves merely with the action-guiding homilies of Utilitarianism and Kantianism, for they must be good in themselves, as well as do good.

If we want a conception of the good person who does as much good as Singer’s Utilitarian exemplar but which is person-centred, one option is a conception of virtue associated with religion, for example, Christianity. I'm not religious, but the idea is that a good person would have to be someone with the selfless form of virtue most commonly found in religions. For instance, the Christian conception of the virtuous life developed by Thomas Aquinas adds to the four cardinal Greek virtues the three Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity. The equivalent of Singer’s model of goodness is the person for whom charity is the primary virtue and who is prepared to make substantial sacrifices to serve others. The difference between such a person and Singer’s self-sacrificing Utilitarian is that they go about their business charitably. There is no scope here for the grudging, miserable do-gooder permitted by the merely action-centred ethics. This good person is perhaps exemplified by Victor Hugo’s Bishop Myriel, who does good out of love :

“There are men who toil at extracting gold; he toiled at the extraction of pity. Universal misery was his mine. The sadness which reigned everywhere was but an excuse for unfailing kindness. Love each other; he declared this to be complete, desired nothing further, and that was the whole of his doctrine” (Les Misérables, 1862).

It would be an irony of Singer’s position if, in identifying an ideal of goodness from within an essentially secular moral position such as Utilitarianism, he is implicitly sketching the ideal of religious goodness. Perhaps Singer would be slightly taken aback by this, although he does acknowledge that one of the ethical forerunners of his doctrine of self-sacrificing benevolence is Aquinas. Singer happily quotes Aquinas’s dictum that ‘Whatever a man has in superabundance is owed, of natural right, to the poor for their sustenance’. What Singer fails to recognise is that Utilitarianism cannot itself fully flesh out the vision of the good person to which this altruism aspires. However, there is clearly no necessity that the good person should be religious. There is clearly scope for a secular virtue of charity for those unwilling to take on religious metaphysical baggage. Rather, what is required to be a good person is a kind of selflessness crucially allied with the desire to be selfless.

© Robert Griffiths 2022

Robert Griffiths is a retired philosophy teacher currently writing a book called God and the Philosophers.

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