Philosophy, Top Stories

Why Should We Be Good?

Today we are witnessing an irrepressible and admirable pushback against the specters of ‘cultural relativism’ and moral ‘nihilism.’ On the Right, thinkers such as Patrick Deneen and Jordan Peterson have responded to an increasingly cynical postmodern culture by arguing for a return to traditionalist and/or local values. More centrist thinkers such as Steven Pinker and Sam Harris have argued for a return to the Enlightenment’s emphasis on using reason and its handmaiden, empirical science, to develop an ever more objective set of ethical norms. And even on the far-Left, radical thinkers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek have levelled scathing attacks against postmodern relativism and ‘totalitarian’ identity politics, calling for a return to ethics properly understood:

Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere. For many observers and critics, this is a wholly positive development since both have the corrosive effect of undermining ethical certainty. I think there are two motivations behind this disdain for relativism and moral nihilism: one of which is negative and one of which is positive.

The negative motivation arises from moral dogmatism. There are those who wish to dogmatically assert their own values without worrying that they may not be as universal as one might suppose. For instance, this is often the case with religious fundamentalists who worry that secular society is increasingly unmoored from proper values and traditions. Ironically, the dark underside of this moral dogmatism is often a relativistic epistemology. Ethical dogmatists do not want to be confronted with the possibility that it is possible to challenge their values because they often cannot provide good reasons to back them up.

The positive motivation was best expressed by Allan Bloom in his 1987 classic The Closing of the American MindIn this work, Bloom argues that American students during the 1980s increasingly bought into multiculturalism, relativism, and a certain cultural nihilism because they did not believe there were any universal values which should be propagated and defended. Bloom worried that if this trend towards a kind of hip cultural nihilism continued, it would eventually lead to a tremendous flattening of our ‘selves’ across society. Bloom wasn’t an ethical dogmatist who was unhappy that his students didn’t hold to his particular set of values. As he consistently observed, being critical and reflective about values which are presented as universal is part of the philosophical tradition dating back to Socrates. What made Bloom unhappy was that these students rejected the whole idea that there could be any universal values.

These issues are all of considerable philosophical interest. In what follows, I want to press on just one issue that is often missed in debates between those who believe there are universal values, and those who believe that what is ethically correct is relative to either a culture or to the subjective preference of individuals. The issue I wish to explore is this: even if we know which values are universal, why should we feel compelled to adhere to them? Put more simply, even if we know what it is to be good, why should we bother to be good? This is one of the major questions addressed by what is often called meta-ethics. It was best explored by the nineteenth century British philosopher Henry Sidgwick, who called the issue of why we should be good the “profoundest problem in ethics.” However, before discussing his work in The Methods of Ethics, it is worth looking at a few of Sidgwick’s venerable predecessors who were also aware of this problem.

The Meta-Ethical Problem

To my mind, the first premonitions of the ‘profoundest problem’ can be found in the work of David Hume, who observed that we can never move readily from scientifically understanding facts about the world to determining what values people should hold to. This posed a serious problem for future scientifically minded ethicists, as it became clear that just knowing objective facts about human nature and desires couldn’t necessarily lead us to a clear set of ethical values.  This problem was picked up and reformulated by Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher who was awoken from his “dogmatic” philosophical slumber upon reading Hume.

Kant argued, very powerfully, that a human being’s innate practical reason begets a universal set of “moral laws” which any rational person knows they must follow. This includes his famous imperative to “act only on that maxim whereby you can at the same time will it to be universal law.” But Kant also observed that there was a major problem. While we might know that these “moral laws” apply universally, why should we feel compelled to obey them? Why not, instead, give in to “radical evil” and simply will great wrongs if it is to our advantage and we know we can get away with it? Kant’s answer was that we must postulate a belief in God and the immortality of the soul in order to get around this meta-ethical problem. This was problematic since, as Kant had already established in his Critique of Pure Reason, many of the traditional arguments for God’s existence didn’t seem tenable. So Kant argued that we simply must push the doubts of pure reason aside to make way for “faith.” This answer was obviously unsatisfactory to later secular or atheistic philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, who outright rejected belief in God as a stabilizing force for our moral beliefs. For Nietzsche, the answer to “why should we be good” is negative. There are no intrinsic reasons to buy into even plausible moral beliefs, and indeed, one of the weaknesses in our civilization is our unwillingness to let go of Judeo-Christian values, even given the “death of God.”

