A Philosopher's Blog

Why Be Good? II

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 20, 2009
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While I am a philosopher, I am also (obviously enough) a person. While it is tempting to look at philosophical problems from a purely abstract vantage point (that of the academic philosopher) it also seems important to look at them as a person.

One problem I have thought about for quite some time is the question of why I should be good. Of course, this does raise the quetsion of what sort of good I should be. But, I’ll set that aside for now and just pretend that I know what good is so I can focus on why I should (or should not) be good.

One way to look at the problem is to see if I have a motivation to be good. Like most people, being harmed by others concerns me and provides some motivation to behave certain ways. So, to avoid being harmed by others I do have a psychological motivation to avoid being bad. Or, more honestly, to avoid being caught.

Of course, this motivation does not really move me. After all, if I accept that I am just good to avoid being punished, then I am motived by fear and that strikes me as a weakness. I would be acting from the motivation of a potential victim and as a pragmatic coward. I would, as Aristotle might say, be ruled by the fear of pain. Staying on the path because I fear that others will whip me like a errant donkey hardly seems like a noble and proper life for a human being. As such, I need a better motivation. Also, honesty compels me to admit that this is also a matter of pride.

I’ve never really tried being truly evil. Really. Of course, if I had, I certainly would not be such a fool as to admit it. But, I have had moral failings. I’ve also done good things. Based on these experiences, I am inclined to agree with Aristotle and Plato: being good is like being healthy-you feel better because you are better. Being bad is like being sick: you feel bad because you are bad. Some of this might be psychological and social conditioning. However, it all cannot be-for in some cases my moral views lead me against what I have been conditioned to accept.

Of course, someone might say that being good because it makes me healthy is just being pragmatic. In a way, that is  a fair charge. The same charge could be leveled against me in regards to physical health: I exercise and try to otherwise take care of myself because doing so makes me fit and healthy. That seems sensible and right. After all, I am choosing what is objectively better for me for the sake of being better. I am choosing what is right because it is right. Or so I hope.

Someone might say that I am just doing what I want to do. However,  I am not just doing what I want to do-I am doing what will actually make me better. To chose what is best because it  is best seems to be a proper choice. Making that choice to avoid being whipped like a donkey is not a proper choice, but an act of fear.

So, what about people who are evil? If they do so because they give in to temptation, then they have not really made a moral choice. They have simply been lured off the path by their weakness. But what about someone who knowingly walks off the path, choosing to be evil? Clearly, they would have made a bad choice (by definition). But, they would be making a choice  and perhaps acting in a way more proper to a human than those who just follow the path out of fear of the whips. These people might be among the most dangerous people of all-they would be hard to deter with punishments or lure with temptations.

But, a clever person might say, do not the people who stay on the path because of the whippings or leave the path due to temptations also make choices? On one hand, the obvious answer is that they do: they chose to be ruled by weakness (cowardice or lust, for example). On the other hand, it could be argued that they are not choosing. Rather, they are being ruled by their weaknesses-it is their fear or desires that drive them on or off the path; not an act of conscious will.

I’m not saying anything original here-just hashing through this problem.

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  1. biomass2 said, on May 20, 2009 at 9:11 pm

    “One way to look at the problem is to see if I have a motivation to be good.”

    EX: What could have persuaded Bernie Madoff to do the right thing? A related way to look at the problem is to ask if he had a motivation to be bad: What persuaded Madoff to do the wrong thing? Is the answer as simple as “money”? Whatever it was, it had to be stronger than the fear of physical psychological or religious punishment.

    Elie Wiesel believes Madoff’s evil. Could only an evil person make the choice he made? Is there any way a basically good person could have chosen Madoff’s path–stealing upwards of $50B?

    Is he more evil (and if so, by what measure?) than the guy who decides to break the legal speed limit or the individual who chooses to make false claims on his Form 1040 or the idiot who drives under the influence? What persuades those bad individuals to do the wrong thing?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 21, 2009 at 2:48 pm

      I’m not sure what motivated Madoff-I just have what the news folks have said about him. The easy and obvious answer is that he was motivated by money. Perhaps he also liked people thinking of him as a financial genius. Or perhaps he liked the thrill of the risk. You are right-whatever drove him was stronger than these other factors (including his own conscience).

