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Question of the Month
Why Should I Be Good?
The following readers’ answers to this central philosophical question each win a random book.
The term ‘good’ has many uses. We might say: “Kevin is a good footballer”; “This is a good pen”; “It’s a good thing my train arrived on time.” But in none of these cases does ‘good’ have any moral implications. Kevin’s being a good footballer does not in itself make Kevin a good person. Yet when I ask why I should be good, I take this to be equivalent to my asking why I should be a good person. This is a question that underlies moral action.
When I say that Phyllis is a good person, I do not mean that she performs some particular function well. Persons can perform various functions or roles, and can perform these better or worse, but it is not these capacities that we are interested in when we ask whether some person is good. If Phyllis is a good person, this is not because she functions well, but because she acts rightly.
So why should I act rightly? Acting rightly is a matter of doing the right thing. But why should I do the right thing? Some might respond that that’s a silly question, because doing the right thing is simply doing what it is right to do – and if something is the right thing to do, it is simply what one ought to do, and there is no more to be said.
I think there is some sense in this point. To ask why I should act rightly is to invite a tautological response: I should act rightly because that’s the right way to act. And, similarly, I should be good because it is good to be good. This shows that concepts such as ‘goodness’ and ‘rightness’ cannot readily be analysed into more basic constituents.
So I am confident that I should indeed be good, and that this means doing the right thing. But I now need to determine what the right thing to do is. And there, as Shakespeare says, is the rub.
Dr Mikel Burley, University of Leeds
Why be good? Because the consequences of doing good are more favorable than those of not being good. This can be seen no matter how we interpret the meaning of ‘being good’. For children, being good means obeying one’s parents. By being good we gain parental approval and avoid punishment.
Extending this to the social norms of one’s community, being good means being a good citizen. As such we gain the approval and avoid the scorn of those whose opinions matter to us, not to mention avoiding fines and jail sentences.
To a more mature mind, being good might mean obeying the dictates of one’s conscience, an internal voice which judges our actions as right or wrong, as worthy of one’s own approval or disapproval. By being good we gain a sense of uprightness, of rectitude, and we avoid feeling guilt and shame.
Further reflection leads us to wonder where the voice of conscience comes from and what the justification is for what that voice tells us. We find ourselves with a sense of duty and wonder who or what imposes that duty. Many believe that God defines the moral rules and imposes the sense of duty. God is thus a surrogate parent, and by being good we gain divine reward and (we hope) avoid divine punishment.
Kant alleged that the dictates of pure reason impose the duty to act so that the principles on which we act could be universalized without contradiction. For a rational being, contradiction is certainly unfavorable.
Others postulate an unseen world of moral values not unlike Plato’s world of Forms, which the moral sense somehow apprehends. The consequences of doing one’s duty on this view are a sense of being in harmony with moral reality, of being virtuous and worthy of approval, whether or not anyone actually approves.
All these meanings of ‘being good’ involve obeying moral rules. In another sense, to be good means to be of benefit to someone or something. By being of benefit to other people and to our environment we can create a milieu in which everyone flourishes, including ourselves. Whether we succeed depends on our skill in choosing actions that have good consequences. In any sense of ‘being good’, consequences are of utmost importance.
Bill Meacham, Austin TX
The question is ill-framed: there are no objective moral facts. As Hume was aware, to state that murder is wrong is not to offer any objective fact about murder. Rather, morality is species-specific: as human beings we are predisposed to see the world in terms of good and bad, just as we also see it as ugly or beautiful. These are qualities we impose upon the world, not ones intrinsic to it. The question to ask is why human beings have evolved morality. We must identify what survival value it has. For Dawkins we are ‘gene machines’: we have developed a moral sense because this gives our genes a better chance of perpetuating themselves.