Henry Sidgwick and the Profoundest Problem in Ethics

Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900)

This brings us to Henry Sidgwick’s clarification of the problem. Sidgwick was not a comprehensive philosopher in the vein of Hume, Kant, and Nietzsche. Most of what he is remembered for is exclusively in the realm of ethics and meta-ethics. Here he made a profound contribution to the problem of ‘Why be good?’ Though not necessarily an atheist, he recognized that Kantian type appeals to God were no longer tenable. What we needed was something more grounded.

As a classical utilitarian, Sidgwick argued that it is happiness that we should take as the motivation for being good. As Mill had put it earlier, in the absence of God or some more metaphysically abstract concept of intrinsic value, happiness seems like the one thing which any rational person would agree is simply good in itself. But Sidgwick, as a rigorous analyst always concerned to look at a problem from every angle, quickly surmised that there was a problem. On the one hand, it seemed clear that if happiness was what was intrinsically good, individuals should focus ourselves on impartially maximizing the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people. As he put it late in the book:

I obtain the self-evident principle that the good of any one individual is of no more importance, from the point of view (if I may so) of the Universe, than the good of any other … And it is evident to me that as a rational being I am bound to aim at good generally,—so far as it is attainable by my efforts—not merely at a particular part of it. From these two rational intuitions we may deduce, as a necessary inference … that each one is morally bound to regard the good of any other individual as much as his own.

This would suggest that we must, at times, even put aside our own private desires and look at maximizing happiness from the impartial “point of view of the universe” as it is often called. But, Sidgwick then observed that this was problematic. While maximizing happiness impartially seems like the best possible ethical outcome, what might motivate individual actors to put aside their private interests when they conflicted with this impartial goal? This can be put even more starkly. If we can recognize that our own happiness would mean refraining from impartially making the world better, or even making it worse, why should we feel motivated to try to do good? Why not do evil if this makes us happy, we can get away with it, and happiness is all the matters to us intrinsically. This problem is Sidgwick’s “profoundest problem in ethics” and why he argued that there would always be a dualism in ethical reasoning between our interest in our own satisfaction and our interest in being impartially good.

This problem obviously has special bearing for Utilitarians, since for them happiness is the primary moral concern. But I also think it weighs heavily on almost any contemporary secular moral theory. This is because each of them emphasizes that human interests, and thus happiness, in some broad sense is the goal of ethics and therefore why we should be good. In essence, we can follow Derek Parfit and say that the ‘profoundest problem in ethics’ is a problem about why it ‘matters’ to be good in a secular context. Even if we know what is universally ethical and good, why should we care?

There have been several answers given to this very deep question. I shall try to provide a brief overview of them in the remainder of this essay, presented as ideal types meant to capture broad swathes of ideas rather than emphasizing specific claims by given authors.

The Self and Self-Interest is What Matters

Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

The first claim about what matters flows from a rejection of the impartial—and by extension the Utilitarian—standpoint. This claim is made by those who argue that what ‘matters’ for morals is only our own private satisfaction. We have no ethical obligation to act well beyond what makes us personally happy or satisfied.  Variants of this position can be found in the work of authors like Hobbes, Nietzsche, Robert Nozick, and others.

Stated plainly, this seems extremely close to making ethics purely subjective. What ‘matters’ is what we want, plain and simple. This also flirts closely with nihilism, since what matters to us is just a matter of taste and needn’t be the concern of anyone else. Moreover, it would seem to lead to unacceptable ethical conclusions.  If sadism is what makes me happy, those who argue that the self and its satisfactions are all that is important might be inclined to agree that we must simply accept this position.

Not surprisingly, very few major thinkers have outright argued for such a strong position. Some, like Hobbes and Nozick, try to blunt the impact of such a strong subjectivist theory by appealing to our self-interest broadly understood. They argue that rational and self-interested actors will recognize that abiding by certain social rules—such as a rule against murder—will benefit them in the long run by ensuring they are not at risk of an early and violent death. Others, such as Nietzsche, argue that a person truly concerned with their ‘self’ will not pursue vulgar and menial pleasures. Instead they will strive towards aesthetic greatness and overcoming their more mundane interests. These argument are variably convincing, but rest upon an unstable foundation. This is because the appeals to broad self-interest and aesthetics may not be convincing to the sadist who feels they can get away with the pursuit of their wicked pleasures, or who may connect the pursuit of aesthetic greatness with cruelty (as the Nazis did by misinterpreting Nietzsche).