      Wiesel no doubt knows Madoff better than I know him, so Wiesel could well be right. Madoff’s actions certainly seem to be wrong: he hurt many people including the folks who were a aided by the various organizations that he destroyed.

      A good person could have chosen that path. It might be out of moral weakness-the person is basically good, but temptation takes over. Of course, if a good person consistently does the wrong thing, then they would most likely cross the line over into evil. Perhaps Madoff started out with good intentions. People can also do evil deeds out of error. For example, someone might think that torture is morally acceptable when it is in fact not.

      As far as his evil, it depends on what scoring system is used. Based on harm, he is worse than a speeder, worse than the typical person who lies on his/her 1040, and worse than the drunk driver. As far as what persuades people, it varies. Some people speed because they see everyone else doing it (and thus fall into a fallacy). Some speed because they think the speed limits are too slow. Some speed because they have bad time management skills and need to speed to be on time. As far as doing a false 1040, it might be simple greed or the person might regard the tax system as unjust theft, or the person might hate the way the gov’t is wasting his money, and so on. As far as drunk driving goes, well, that might be due to poor judgment (“I can drive just fine”) or a lack of concern.

  2. magus71 said, on May 21, 2009 at 11:25 am

    I believe people do what they want to. They must gain something, be it a psychic or physical benefit.

    I once heard a prostitute telling a tell a councilor: “I don’t want to do what I’m doing, but I have to.”

    He made a very poignant statement to her: “No. You want to. You may feel guilt or discomfort, but if that guilt or discomfort outweighed the discomfort you think you would feel by getting an education and a more ethical job, you’d stop being a prostitute.”

    In the end I believe that a human being’s ideas of right and wrong are subject to change in their own mind. People are not motivated by what is good or evil most of the time; they are motivated by needs and drives.

    Some have accused me of not being a Christian because of some of my views on ethics. To the, there is Evil and then there is Good. We can choose either as if we were choosing what movie to see on a given night.

    But King David prays to God in the Psalms that he never be left poor and hungry, lest he steal to eat and violate God’s Law. So we see, that even David, God’s chosen, knew that he would fail ethically if he was pushed far enough. I too would steal if I had to, to survive. I know that stealing is wrong and it is breaking one of the Ten Commandments.

    Many Christians would be critical me for my “Situational Ethics.” But ethics ARE situational. To be an absolutist is to act insane. Killing is wrong. Killing to defend against someone trying to kill you or another, is ethical. Stealing is wrong. Stealing to save your life is understandable and protected in law courts; it’s called competing harms–if you don’t commit a crime, something worse will happen.

    And yet: “The Spirit is willing, but the Flesh is weak.”~Jesus.

    Nobody can do right all the time. But we must strive to. When we stop trying or fail to admit even to ourselves our wrongs, that’s when we fall irrevocably.

    • biomass2 said, on May 21, 2009 at 2:28 pm

      When you write “We can choose either as if we were choosing what movie to see on a given night.” do you feel this is true of everyone? Or are there people who suffer genetic predispositions to what society might label evil activity –who are indeed not free to choose. In other words, what about psychopaths, for example, who by definition “lack empathy and guilt, are egocentric and impulsive. . .” Do they ‘choose’ to lack guilt or is that lack imposed on them by genetics and/or their environment?

      Or what about sufferers of bipolar disorder or sadists whose violent actions sometimes cost others their lives? There’s something missing in those individuals that sometimes only years of treatment to develop coping mechanisms can supply. If those persons do not have the coping mechanisms going into making a decision about doing the right thing or the wrong thing, are they really in a position at that time to make choices as simply as if they were picking a movie?

      Should we feel any sympathy for those Nazis who claimed they had to help slaughter the Jews else they and their families would have been killed? Is their decision to participate in the gassing of millions in any way justifiable?

      Running a red light to get your seriously injured daughter to the hospital and thus precipitating a fatal crash may be more acceptable than running the red light and causing the fatality because you didn’t see the light, or because you thought you could get away with it, or because you were drunk. But the dead are just as dead. In the case of the injured daughter it’s one life traded for another that may be saved. In the other cases it’s a life lost for nothing. Perhaps the Nazi was saving his family of four by personally gassing thousands. Were the four lives worth the choice? Can lives be weighed against lives?

