A Philosopher's Blog

Why Be Good? III

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 24, 2009
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As mentioned in a previous post, philosophers seem to assume that an answer is needed to the question of why one should be good. This seems to be based on the assumption that people need to be motivated to be good and hence default to evil or at least to being non-good. As a change of pace, I thought I’d turn this question around and ask “why be evil?”

So, how about a case for being evil…

First, if you ask people what they want, the most common answers, at least in my experience, involve material things-money, jobs, power, cars and so on. Of course, this is based on my experience, which might be unusual. Hence, there is a need for a broader base of evidence. This brings me to a second category of evidence-the media.

A quick glance at the leading magazines of today clearly shows what people prefer. Business magazines, such as Business Week, extort the value of wealth and success in business. Celebrity magazines, such as People glory in the fame and wealth of the stars. Turning to television, channels such as VH1 and MTV show the houses, cars, fame and wealth of celebrities and, of course, these things are all held up as being of great value. Many of the music videos, a defining art form of the 21st century, present the glory of wealth, fame and power. Given that art tends to reflect the values of a culture, it seems evident that wealth, fame and power are valued and preferred in this culture. If additional evidence is needed, a survey of the rest of the media will reveal that the general glorification of wealth, success and material goods is common. Thus it may be safely concluded that the media provides ample evidence that material success is preferable.

Third, there is the fact that many people pursue material goods at the expense of non-material goods. For example, people are willing to engage in degrading activities for material gain or fame. Reality television shows such as Fear Factor, Flavor of Love, the various versions of Survivor and similar shows make this quite evident. Magazines such as Maxim, Playboy, Playgirl, Penthouse and Hustler also make it clear that people are willing to engage in degrading behavior for the sake of money and fame. As another example, people are willing to sacrifice their physical and mental health in order to acquire money. In Japan, for example, people have been known to work themselves to death. In the United States, people are willing to work long hours and focus on their careers at the expense of their personal relationships in order to achieve material success. As a final example, people are quite willing to engage in immoral behavior for material success. People lie, cheat, steal and murder in order to gain material goods. Dictators throughout history ranging from Caesar through Hussein have been willing to employ the most terrible methods to secure their material power. These facts indicate that people greatly value material goods and, given the above argument, it would follow that these goods are preferable.

Fourth, people are willing to risk punishment in order to acquire material goods. Prisons are full of people, ranging from former corporate officers to petty thieves, who committed crimes in the attempt to make material gains or in search of material pleasures. Given that people will risk terrible punishments in order to gain material goods, it seems reasonable to believe that these goods are preferable.

Overall, given the arguments presented above, it seems eminently reasonable to accept that material goods are what people prefer and hence are preferable. What remains is showing how being unjust enables one to better acquire such goods. If it can, then that provides a rational motivation to be evil.

Consider, if you will, two people who are each starting their own software companies. One, Bad Bill is unjust. The other, Sweet Polly is just. Now, imagine a situation in which both Bill and Polly stumble across a lost laptop at a technology expo. This laptop of course, contains key trade secrets of another competing company. Polly will, of course, return the laptop to the rightful owners and will not look at any of the details- the information does not belong to her. Bill will, of course, examine the secrets and thus gain an edge on the competition. This will increase his immediate chance of success over the competition.

Now imagine what will happen if Sweet Polly continues along the path of justice.  She will never take unfair advantage of her competition, she will never exploit unjust loopholes in the tax laws, and she will never put people out of work just to gain a boost to the value of her company’s stock. She will always offer the best products she can provide at a fair price.
In direct contrast, if Bad Bill follows his path of injustice, he will use every advantage he can gain to defeat his competition and maximize his profits. He will gladly exploit any tax loophole in order to minimize his expenses. He will put people out of work in order to boost the value of the company stock. His main concern will be getting as much as possible for his products and he will make them only good enough that they can be sold.

Given these approaches and the history of business in America, it is most likely that Sweet Polly’s company will fail. The best she can hope for is being a very, very small fish in a vast corporate ocean. In stark contrast, Bad Bill’s company will swell with profits and grow to be a dominant corporation.