Naturalism and Human Nature

The second claim about what matters is more empirical and seeks to dissolve the profoundest problem by appealing to the science of human nature. Proponents argue that we should use the tools of modern science to assess what human beings want and what their characteristics are, for instance, by looking at evolutionary biology or psychology. We should then develop an ethical framework that meshes with these natural features of the human personality. This framework would be accepted by most normal individuals because it would correspond accurately to our fundamental ‘nature’ as described by the best science available. This is the position broadly adopted by authors like Sam Harris, Richard Rorty, and Steven Pinker.

This naturalistic position has many virtues. Naturalists argue we just need to realistically describe how human beings act and what they are biologically prone to valuing. Then we formalize that as a system of ethics, and most people would accept it. However, there are problems with this naturalistic position. The main one is that it seems to elide Hume’s argument that one cannot satisfactorily move from facts about the world to what values we should accept.  To some naturalists this might seem like a pedantic objection. If human nature meshes with this system of values, then who cares if one is being entirely consistent from an abstract philosophical standpoint? But the objection becomes practically more serious when we recognize that it is entirely possible that human beings may not be ‘naturally’ inspired to impartially doing what is good. This is the argument made by those, like Peter Singer, who claim that genetic research indicates that we are generally prone to being selfish and irrational. This implies that our motivation to be good must come from somewhere else, since our ‘nature’ can incline us to do great wrongs.

The Independent Existence of Value

The final claim is that the values which ‘matter’ in some sense exist independently of us. The argument often made is that if values do not in some sense exist in this way, we have no independent reasons to be good when it is necessary to put aside our self-interest, or to act in line with the better angels of our nature rather than giving into our ‘natural’ dispositions to violence and wickedness. In its secular form, the argument is that, in some respects, ethical values come into existence with us but have a logic which is independent of our psychology or interests. In this view, ethical values are rather like mathematical formula. Human beings bring them into existence through developing logical ways of thinking about issues that are important to us. But the inner logical or ethics isn’t subject to our personal whim, any more than we can prefer that 2+2 would equal 5. The most passionate defender of such independent values was the late Derek Parfit.

This position is obviously appealing since it is as far away from subjectivist or cultural relativism and nihilism as a secular person can get. However, it is also problematic because it is very abstract and metaphysically loaded. Indeed, as Parfit implies throughout On What Matters (most notably the sections on Nietzsche), in many respects it is an attempt to give a secular account of what is important that fills the gap left by the death of God. For some, even this echo of theological ethics might be too much to accept in our scientific era.


Matt McManus received his L.L.M in International Human Rights Law from the National University of Ireland and his PhD in Socio-Legal Studies from York University. He is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC de Monterrey and is writing his first book “Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law” for the University of Wales Press. He can be reached at and you can follow him on Twitter @MattPolProf


  1. KD says

    As De Sade pointed out, if you are wicked, you may not get caught, but if you do get caught, you will be justly punished.

    In contrast, if you are good, you perhaps lower your chances of being accused of wickedness, but you may be accused and punished anyways, which is unjust.

    So wickedness results either in unjust gain to yourself, or just punishment (a net positive), whereas goodness insures you either break even or suffer injustice (a net negative). The rational path is obviously wickedness for oneself, while surrounding yourself with the company of the virtuous.

    • John Laing says

      This argument begs the question by neglecting the possibility of a just reward for virtuous behavior.

      • KD says

        Sure, the just reward for virtuous behavior has generally been martyrdom. . . whether it is Jesus or Joan of Arc or William Tyndale or Nathan Hale.

      • KD says

        I’m not sure you need goodness in any event, simply absolute freedom/license, where the strong can dominate the weak either by fraud or force, and then call it “equality”. Buy low and sell dear as the cannibal says.

      • KD says

        Perhaps this is why any society of sufficient complexity ends up making up a story about an after-life that bears some connection to human behavior? The immoralist has a duty to promote public morality by any means, in order to insure that they remain the only shark amidst the school of fish. Competition is undesirable.