To survive and reproduce, human beings must enlist the aid of others. Hence the system of reciprocal altruism – better known as tit for tat. We help others so that others think we are good and reliable. They are predisposed to help us when we in turn have need of help. It is thus an advantage to be good – or at least to seem to be good: just as it is to cheat when we think we can get away with it. (Indeed, evolutionary biologists tell us that we are most likely to experience pangs of conscience, and are thus predisposed to confess, when we are most likely to be found out.)
If morality is gene-driven this means we will naturally aid those who share our genes. Altruism extends to our immediate family (as Hume also noted) but not to strangers. If morality was a product of the Stone Age, then our biological make-up has not caught up with modern life. Dawkins advises us to abjure our selfish-gene-driven morality – to go against nature – for a wider rationality if we are to live together harmoniously. Similarly, Schopenhauer, whose Will may be seen as an alternative to genetic determinism, likewise advises renunciation. It is not easy to see how renunciation is possible if we are the victims of our genes in the one case and of the Will in the other. In any event, surely the most self-beneficial course is to try to convince others of one’s goodness and to cheat when no one’s looking. It may not do much for the human race, but, in the short term at least, you might bring happiness to yourself.
Roger Caldwell, Wivenhoe, Essex
Without appealing to controversial metaphysics, one might find it beneficial to be good simply based on pragmatism. This decision to be good is ultimately an application of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If everyone valued others’ welfare inasmuch as they value their own, then everyone would share the greatest total benefit. If only some valued others while others were selfish, then the latter group would receive the greatest personal benefits, while the former would be greatly disadvantaged. Finally, if all parties do not value others, then everyone loses.
Are you one to hope for the greatest benefit for all parties involved? Or are you one hoping to have the greatest personal payoff while also risking the greatest loss? If one subscribes to the former group, then that is a reason to be good.
Therefore, if one decides to be good, it need not be for moral reasons. One need not be selfless to genuinely decide to be good. One can be good out of a totally selfish desire to have similar good behavior be returned to oneself by others.
Chris Schafer, Warr Acres, OK
First, let’s define what it means for me to ‘be good’. Possible definitions include,
a) not harming oneself,
b) not harming others (ie not cheating or abusing others), and
c) helping others while doing both a) and b).
I will attempt a justification of b). This makes the question, as I’d restate it, “Why should I not harm others for my personal gain?”
Among the several reasons/motivations for being good, one reason could be practical. I should be good because if I am not, then I could face recourse via the law, social castigation, or by the person(s) I have wronged by way of revenge. Let us suppose, however, that the government has changed its laws to allow me to legally cheat and abuse others. Furthermore, I could be on the sociopathic spectrum, caring little of what society thinks of me. Since I have no fear of recourse, legally or socially, then these practical motivations for being good will have little or no influence on me.
Another motivation for being good could be psychological. It feels bad to hurt others for my personal gain, since I can imagine what it would be like to feel abused by others. In addition, there may be Kantian-type logical reasons for being good: I wouldn’t want others cheating and abusing me for their personal gain, so it would be both logically inconsistent and hypocritical for me to do so. Still, this may not be enough to change my behaviour, since I could still be a sociopath.
Finally, there could be the fear of God. Conversely, I could become an atheist, lose my belief in the existence of a just God and see no motivation for being good. Ultimately, then, the only justification left for being good is the fear that those I have wronged do not seek vengeance on me, since Karma is so kind.
Joe Moore, Woodland Hills, CA.
To be good, it is necessary to first decide what good is. Good, at least according to certain existentialists or nihilists, is subjective: a generally agreed-upon communal definition set by generations of humans before us and shaped by the present age. In a world without humans, there would be no ‘good’. Since the concept is based on nothing above humankind, the question is, why should one obey the established norms of goodness? Most philosophers have accepted that, although not objective, there is some shared human concept of goodness. Even Sartre, the great subjectivist, talked about a ‘human universality of condition’. Therefore the question becomes why should one want to ingratiate oneself with collective human society?