In the real world, Bad Bill’s unjust approach could lead him to a bad end.  However, even in reality the chance is rather slight-provided that Bill is smart and knows how to buy all the right people.

Naturally, more than a story is needed to make the general point that injustice is superior to justice. Fortunately a more formal argument can be provided.

The advantages of injustice are numerous but can be bundled into one general package: flexibility. Being unjust, the unjust person is not limited by the constraints of morality. If she needs to lie to gain an advantage, she can lie freely. If a bribe would serve her purpose, she can bribe. If a bribe would not suffice and someone needs to have a tragic “accident”, then she can see to it that the “accident” occurs. To use an analogy, the unjust person is like a craftsperson that has just the right tool for every occasion. Just as the well equipped craftsperson has a considerable advantage over a less well equipped crafts person, the unjust person has a considerable advantage over those who accept moral limits on their behavior.

It might be objected that the unjust person does face one major limit-she cannot act justly. While she cannot be truly just, she can, when the need arises, act justly-or at least appear to be acting justly. For example, if building an orphanage in Malaysia would serve her purpose better than exploiting those orphans in her sweat shop, then she would be free to build the orphanage. This broader range of options gives her clear edge-she can do everything the just person can do and much more. With her advantage she can easily get the material goods she craves-after all, she can do whatever it takes to get what she wants.

Turning to the real world, an examination of successful business people and other professionals (such as politicians) shows that being unjust is all but essential to being a success. For example, it is no coincidence that Microsoft is not only a top software company but also often regarded as being one of the most unjust. Now I turn to the just person.

If a person, such as Polly, is just then she must accept the limits of justice. To be specific, insofar as she is acting justly she must not engage in unjust acts. Taking an intuitive view of injustice, unjust acts would involve making use of unfair tactics such as lying, deception, bribes, threats and other such methods. Naturally, being just involves more than just not being unjust. After all, being just is like being healthy. Just as health is more than the absence of illness, being just is more than simply not being unjust. The just person would engage in positive behavior in accord with her justice-telling the truth, doing just deeds and so forth. So, the just person faces two major impediments. First, she cannot avail herself of the tools of injustice. This cuts down on her options and thus would limit her chances of material success. Second, she will be expending effort and resources in being just. These efforts and resources could be used instead to acquire material goods. To use an analogy, if success is like a race, then the just person is like someone who will stop or slow down during the race and help others. Obviously a runner who did this would be at a competitive disadvantage and so it follows that the just person would be at a disadvantage in the race of life.

In light of the above arguments it is evident that the life of evil is the preferable life. That is probably why evil is a growth industry and is always hiring.

No doubt,  many people would read this and say: “Hey, that is not being evil! That is just doing what it takes to be a success!” Or, if you happen to be a Cheney fan : “Hey, that is not evil! That is just doing what it takes to stay safe!” But, consider this:  the most seductive evil of all is the evil that people think is not evil at all.

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25 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on May 24, 2009 at 6:31 pm

    Mike, in your argument you switch between individuals and companies as moral agents without drawing any distinction between them. Here is an example:

    “Turning to the real world, an examination of successful business people and other professionals (such as politicians) shows that being unjust is all but essential to being a success. For example, it is no coincidence that Microsoft is not only a top software company but also often regarded as being one of the most unjust. Now I turn to the just person.”

    Question: does it make sense to judge a corporation like Microsoft in the same way as you would an individual? This is not at all obvious to me.

    • magus71 said, on May 25, 2009 at 10:07 am

      Mike is displaying the deeply rooted cynicism that all liberals display. “No one can make it without cheating. Cheating defines those who have succeeded, and I must overstate the bad things that successful entities do, in order to prove this to myself. I of course, never cheat or do anything even slightly below board to gain advantages.”