    • Northern Observer says

      This only makes sense in one lifetime, which is why it is so popular today because we are encouraged to think this way, egotistically with one life in mind.
      The joke is that such a society is self elimination and will be replaced by a people/ culture/ society that does value eternity and is pro natalism.
      So if your belief system is ultimately self annihilating, what is the point of your belief? Sade is a joke.

    • This argument completely ignores quantities and probabilities. What matters is the risk of being caught, the risk of being falsely accused, the quantity of the rewards for doing good/bad, etc.

      • No, that’s the whole point. Be evil, so long as you are likely to get away with it–and surround yourself with good-doers, to avoid being taken advantage of.

        If you obey a law simply because you fear detection and punishment by the civil authority, then you have the proper mental intention. Perhaps someday, you can become the civil authority, and transcend that restraint.

      • Besides which, there are a number heinous crimes that if you specifically target the immature, the disabled or the severely mentally ill, it is unlikely that given the mental capacity of the victim, you will never be prosecuted for. You read about this in the newspapers all the time, and for every one that gets caught, ten probably get away with impunity.

        Why not be evil? There is no God, no afterlife, and the civil authority is pretty poor at detection if you select the right victim. . . The good thing is simply a hangover from Medieval superstition–the “conscience” is the voice of God, etc., well the only way to break free is to negate the conscience.

  2. Bubblecar says

    “Indeed, relativism and the moral nihilism with which it is often affiliated, seems to be in retreat everywhere.”

    When was it ever in the ascendancy, except perhaps in a few university departments far removed from the everyday life and thinking of 99% of the population?

    The trouble with intellectuals, of any political stripe, is that they tend to forget that most people have never heard of them, and are never likely to unless their ideas lead to profound and lasting change outside of the academy.

    And the trouble with ethical philosophy is that it’s largely divorced from science. A scientific understanding of human nature will point out first and foremost that we are a social species, as a result of powerful evolutionary pressures.

    Thus people who are inclined to be reasonably good, or at least more good than bad, most of the time – i.e., to care about the well-being and happiness of others, to a socially positive extent – are not that like that due to having absorbed this or that highfalutin philosophy from some obscure philosopher that hardly anyone ever reads, or some ancient religious text that contains a few socially positive messages amongst all the tribal cruelty and magical mumbo-jumbo.

    They are inclined to be reasonably good because they were born with that inclination, and so were most other people in the community that raised them.

    Obviously this doesn’t mean that good always triumphs in the social sphere, or in the behaviour of each individual. There are other evolutionary pressures at work that have left the door wide open for all kinds of nasty behaviour, which is why most societies maintain codes of conduct – rules and laws – to try to keep such behaviours under an effective degree of control.

    Nonetheless, ethical movements do have important influence over time (although on much longer timescales than that of fads like postmodernism, American libertarianism etc). The social progress we’ve seen over the course of the last century or so, towards concepts of equal and universal human rights, and social mechanisms for advancing the same, are a product of the same ethical movements that gave rise to democracy and the welfare state, i.e. post-Enlightenment humanism.

    It’s likely to be these same ethical influences at work in the emerging transhumanist movement, which may eventually enable us to adjust human nature, via biotechnological means, to better match our highest ethical ideals.

    Who knows, science and technology may may one day enable us to do away with “evil” altogether.

    • Paul Ellis says

      “And the trouble with ethical philosophy is that it’s largely divorced from science. A scientific understanding of human nature will point out first and foremost that we are a social species, as a result of powerful evolutionary pressures.”

      And there you have it. The drive to survive and succeed as a social species impels and evolves us towards codes of behaviour which in general promote that. There are always occasions in which individual self-interest clashes with group interest, but if individual self-interest overwhelms the group, the social survival strategy is undermined and group survival becomes doubtful, which then endangers the individual as well as the group.

      It seems to me the problem is with policing behaviour. In the past, an all-seeing God and the prospect of hellfire did that: your social group might not observe your anti-social, selfish behaviour, but the heavenly Judge Dredd did, and would call you to account at the proper time. Obviously this doesn’t work for secularists.