      Anyway. . .I’m not sure I understand the following: “You may feel guilt or discomfort, but if that guilt or discomfort outweighed the discomfort you think you would feel by getting an education and a more ethical job, you’d stop being a prostitute.”

      . Shouldn’t the counselor have said “. . .but if that guilt or discomfort ‘is outweighed’ by the benefits you’d gain and/or pleasure you think you would feel by getting an education and a more ethical job, you’d stop being a prostitute.”?

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 21, 2009 at 3:18 pm

        This raises a very important question: how free are we? The existentialist folks would say that we have absolute freedom. The medieval thinkers who accepted the supremacy of the will would also agree. In contrast, the latest scientific view of addiction is that people cannot chose-they are ruled by their biological makeup.

        If we deny that people can chose, then we deny that they are moral agents. After all, a falling rock that kills a baby does no evil because it does not decide what it does. If we just do what we do, then our actions could be good or bad (on a utilitarian calculation, for example) but we would neither be good nor evil.

        But, if we deny that people are influenced by external and internal factors, then we deny what seems obviously true. Factors do sway us and people vary in their powers of resistance. Then again, maybe they just make poor choices.

        This is a tough problem, to say the least.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 21, 2009 at 3:11 pm

      True, people do what they want to. As the person pointed out, if someone truly wanted something more, then they would do that. However, this does not mean that what people do is what they would prefer to do. That is, what they would chose if other options were available. After all, events and situations often limit our choices significantly. While a prostitute might want to be a prostitute in the sense that she does that rather than something else, she would probably prefer doing something else. Or to use a less extreme example, imagine that someone is working a crappy job delivering food. In one sense, he wants to do that because he is doing it. However, he probably does not really want to do that and would much prefer doing something else if he could.

      In some cases, people do what they do out of choice-they could reasonably do otherwise. In other cases, their choices are more restricted-by their qualities, the situation, and so on. For example, the hooker who was involved with Spitzer could have easily done something else-she was clearly a prostitute by choice. As such, it makes sense to say that she wanted to do that. But, let us take another example: women escaping from North Korea into China are sometimes tricked by people in the sex business. These women have no legal recourse, no connections, and almost no way to escape. It would be odd to say that they want to be sex workers. True, they could kill themselves or die trying to escape; but the fact that they want to live more than they want to not be sex workers does not seem to show that they really want to be sex workers.

      • magus71 said, on May 22, 2009 at 1:48 am

        Well if other options wee available I’d just be a millionaire.i

  3. biomass2 said, on May 21, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    “Then again, maybe they just make poor choices.”

    And thus the problem continues unanswered. For are not many poor choices they make occasioned to a considerable extent by “internal and external factors” –genetics, environment–beyond their control?

    You could remove genetics and environment from the mix; then the person would be truly free to make the choice. But he wouldn’t be a person. . .

    So,must it not come down to a question of who has the will to battle the internal and external forces and come out the ethical winner in any given situation? Simple observation of very young children tells us that some have stronger-willed personalities than others. We can observe that in a pre-kindergarten class. Or even, for that matter, in a nursery.

    In the ethics game, compare the chances of the individual endowed with a weak will to those of the strong-willed individual when faced with genetic and environmental forces we all face. Which one is most likely to make the poor choice? And, in truth, is it really a choice?

    Perhaps Shakespeare wasn’t far off when he wrote “All the world’s a stage/ And the men and women merely the players. . .
    Maybe he was giving an unseen puppeteer god and mankind too much credit. Maybe we are, basically ‘rocks’ with minds. Does possessing a mind mean, necessarily, that you are truly free to make your own choices or does it mean merely that you have the ability to consider that question?

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 22, 2009 at 9:47 am

      The scientific evidence has long been that we are not free. This goes back to Democritus’ conception of atoms in the void. Hobbes also develop an account of the illusion of choice: we are pulled by what we desire and pushed away by aversion. What seems like decision making and doubt is merely the pull between these “poles”. In the end, what is strongest always wins.

      Kant argued that although we cannot prove that we have free will, we need it to have ethics. We find ethics irresistible, so we also want free will. I think that Kant was really on to something: free will seems very important, but fundamentally unprovable.


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