      It’s actually my experience that those who are successful in America are the ones who treat others the best. We can focus on bad stuff, but in reality the successful businesses are doing LESS bad stuff than the rest. Individuals make it by treating people well. This idea kills liberals, such as Mike. They can’t stand the thought that someone can be rich and good. Sure there are evil rich people. I’ve met many more evil poor people; people who ARE poor because they steal, lie, cheat and screw other people’s wives until no one trusts them or they’re in prison for a long time.

      You can only be bad in such a diverse society as our own, for so long before people move on to other companies or people that treat them well. Here in America, we have choices.

      Just another reason conservatives are happier than liberals.

      • biomass2 said, on May 25, 2009 at 2:16 pm

        “I’ve met many more evil poor people;. . .”

        mag: The odds are with you. We (US) had approx. 37M people officially labeled poor as of 2005 (about 17k for a family of three) . We had about 7M millionaires as of 2007.

        “It also shows that things like waterboarding did not diminish America’s character or power to persuade with a better life.”

        If I were an Shiite struggling to survive with the help of American power, I, too, could probably be easily convinced that waterboarding some Sunni is no big deal.

        “Sadism in the name of their god, rampant drug use, wild-eyed greed, and just general stupidity were more in their line…”

        And just how does that differ from the Sunni and Shia insurgents that exist separate from Al-Qaeda in Iraq and most other middle Eastern countries? What about that evil that will continue long after Al-/Qaeda and the US are gone?

        But then, the premise of the book is that the war is won. . .I know Rush Limbaugh hates John McCain, and John McCain lost the election, but even John McCain believes the war has a way to go before it’s won:

        http://www.cnn.com/2008/POLITICS/05/15/mccain.2013/index.html

        I’m not saying it’s not won (In fact, I hope it is–then we can both be right), I’m just saying there are other views. . .

        “Here in America, we have choices.

        Just another reason conservatives are happier than liberals.”

        So why do conservatives seem so intent on limiting the choices of their fellow Americans?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 25, 2009 at 3:17 pm

          I’d say that much of politics is about limiting people to the choices one wants them to have. Mill’s essay on Liberty does a good job of examining this.

          The right and left (to oversimplify) can be roughly defined by what choices they want to limit and which they allow. For example, the right is typically shown as wanting to allow the choice to own guns and to deny the choice for abortion. The left is typically shown as wanting to allow abortion but not the right to own guns. This sort of political mind is often driven by this goal: I want to force everyone else to live my sort of life.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 25, 2009 at 2:36 pm

        First, I’m not a liberal of that sort. I may have some views that would get pigeonholed as liberal, but I also have views that would be jammed into the conservative box.

        Second, I’m not completely cynical. The point of the essay is to consider an argument as to why one should be evil. I’m not endorsing it-merely making considering a case for it. Or, rather, stealing the case from Glaucon, Hobbes, and Rand.

        People can make it without cheating, but cheating makes it much easier. For example, show me a top politician who has not cut sneaky deals or who has not been involved with unsavory folks who helped him/her get to the top.

        I’m not sure where you get the idea that I cannot stand the idea that someone could be rich and good. While being non-good makes it easier (a bad person can do good things to hide his evil while still doing all the evil things that might need to be done), being good does not make it impossible to be rich.

        I would certainly hope that being wicked led to failure and being good led to success. It would be a just world in which the good were happy and triumphant and the wicked destitute and weeping at their self-inflicted failure. But, as Kant argued, we see the wicked triumph and the good suffer. That is why, at least according to him, we crave an afterlife and divine justice from which none escape.

      • kernunos said, on May 25, 2009 at 11:56 pm

        “mag: The odds are with you. We (US) had approx. 37M people officially labeled poor as of 2005 (about 17k for a family of three) . We had about 7M millionaires as of 2007.”

        …and how does that 17K for a family of three compare with the rest of the world?

        • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 26, 2009 at 11:32 am

          Depends on what part of the world you are talking about. Not so good when compared to Switzerland, for example. Damn good when compared to Somalia. But, this just shows that we have a terrible global disparity as well.

