A Philosopher's Blog

Why Be Good? IV

Posted in Ethics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on May 26, 2009
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In Part III of Why Be Good?, I presented a stock argument for being evil. The gist of the argument is that being evil while seeming good provides an amazing flexibility that can lead effectively to material success. But, it would be unwise to leave a case for evil unopposed. So, I now turn further consideration as to why one should be good.

As noted in my first post on this matter, the stock answer to the question is that being good enables one to receive rewards and to avoid punishments. Naturally, if a person is motivated to be good by gain and fear of loss, then she would chose evil if she thought it would give her more gain at an acceptable level of risk. This is why, obviously enough, people worried about the behavior of others work at trying to keep the gain of being evil down and the risks high.

Of course, if someone is good only because they lack the ability to get away being evil, then they are not really good-just pragmatic.

So, suppose that I could get away with being evil and that I could seem to gain more from that moral approach. Would I have a rational motivation to remain good?

Socrates argues that I would, mainly because of the internal effects of being good or evil. Roughly put, an evil person will be like a diseased person. Her soul will be rotten and corrupt. According to Socrates, such a person might think they were happy, but they would be mistaken. Rather, they would be miserable. This misery would come from the inside and would be a direct result of their evil.

In contrast, the good person would have a healthy soul and would, like a person having a healthy body, be better off. Thinkers like Aristotle and Confucius argued that being virtuous would make a person happy. This would not be because of external factors, but because being virtuous would put  a person into a state of happiness. In short, to be virtuous is to be happy.

On the face of it, it might be wondered why people are bad if virtue is so great. After all if being virtuous makes a person happy and everyone agrees that happiness is great, then one would expect that everyone would be working at being virtuous.

The easy answer to this can be found in an analogy to health: everyone (well, almost everyone) gets that being fit and healthy is objectively better than being unfit and unhealthy. Obviously, most people do not exercise nor do they eat properly. In some cases this might be due to serious obstacles (like being very poor), but many cases seem to be a matter of choice. After all, an American could swap out some TV or internet time for exercise and could swap a salad for a Whopper. But, of course, exercise and proper diet strikes most people as being hard and unpleasant-just as the virtuous life strikes most people as hard and unpleasant.

It has long struck me as odd that we are so constituted that most of us find doing what it takes to be healthy and doing what it takes to be good as hard and unpleasant. This does suggest that there might be a connection between virtue and health. This seems reasonable-bodily health and mental health would certainly seem likely to be connected. In any case, virtue theorists love to compare the two.

But, let us get back to my concern over why I should be good. I’ve never done anything truly evil, although I have done some bad things (nothing I could do jail time for, though-not even speeding). I have also never done anything that would qualify me for being a moral saint. But, I have done good things. Comparing the two, I have found that I much prefer what doing good does to me. Getting back to the analogy of health, doing good works like healthy food and exercise-it makes me feel better across the board. I also feel better about myself and I feel happier.

In contrast, doing bad things feels much like eating tempting but unhealthy foods and like not exercising: I feel bad, I feel worse about myself, and I feel less happy. I find this unpleasant and repulsive, so I am motivated to be good.

A clever person might point out that I seem to be choosing good over evil based on gain and loss: being good is a gain and being evil is a loss. It might also be added that my motivation seems selfish: it is not based on choosing goodness for the sake of goodness. Rather, this motivation is based on choosing goodness because of what it does to me. How, one might ask, am I any different from someone who is good because they fear being tossed into Hell or being whipped like a donkey for straying off the path? How am I any different from someone who acts good because they hope to rewarded by others with success or Heaven?

This is a fair challenge and requires a response.

The best reply is that to have the positive effects of being good, one must chose goodness for the sake of goodness and avoid evil because it is evil. If I consciously chose to do good actions only  because I hoped that I would feel a certain way, then I would (ironically) rob myself of that feeling. For example, suppose I find someone’s wallet and say to myself: “I shall return this wallet and doing so will make me feel good. So, that is why I will do it.” If that was the only reason I returned the wallet, I would not have that feeling. I would be returning the wallet to get the feeling, but would not get that feeling because I would not be doing the right thing, but acting out of selfishness. However, if I return the wallet because it is right, then I would feel good about it.

To use a more specific example, consider a particular virtue: generosity. If I give to others to be happy, then I am not generous. Rather, I am acting out of self-interest.