      Free market theory is a good place to start. As I understand it, this theory holds that human societies and economies are too complex for effective centralised control and planning, and the best outcomes result from the simplification of leaving individuals free to exchange and transact on their own terms. That said, it’s obvious that free markets are only properly free when they are also free from monopoly dominance, coercion and distortion; are defined and protected by simple, clear, consistent, enforceable and enforced rules of property and etiquette; and when all participants understand and accept this.

      And that, for me, is the main argument against subjective ethics: in practice no one has a clue what anyone else thinks and believes; everything is in flux; no-one knows what behaviour is acceptable by the group; the stage is set for domination by the charismatic unscrupulous or deluded.

      We see it everywhere at the moment.

  3. Matt McManus says

    I’m not entirely sure about that. My suspicion is it depends on whether you take a Platonic or Kantian approach to the correlation between knowledge and moral behavior. If you’re a Platonist to some extent you might be inclined to thinking that more of the former will result in better behavior in terms of the latter. If you’re a Kantian you might be far more skeptical since the capacity for intelligent reasoning seems like a precondition for the emergence of genuine evil.

  4. martti_s says

    “On the Right” reads to the right from where I am standing and correspondingly, “On the Left” is anything I do not accept or support. This is the American use of the terms.

  5. Richard Brown says

    Alan Bloom is very good, and very funny, on Nietzsche in America.

  6. John AD says

    Can we drop the dropping of all these names? Is it to give the simple thoughts some kind of gravitas? This is how philosophy boot-straps itself.

    • Paul Ellis says

      It’s technical jargon, like airline pilots and their acronyms. The names are shorthand for the arguments they’re famous for. The trouble is that unless you’ve studied this or have a glossary, the jargon in incomprehensible and the statement rendered meaningless.

  7. AC Harper says

    “Why should we be good?” and “why should I be good?” and “what are the universal ways of being good?” are separate questions and I think it is a mistake to try and answer them all with the same answer.

    Humans are (mostly) social animals and the naturalistic answer (social human nature) seems appropriate “we should collectively behave in such ways that we retain the benefits of social living and minimise the penalties of social living.” From the individual viewpoint: “I should generally act in ways that support the benefits of social living.”

    Are there universal ways of being good? Probably not because smaller social groups behave well in different ways.

    Could a lone human, abandoned on a desert isle, behave ‘well’? I doubt it – the only good behaviour the individual could follow would be the notions of ‘good behaviour’ they brought with them.

    So my answer is that an individual can only ‘be good’ or not in the social network they find themselves in. It is the social network that sets expectations of good behaviour and punished (to some extent) bad behaviour. One size does not fit all.

    • Robin says

      “Could a lone human, abandoned on a desert isle, behave ‘well’?”

      There are certainly better or worse ways of treating oneself, physically and psychologically. Treating oneself well is a determinant of being able to treat other well in a social context.

    • ADM64 says

      I’d suggest that the better question about the desert isle scenario is “Could an individual on a desert isle do anything he wanted, for any reason that he wanted, whenever he wanted to, and still expect to live and keep his sanity?” Keep in mind that ethical principles are supposed to be practical by all, so then extend that question to society. The answer may be revealing about the true sources of morality, their broad universality, and why we should obey them.

  8. Anthony Taylor says

    Why should we be good?

    I find this all very interesting but also feel a lot of it goes way over my head. However, considering this question it seems simple to me.

    If to be good is to make life a little better or easier for oneself or others and if I assume that this is wanted by most people, which I do, perhaps naively. Then being good has benefits individually and collectively, singularly and cumulatively, and should be aimed for, surely?

  9. dirk says

    I agree with Harper, any discussion on why be good should start with the definition of what good is. For Macchiavelli (and quite some other rulers after him), good is somewhat else than for saint Augustine and Ghandi. Yuval Harari said somewhere: Why is democracy, free market (and, my own addition privacy, humanism, free speech, intrinsic human equality) good? His answer: due to technological, national and geopolitical conditions, so, I consider it a Marxist view. If a government needs taxes , doesn’t want to spend too much energy in governing and management,and needs soldiers that want to defend their country (now less important maybe), then all those values are higly useful. But I can imagine that such is less so for islam, china and maybe tribes in the middle of the Amazonia or the Arctic.

  10. This “profoundest problem in ethics” has actually long been solved. The solution is what philosophers call “emotivism”. The only issue is that people dislike the solution and so intuitively reject it.