          • kernunos said, on May 26, 2009 at 8:20 pm

            …but for the most part? Let’s say at least 90% of the rest of the world being conservative.

            • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 27, 2009 at 9:21 am

              90%? I’m not sure. You can look it up or calculate it from the raw data if you want.

              But, suppose it is 90%. What does that prove, exactly?

      • kernunos said, on May 25, 2009 at 11:57 pm

        “If I were an Shiite struggling to survive with the help of American power, I, too, could probably be easily convinced that waterboarding some Sunni is no big deal.”

        You would think so but their ex-evil dictator did much worse to the citizens. After all, he likened himself to Stalin.

      • kernunos said, on May 25, 2009 at 11:59 pm

        “I know Rush Limbaugh hates John McCain,”

        You know this? I listen to the show quite often and I do not have that kind of insider information.

      • kernunos said, on May 26, 2009 at 12:03 am

        “So why do conservatives seem so intent on limiting the choices of their fellow Americans?”

        Oh and how so? Liberals like to limit choices through legislation. Seatbelt laws, helmet laws, no smoking anywhere laws, you can’t drive whatever you want laws because we will legislate what car companies have to build. How about, you can’t have your lights on after a certain time at night and year on certain communities in Eastern Florida because of turtles?

  2. SPARTAN-367 (PAT) said, on May 25, 2009 at 9:52 am

    That was a nice read.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on May 25, 2009 at 10:43 am

    It is probably worth pointing out that the least corrupt societies are always the wealthiest. I don’t see where this is captured in Mike’s argument.

    I think Mike’s argument implicitly assumes that the vast majority of people behave ethically. In that case one can obtain a temporary advantage by behaving unethically, as Mike has shown.

    The situation is analogous to immunizations. If everyone else is immunized, you are safe even if you don’t get immunized. If everyone starts behaving the same way you are no longer safe.

  4. magus71 said, on May 25, 2009 at 12:33 pm

    Here;s an excerpt from Michael Yon’s terrific book: Moment of Truth in Iraq. It shows that you can’t be bad forever and thrive. America won because of our character as much as our technology and guns did. It also shows that things like waterboarding did not diminish America’s character or power to persuade with a better life.

    “The attempt to govern was al-Qaeda’s hamartia. Sadism in the name of their god, rampant drug use, wild-eyed greed, and just general stupidity were more in their line….By 2006, it was becoming clear to large numbers of Iraqis that al Qaeda did not care what happened to Iraqis and Iraq.”

    We cared and we won. Easily? No, but in the end, evil lost because no one likes evil–not even evil likes evil.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 25, 2009 at 3:10 pm

      So, the argument is that being morally superior enables victory? If so, how does “doing whatever it takes to survive” fit in to this?

      Even if the argument is accepted, it does not follow that water boarding is acceptable. As one might argue, we might have “won” despite it and nit because of it.

      I would agree that groups which set aside moral limits in order to achieve their goals end up in disaster. That is why I argue that the United States should not adopt the “do whatever it takes to survive” mentality. After all, if we start doing “whatever it takes” we might find that such an approach ironically leads to what it was intended to avoid.

      • magus71 said, on May 26, 2009 at 12:24 am

        Being nice is what it took to survive. And killing all the right people.

      • magus71 said, on May 26, 2009 at 12:26 am

        And it took waterboarding to break KSM; and I’m glad that thousands more Americans are alive because of it and he’s sleeping peacefully in a prison cell.

        It takes great wisdom to know when to be brutal and when not to be. But there is a time for both.

  5. kernunos said, on May 26, 2009 at 12:13 am

    “For example, the right is typically shown as wanting to allow the choice to own guns and to deny the choice for abortion” I do not think the ‘right’ would ever say they want to deny choice so much as letting a life have a chance. I have always been against abortion, even when I leaned heavily left in my younger years. It just never made any sense to me.

    • biomass2 said, on May 26, 2009 at 9:27 am

      “I do not think the ‘right’ would ever say they want to deny choice. . .”