The answer is, like it or not, it is to our enormous advantage to follow the established norms of ‘good behaviour’. We do this to have a group to travel along with. Just as a baby elephant will follow the norms of his elephant herd, so too do humans follow certain behaviour patterns to belong: they follow the conception of the good. As Plato’s buddy Glaucon said, men would be unjust if it profited them to be so. As it is, it does not. It is simply more utilitarian to follow the common rules of the species than to attempt to go it alone.
It is not required by moral imperative or genetic programming to perform ‘good’ actions. But the consequences of not doing so are society turning its back on you, never having opportunity to ascend the lofty ladder of success, and being cast out by your own species. If you don’t have a problem with that, feel free to become a hermit in a cave somewhere, kicking puppies to your heart’s content.
Simon Barron, Failsworth, Manchester
‘Should’ is what other people urge you to do
And ‘Good’ is the name that they call it
As they are millions and you are just you,
If you do it you’ll be better for it.
Kevin Andrew, Tadcaster, North Yorkshire.
Sometimes extreme examples illustrate a problem. If we imagine a world where practically everybody treats themselves and others the best way they can, shouldn’t we also behave that way in such a world? Why wouldn’t we? We would have little grievance with others, and we would probably be in a good mood most of the time. Behaving in the best way to others would just be the natural choice for most people in such circumstances, and indeed do make this default choice in the smaller situation of families, etc.
But the reality of this world is somewhat different. Often we are not treated with respect, love or kindness. So the question could be ‘Why should we be good when we are treated badly?’ Firstly, because unless we behave as well as we can we cannot reasonably hope that others will. If everyone waits for everyone else to change their behaviour first, then nothing will ever change. Secondly, unless we behave in the way we hope others will, and how we know we should, then we are in a state of self-contradiction and we can never be whole and integrated. We know that we should behave in one way, but we behave in another – in this way we undermine ourselves. So maybe the best argument of all is that behaving well is in our own self-interest, as well as that of the wider community, in the long run.
Justin Holme, Surrey.
When I was growing up, I tried out stealing. I got caught a few times, and at some time in my early teens I came to the conclusion that stealing could get me into unpleasant kinds of trouble, so I gave it up. I also tried lying. This also got me into trouble, but I didn’t give up lying entirely, and I still do it from time to time. However, I did get very selective about lying. I took to drinking alcohol in my teens, and became an alcoholic. This got me into lots of trouble too. When I was 26, I gave up drinking alcohol with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous and a desire to get married to my wife-to-be.
Let’s say I was being good after I gave up stealing and drinking to excess. Then it looks like I decided I should be good in this way because I wanted to avoid certain kinds of trouble.
Nevertheless, I looked for other reasons why I should continue to try to be good. Sometime in my 20s I discovered existentialism. I remember especially Sartre’s trilogy The Age of Reason, novels by Camus and Dostoevsky, and works of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard and Jaspers. I remember vividly a work by Marjorie Grene called Dreadful Freedom. Jean Wahl says in a review of that book: “we may say according to Mrs Grene that existentialism is an endeavor to reinterpret human nature in human terms... independently of creed and independently of science.”
I have come to believe that I should continually keep trying to decide what constitutes my being good by interpreting my life’s experiences. I have come to believe that I should try to be good in this way because I choose to do so, and that I need not worry about any other justification for doing so beyond this choice.
Gordon Fisher, South Salem, NY
Let me restrict my focus to Platonic teaching about why one should be good. Plato exalts the knowledge of the good above all else. This concept is explained in the Allegory of the Cave in Book 7 of the Republic. It is knowledge Plato claimed the Guardians of the state understood so they could rule justly.
Further, knowledge of the good was something that any person could attempt to understand. According to Platonic teaching, when one understands the good one begins to incorporate this idea and lives according to it. In Platonic teaching being good is acquired through reasoning and knowing the Form of the Good. The obvious result is that a person who knows the good will also act in goodness and not commit evil acts.