    There is no objective “good” and therefore there is no objective reason why we “should” be good. Instead, moral language conveys approval or disapproval, based on our own subjective values.

    There is nothing wrong with subjectivism! (Which, by the way, is not at all the same thing as cultural relativism or nihilism.) There is no reason to avoid the conclusion that morality is subjective.

    • Matt says

      I would situated emotivists in the “self-interested” category personally, since they believe that the basis of morality is individual taste. However you’re right that I was a little brusque in just dismissing them too quickly.

      • Andrew Roddy says

        A Choctaw friend invites me to consider the difference between the polarities of ‘Good and bad’ as compared to ‘Right and wrong’. My instinct is that I don’t want to play but eventually I concede that the latter is flavoured with nuances of ethics and judgement by which the former is ‘untainted’. How this plays out in the language of the Choctaw people I have no idea.
        I see little practical distinction between subjectivity and relativism as far as this discussion is concerned. An individual in relation to their culture or one culture in relation to others; for these purposes much the same thing. However equating either concept with nihilism seems like a gratuitous slur. But it’s fashionable.
        So what do we want? An absolute, universal and unchanging standard of right and wrong? Why would we seek such a thing might be a better question. Is it palpably absurd?
        A friend tells me he saw a monkey rape a frog on UTube. I didn’t see it. He was grossed out but kinda fascinated. Can we judge the monkey by our own standards? Surely not. Can we judge our evolutionary ancestors by our own standards? Is there a point in history when we became accountable to this non-relative, unchanging universal Platonic standard?
        Intuitively the emotivist argument rests very easily with me. At the core of it surely is the conviction that we are primarily emotive, as distinct from rational, creatures. Our philosophical culture has, for many centuries, encouraged the opposite view. We have had the rational tail wagging the emotional dog. A farce!
        However I can’t accept that emotivism solves ‘the profoundest problem in ethics’ as it is laid out here. It may prove to be a game-changer but it will not dock our rational tail. Why should we good?
        Matt, I don’t see that emotivism and ethics of self-interest belong in the same category. I would also suggest that the notion of ‘individual taste’ is better applied to ice-cream flavours than ethical concerns: take ethnic cleansing as an example

  11. barael says

    I think Sam Harris would rather be lumped in the 3rd rather than the second category. He has at least said something to the effect that denying that morality is about the well-being of conscious creatures is like denying 2+2=4.

  12. R L Miller says

    Anyone who hasn’t seriously studied Ayn Rand on this issue is whistling in the wind–forever.

    • Matt McManus says

      Unfortunately I do not find either her technical arguments or substantive conclusions convincing. In terms of the article, her position could be lumped with the “self-interest” crowd.

      • ADM64 says

        Her essential point is that man cannot survive as man through arbitrary actions, either alone on the proverbial desert island or in a society (given that moral rules are supposed to be ones everyone can practice). Put another way, if you could do anything you wanted to do recognizing this would also apply to everyone else, would all of those actions be equally efficacious to one’s life and happiness? If not, then the is-ought problem starts to resolve itself. More broadly, this is actually an Aristotelian point. Rand asked the question of why we need ethics, but she did not consider herself an originator of ethical principles. That said, her method of arguing her points had some shortcomings.

  13. dirk says

    Or Adam Smith. he asked the following: imagine you buy your meat from the butcher, the butcher says, what would you like? How can I serve you best? What can I do that you are happy with a good and cheap piece of meat? Why does he do so? Is it a moral question?? because he likes you? And wants you to be happy? No Sir, he just does all this to make profits, because that’s good for him, as well as (in the end) for you!

    • I think that that attribution to Adam Smith is too simplistic.

      It presents the lowest motivation for being good to people and why uncoerced trade brings about a sort of kindness even if it is not explicitly sought for its own sake, BUT there is also the fact that most people seem to have elements of duty and also get pleasure from the pleasure they get from providing good service, “fair” trades, ect.

  14. CA says

    What we call ethics or morality are historically sets of behaviors and ideas which have evolved over time in response to living in a certain kind of environment. They are adaptations . . . or, over time, as circumstances change, they may become maladaptations.