      Of course they wouldn’t. But as Michael points out in that same post: “The right and left (to oversimplify) can be roughly defined by what choices they want to limit and which they allow.” I would add that one (wo)man’s choice inevitably limits someone else’s choice.

      The concept of ‘choice’ is often quite loosely defined by left, right, and in-between.

      EX: When then-president Bush pushed for his Social Security overhaul, he claimed that in negotiations “everything [would be] on the table”. Sounds like a world of choice. Yet repeatedly he refused to remove “private accounts” from the table. Indeed, the removal of private accounts from the discussion was not an option–that ‘choice’, therefore, was not on the table. What was Bush’s understanding of ‘choice’?

      So let’s say everything’s on the table with abortion. But I’m refusing to take the option of “leaving the choice to abort or not to abort to the individual carrying the fetus” off the table. I’m refusing, for example, to say that the product of rape or incest must be carried to term ‘or’ that a society that has declared rape and incest illegal and immoral has the right to refuse the victim of such offenses the ultimate “choice” in such instances.

      Gee whillikers , I’m surprised laws haven’t been proposed to make illegal the death of fetuses during procedures designed to end ectopic pregnancies .
      “This involves the unavoidable death of the unborn baby but the aim of the operation is to save the mother not to kill the baby.”*
      To Save The Mother.Key words. Slippery slope begins here.

      But the fetus is still terminated. And it’s to save the mother’s life. And what about the situations where the mother is taking medications absolutely necessary for her own survival but that will inevitably harm or destroy the fetus? Should she be forced, for the sake of the the fetus, to forgo those medications? Or should she and her doctors have a choice?

      The victim of rape or incest who carries a fetus to term risks serious psychological injury before and for some long time after birth. Her life in a figurative sense (and possibly a physical one as well) is at risk. Should we take away her choice?

      Slippery slopes are lousy locations for absolutes.

      * realchoice.blogspot.com

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on May 26, 2009 at 11:55 am

        Good point. “Choice” gets thrown out there quite often, even when due consideration would show that the action that is supposed to offer choices really does not do so.

        My view is that people most often consider choice to be the choices they find desirable or acceptable. So, when they say they are offering choices, they really just mean that they are offering the choices they want to offer. For example, a stereotypical left winger would be “pro choice” when it comes to abortion, but probably not when it comes to gun ownership or many business practices.

        Of course, we cannot expect there to be perfectly unlimited choices. But, when people offer choices it is important to consider what they are putting on the table for us to select from.

  6. biomass2 said, on May 26, 2009 at 4:12 pm

    kernunos:

    Seatbelt laws, auto-inspection laws, smoking laws, helmet laws:There seems to be a common thread here. Let’s see. . . . If you don’t wear a helmet, you could could be brain-damaged for the next thirty years. That’s your choice, of course. But avoiding the impact your condition could have on my financial welfare–through insurance rates and government medical costs– should be my choice. You may drive a clunker with parts falling off. In many states that’s your choice. If a part falls off, flies back and lodges in the face of someone in a car behind you, you have, to put it mildly infringed on that person’s choices.

    I think I see the thread–it’s common sense and a sense of community that require, unfortunately– because some cannot (fore)see the impact of their actions on others– government enforcement. And there’s nothing Biblical behind these determinations.

    Come to think of it, why can’t we all drive 120 mph on I-70 through Columbus? And I want to install an outhouse behind my townhouse. And burn my waste outdoors in downtown Bethesda.

    “You know this?”
    Yes, I know this–just as surely as you claim not to–and I’m not alone in my opinion. Google Limbaugh v McCain. Google Rush hates McCain.* Then Google Rush likes [or 'respects' or any variation thereof] McCain; you won’t find anything for that one.

    But for the sake of the discussion, let’s revise and say I’ve listened often enough to sense in Limbaugh an ideological revulsion toward McCain that is not unlike hatred. . . That particular group that Rush puts McCain in seems to be growing by the day. . .

    *Read far enough down the Google pages and you find that these days the feud’s even becoming a family thing(not Limbaugh’s of course:))


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