Socratic/Platonic doctrine further teaches that people commit acts of evil because they are ignorant of the good. This doctrine presents the soul as a tripartite object: the appetite, spirit and reason. This idea of a three part soul is taught in the Phaedrus as the charioteer, the white and the black horses. When Plato describes the conflict within the person, the rational part of the soul, the white horse, is what directs the charioteer to do the right act, but the appetitive part, the black horse, desires to fulfil its lusts. This is the struggle for control of the soul according to Plato: a power struggle within each person as to which part of the soul rules. The way to resolve the temptation for the baser desires is for one to gain understanding of the good. This is what the charioteer aims for, but the conflict impedes his progress to the goal. Thus when a man gives in to his appetitive part and fulfils his lust, he ends up committing shameful act against the body. This destroys the soul. But the goal of knowing the good is to improve the soul, which is the person.
Larry Behrendt, Ewing, NJ
As a youth, I wondered: Why should I be good? If I could get away with it, why not be bad? One day, I decided to ask Superman. He’s so powerful. He can do anything. And yet he is always good. He’ll know why I should be good: I’ll just go ask him.
So I found Superman and I said, “Sir, you’re invulnerable, the Man of Steel. You can do anything, have anything you want. So why are you so good? You help people. You’re nice, kind, friendly, never take without asking, wouldn’t harm a soul. Why?”
“Well son, you have to realize that I was born on Krypton. We’re a rational people, highly evolved eons before the Earth was formed. Rationality is in our bones, our blood. The force of reason is stronger in us than desire. I see that you earthlings and I are moral equals. You’re weak, and I’m strong, but we can’t help that. You and I were both made: we didn’t make ourselves. I don’t deserve more than you, so I can’t desire things that are yours. And I must help others get their due. I can’t dissolve the bonds of reason, so I never fight them. It’s much more comfortable that way. I do the things you call good because they make sense to me. I also like and care about you. It’s lonely, always being the Super One. I want to live as a part of life on Earth, not as an alien freak. I don’t want things, but rather friends. I want to see you happy, and share your happiness. By themselves, power, speed, and stealth give no satisfaction; they’re boring, empty. I’m only happy when I use my super powers to help others. I seek acceptance, not fear; honor, not domination.
“You call me good, but no—it’s who I am. There’s no effort of will. What you call the good is a pleasure to me. To experience the nobility of service, to cultivate the esteem of others, to help the weak, to see them prosper--oh yes, there’s a power in that greater than any strength of mine.”
That night, I go to bed dreaming that I’m invulnerable, and in my dreams I choose the good. It’s because of who I am: a being held tight by both the bonds of sovereign reason and the pleasures of caring for others.
Greg Studen, Novelty, Ohio
I am good only so long that it is in my self-interest to be so. I am indifferent or actively bad when I see no advantage in being good. As I’ve grown older and more deviously selfish, I realize that it is to my advantage that others are good. Empathy instructs me that this means that I should try to ensure that the others also have their self-interests met. Otherwise they might be bad, which may, heaven forbid, inconvenience me. Therefore to increase the good in the world and hence our mutual happiness, readers should join me in encouraging people to be ever more selfish and Machiavellian. In this way they will more quickly see why it is in their own interest to care for their neighbours, then their country, and finally the whole world.
Dr Steve Brewer, St Ives, Cornwall
Why should I be good? I was a Mongol horseman who rode with Genghis Khan. We were constantly killing those who opposed us. We thought the enemy was evil. They wanted to kill the grass our horses ate, we believed. We just knew they had weapons of grass destruction.
On that kind of logic, empires are built and fall.
Ray Kappel, Elk Creek, NE
Next Question of the Month
The next question is: How Are the Mind and Brain Related? Answers should be less than 400 words. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question Of The Month’, and must be received by 14th December. If you want the chance of getting a book, please include your physical address.You will be edited.