    When the ethics or morality of a given society become widespread philosophical or theoretical problems indicates something about that society. In a well adapted healthy society (as Nietzsche himself repeatedly insists) such questions tend not to exist – why we should be good and what it means to be good are self evident. At this point in time, aside from wondering why we should be good, we might want to contemplate what has happened to our civilization that we even feel the need to ask such questions.

  15. Paul Ellis says

    I think that’s perhaps a little deterministic. I don’t treat most of my clients this way, most of the time: I prefer to work out what’s genuinely best for them, rather than what is always best for my profitability. I usually end up with win-win. This satisfies my professional pride, and sense of worth and integrity. That said, I rarely choose to work at a loss, and I tend to jettison nagging, demanding clients whom I realise I’ll never satisfy.

    I like to be good, at work.

  16. David Doyal says

    People don’t desire to be good and moral….they desire to be seen by others as being good and moral. Naturally, in different cultures and micro-cultures, there will be different requirements for being seen as good and moral.

    • Paul Ellis says

      Are you sure? What about conscience? It seems to me that conscience is a major factor in keeping private, unobserved behaviour ‘good’.

      • David Doyal says

        Paul…..Your conscious is controlled by knowledge of how you are expected to behave….and is connected to the amygdla which sends out a feeling of fear…..if you are beginning to initiate…..or even thinking about initiating….a disallowed behavior.

  17. Daniel says

    “On the Right, thinkers such as Patrick Deneen and Jordan Peterson…”. I wouldn’t label Peterson as Right Wing as he has said on multiple occasions that he is not Right Wing.

    • Wilson Hill says

      Yeah, nothing against the author but Peterson is one more example where it doesn’t seem to be up to him, probably because it’s easier to dismiss him on those grounds than counter his arguments. I think there’s some confusion as to why he spends so much time critical of leftist overreach in the Trump era, and I can understand that to a point, but again the flaws in the right are obvious and largely unchanging (perhaps by definition) while there’s no clear consensus on when the left has gone too far despite a litany of blatant examples in the last few years. Which became the deciding factor in the election, as far as I’m concerned. So it’s like if you don’t want term two, figure out where you went wrong and adjust accordingly. Or call everybody Nazis and solve nothing.

  18. I think that questions of why we should be good can only be considered once there is some definition of “good”, since there is no consensus on what such a moral framework should be.

    For any human-developed framework to attain wide acceptance, it would need to be broadly based. So it can’t be humanocentric – we are not the only species of life which matters (all life matters to itself) or which many people care about.

    Then there are intractable questions of competing interests. What is good for people who are happily settled in a land may not be be good for those who from elsewhere who also seek to live there. Assuming herrings eat anchovies, what moral framework could satisfy the needs of most or all of the members of both species? Humans and lobsters? Sharks and humans? Likewise, the Addams Family Musical’s contribution to the Western Canon: “What is normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.” (Morticia Addams).

    Then there are time frames: to what extent should we sacrifice happiness (however defined) now, to increase our own or others’ happiness in the future – years, decades or milenia?

    Moral frameworks which are intended to support aspects of humanity which are healthy and normal for many or most people (such as women wanting to be at home raising their children) can easily become oppressive for those whose desires or needs are different.

    How to account for racial and cultural differences across all the world’s societies?

    I see no way that any non-theistic moral framework could be shown to be intrinsically valid, since all judgements about such validity involve difficult value judgments which will never be agreed to across competing individuals and groups of people, much less between multiple competing species.

    Science can be useful to moral discussions by illuminating human nature or that of other species. It might also be used to test the effectiveness (however judged) of different kinds of moral framework – though I think such tests are impractical due to them requiring a decade or so, and the involvement of multiple entire societies.

    The Popperian view of science is that it generates testable hypotheses and that one or more of these gain high regard according to their ability to predict the results of experiments and to economically explain all observations to date. This has nothing to do with making difficult choices about actions and their impacts on living creatures and plants.

    • dirk says

      On this relativity: is it good of me to eat less meat? to drive on a bike instead of the car? to take my holiday in my own country and not fly to the Bahamas? All this as desired by political Green Parties. But is it objectively good? One thing is sure. Fifty years ago it would not have been understood even, that such things could have a moral value.
      Is it good if I by a new bike for my daughter? No, I think not, but yes if I donate the money for hungry kids in Africa.

