Monday 7/22

Why Be Good?






Last time we considered the question, "can we be good without God?" As we saw with the Euthyphro Argument, however, it's not so much that we can be good without God as that we must, which raises a further puzzle, why should we be good at all? Last time we toyed with some ideas, noting in particular the way in which discussions of moral dilemmas tend to invoke consideration of the consequences of actions. I suggested that at least some times focusing on consequences will get it all badly wrong, but we left off there without going further into the discussion.

Today we took up in a more free-ranging discussion a natural follow-up: Why be good? The puzzle itself goes all the way back to Plato's Republic, and indeed is the very question that launches the whole of the dialogue in the Republic. In Book II, Glaucon puts a serious challenge to Socrates. Framed not in terms of being good but instead in terms of being just, we get the famous case of the Ring of Gyges:

They say that to do injustice is naturally good and to suffer injustice bad, but that the badness of suffering it so far exceeds the goodness of doing it that those who have done and suffered injustice and tasted both, but who lack the power to do it and avoid suffering it, decide that it is [359] profitable to come to an agreement with each other neither to do injustice nor to suffer it. As a result, they begin to make laws and covenants, and what the law commands they call lawful and just. This, they say, is the origin and essence of justice. It is intermediate between the best and the worst. The best is to do injustice without paying the penalty; the worst is to suffer it without being able to take revenge. Justice is a mean between these two extremes. People value it not as a good but because they are [b] too weak to do injustice with impunity. Someone who has the power to do this, however, and is a true man wouldn’t make an agreement with anyone not to do injustice in order not to suffer it. For him that would be madness. This is the nature of justice, according to the argument, Socrates, and these are its natural origins. We can see most clearly that those who practice justice do it unwillingly [c] and because they lack the power to do injustice, if in our thoughts we grant to a just and an unjust person the freedom to do whatever they like. We can then follow both of them and see where their desires would lead. And we’ll catch the just person red-handed travelling the same road as the unjust. The reason for this is the desire to outdo others and get more and more. This is what anyone’s nature naturally pursues as good, but nature is forced by law into the perversion of treating fairness with respect.

The freedom I mentioned would be most easily realized if both people had the power they say the ancestor of Gyges of Lydia possessed. The [d] story goes that he was a shepherd in the service of the ruler of Lydia. There was a violent thunderstorm, and an earthquake broke open the ground and created a chasm at the place where he was tending his sheep. Seeing this, he was filled with amazement and went down into it. And there, in addition to many other wonders of which we’re told, he saw a hollow bronze horse. There were window-like openings in it, and, peeping in, he saw a corpse, which seemed to be of more than human size, wearing [e] nothing but a gold ring on its finger. He took the ring and came out of the chasm. He wore the ring at the usual monthly meeting that reported to the king on the state of the flocks. And as he was sitting among the others, he happened to turn the setting of the ring towards himself to the inside of his hand. When he did this, he became invisible to those sitting [360] near him, and they went on talking as if he had gone. He wondered at this, and, fingering the ring, he turned the setting outwards again and became visible. So he experimented with the ring to test whether it indeed had this power—and it did. If he turned the setting inward, he became invisible; if he turned it outward, he became visible again. When he realized this, he at once arranged to become one of the messengers sent to report to the king. And when he arrived there, he seduced the king’s wife, attacked [b] the king with her help, killed him, and took over the kingdom.

Let’s suppose, then, that there were two such rings, one worn by a just and the other by an unjust person. Now, no one, it seems, would be so incorruptible that he would stay on the path of justice or stay away from other people’s property, when he could take whatever he wanted from the marketplace with impunity, go into people’s houses and have sex with anyone he wished, kill or release from prison anyone he wished, and do [c] all the other things that would make him like a god among humans. Rather his actions would be in no way different from those of an unjust person, and both would follow the same path. This, some would say, is a great proof that one is never just willingly but only when compelled to be. No one believes justice to be a good when it is kept private, since, wherever either person thinks he can do injustice with impunity, he does it. Indeed, every man believes that injustice is far more profitable to himself than justice. And any exponent of this argument will say he’s right, for someone [d] who didn’t want to do injustice, given this sort of opportunity, and who didn’t touch other people’s property would be thought wretched and stupid by everyone aware of the situation, though, of course, they’d praise him in public, deceiving each other for fear of suffering injustice.

If the bad person is only ever perceived as good, he or she utterly escapes the consequences that would normally befall a bad person. If the good person is only ever perceived as bad, he or she suffers the fate of a bad person and presumably has no reason to be good. Indeed, as we saw from our discussion of various cases in class, the question of whether to be good or bad appears to be entirely driven by considering the (good) consequences of being good and the (bad) consequences of being bad. You can see why Glaucon's challenge is so important: Absent those consequences, say by having a Ring of Gyges or an invisibility cloak a'la Harry Potter, one seems entirely free to forgo the trials of being good and be as bad as one's imagination permits!

Complicating matters significantly is the question of why we in fact turn out to be good or bad, as the case may be. This is something psychologists have long studied, wondering how it was ordinary Germans leading ordinary lives could have stood by and let the Holocaust be perpetrated in their back yard. We consider three alternatives, in the sense that people can be good,

  1. Intrinsically, i.e. they have a distinctive character that makes them good regardless of their circumstances or the consequences of being good;
  2. Extrinsically, i.e., whatever character one has, our herd mentality and desire for power over others can lead normally good people to being bad; and,
  3. Both Intrinsically and Extrinsically, i.e., most people are good most of the time, but in bad circumstances some have a special character to become moral heroes, others have the character to succumb to circumstances and become moral monsters, while most of us just sort of go along, unthinking and, if we happen to not be the target of the moral monsters, mostly bored.

To be sure, none of this answers Glaucon's challenge, but it is certainly a puzzle worth considering.