At this point, it might be wondered how my motivation to be good fits in here. After all, if I am motivated to be good because it makes me happy, but I can only be happy if I act out of the sake of goodness, then I would seem to be in a bit of a problem: my motivation would prevent me from ever achieving my goal. Realizing this, I would certainly no longer be motivated by my former motivation.

Fortunately, there is a way around this. I want to be good because I have seen the correlation between my happiness and doing good things. That motivates me to be good so as to be happy. As such, I will do good things. However, as long as I am doing these deeds just to be happy, I won’t be happy. Fortunately, as I do good out of that motivation, I will become habituated into doing good and avoiding evil. Eventually, with some luck, I will do goodness for the sake of goodness and avoid evil because it is evil. Doing this will make me happy.

A clever person might point out that I would seem to be choosing goodness because of the gain of doing so and the punishment of being bad. True, the rewards and punishments do not come from the outside, but my motivation certainly seems to be based on what goodness can do for me. Am I not, one might argue, just like the person who acts good to avoid being whipped like a straying donkey?

One obvious difference is that my motivation is internal, rather than external. It is not fear of external punishments and hope of external rewards that motivates me. Rather, it is the direct effects of doing good and doing bad that motivate me.

Ah, the clever person might say, that is a difference. But it is not enough of a difference. Consider, if you will, the nature of generosity. If you give to others because doing so makes you happy, you are not really generous. Rather, you are merely buying happiness. We would not call someone who gave to the poor because he wanted a tax break a generous person. While you want something different from a tax break, you are still giving to get and that is no more generosity than is giving someone money in exchange for an ice cream sundae. So, you clever philosophy, you are not good-you are just self serving. True, you are not as crude in your motivations as some…but a refined self serving approach to life is still self-serving.

I seem, then, to be trapped in a problem: if I am good because it makes me happy, then I’m just giving the same old answer to the question. But, if being good does nothing for me, then I would seem to have no motivation to be good.

One option is to try a Zen like thing: my desire to be happy will lead me to take good actions. However, doing good things to be happy would not be doing good. If being good is what would make me truly happy, then my desire to be happy by doing good would prevent me from being happy. So, like a Buddhist getting rid of all desires (even the desire to achieve Nirvana) to achieve Nirvana, I would somehow have to shed the desire to be happy and simply do good for its own sake. In doing that, I would then achieve happiness.

Another option would be to argue that goodness itself can be a motivator-that one would be drawn to chose it for its own sake even if it did nothing for you. Kant seems to have a view something like this-he argues that being good involves acting in accord with the moral law because it is the moral law. Being motivated by a desire for happiness does not cut it. Of course, this does raise the question of why this should motivate someone to be good. Kant, of course, thinks he has an answer to this.

Yet another option is to accept that this is the best that can be expected. It is better than the stock motivation (fear of external punishment) for the following reason: a person who is motivated by the threat of external punishment and hope for external reward would just as willingly be evil if they believed they could gain more at less risk. There are, in fact, many opportunities for people to do just that. In contrast, if being good makes someone happy and being bad makes people unhappy, then there would seem to be no viable alternative. After all, if doing good is what makes  a person happy, then they cannot do evil to become happy. So, there would be an excellent motivation to be good and no motivation to be evil (except for those who wish to be unhappy).

Which then is right? More thought is needed…

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  1. biomass2 said, on May 27, 2009 at 10:47 am

    Because of Obama’s recent SCOTUS pick, the word “empathy” has been in the news a lot lately.

    I see “empathy” fitting in somewhere between choosing to do good for the benefits I may receive from doing good and choosing to do good to avoid the various real and imagined perils that might await me if I do otherwise.

    I see Mr. X. Mr. X is suffering. I help Mr. X, because I understand his suffering. I “feel” his pain if you will. Mr. X benefits from my actions. I have done a good thing. . .possibly for no reason other than my willingness to empathize with another human being.

    Follow-up example: I could be walking down the street and a bum could come up and ask me for a dollar. For some reason–perhaps my mother was a drunk, perhaps I was mugged by a homeless person–I feel no empathy for him. I pass him by. I feel no guilt, shame. I feel I’ve done neither good nor evil.

    Your classic wallet example: I pick up the wallet and try to find the owner because I know how I’d feel if I had lost my wallet. I can empathize with the owner/loser. I do it not because it’s the right thing to do. And not because it makes me feel good. Or to be “good” as opposed to “evil”.

    “Do unto others. . .” is about as selfish a statement as has ever been written. And, in a perfect world where everyone is capable of empathy (did John Lennon imagine a world without psychopaths?), it would be a wonderful code to live by.

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