  19. Qui says

    First, get rid of the idea of value altogether, including human rights as value, it is pie in the sky. So unless you have an authority in the sky, it won’t work, so Kant was right on that account. But even then, it ultimately fail, since people will realize it is a lie.

    Best way to approach ethics, is to realize it is about behavior, and seeking excellence in behavior and habits. This is quite universal, everybody wants to succeed at what they do, so it is what ethics is based upon, and it is to each person to do it for themselves, and it is the good in itself, to seek a good character which is excellent in what it does.

    Now the next question is which good to seek and be good at acquiring? This is quite clearly subjective, as there are many things to do, but overall, you usually try out actions and see if it works and if it is pleasurable or useful in some way in the future. As long as it can reasonably be expected to keep working, then it is good, and should keep giving good results in general.

    This is all individualistic, but the hard part comes with the social aspect, which is also a good most people seek. The same drive for excellence is the reason, obviously, but the good in this case cannot be only subjective, because you have to take into account the others, since it is a game, and the goal of the game is to keep playing the game, and reap benefits from it. So you have to let others win pretty much equally, or at least a third of the time, which I believe is when people stop playing according to some research. So that is the basic reason to be just and selfish and selfless at the same time.

    In order to help achieve better games, rules and regulations are put in place, in order to achieve the above, and people that break the rules are punished, or eventually ostracized if recidivists. So if someone wants to play the game, they have to abide to those rules for their own benefit and the benefit of others.

    Nothing very new in all I said, it’s been known forever, aside maybe for the concept of gaming which is fairly new. Really, the only question is which kind of game is the best games, so we also have meta-games, that are about figuring this out. This is more of less what the free market does, provide many games, and people have a choice to join based on their personal preferences and capacity, etc. The meta-game is in the same competitive spirit, so some games improve, some are left out.

    “Values” can get back in there. Make a game with your “values”. If you like strategy game, or intellectual games, or emotional games, or whatever, just make the game and see people join or not. It’s the same with the government, it just is a bigger game, except people don’t have too much choice, but that is why it has to be “secular”, and not decide what games people are playing, unless it is clearly bad games done to exploit, hurt or otherwise abuse people. Things people might play because they are fooled in doing it, of coerced into. Maybe people should be able to choose the type of government as well, if we can’t find a universal one that is acceptable to most people, they could be seen like games and subject to the free market of people moving around. I don’t think we are at that stage yet though, because we have played games separately for so long, people have adapted cultural games that are pervasive on everything in life, instead of being more discreet and pointed. But even in national states, the state itself should be seen as what provides the biggest ability for the best games in town.

    See, that is the problem with enterprises like Harris and cie, it is highly regressive. They would like to tell people what game they want to play, and there is only one game to play, the best game. So it is just a new form of monotheism and totalitarian jerk reaction. Free association is still the best poll you can ever give, bar none. So if there should be one right above all, it would be this one, as long as it is used responsibly as explained above. That should give the best games, and the best values in time, if one let’s people decide. It worked so far, so I don’t see any reason to change things, except telling people that want to tell others what to do to mind their own business, or just ignore them. National governments at this point are still too biased, and should also be told to mind their own business, unless they have serious reasons not to. Stay vigilant. 🙂

    • dirk says

      Jesus Christ Qui, you need a lot of words to make your point, but who is going to read all this?

    • Tom More says

      Nah… How about .. “Seek .. and you shall find.”

  20. Pingback: No, All Things are Not Permissible, and All Things are Not Not Permissible @ Helian Unbound

  21. It seems to me that we are expecting words and frameworks to do more of the work of understanding and accomplishing good than is reasonable. That is because there is an expectation that the masses may be transformed with the appropriate free and compulsory education. Let us forgo that avenue and recognize that the good, even saintliness is achievable rather in the same way that world records are broken – by dedication and discipline.

    I think that there are self-evident axioms of moral good and that we are fortunate to have a world historical view of the saints of the past to remind and instruct us on those paths. But it is we who must do the trudging and then finally experience the good of having actually done good even if this takes a lifetime. This takes contemplation, and ultimately the recognition of the ultimate good in the ultimate self in union with human life.

    We should be good because it is good to be good. It is not easy, it is an accomplishment and the permanent reward is the space you make in the mind of mankind as an example of good. If it takes several lifetimes, then go believe that the soul’s perfection requires reincarnation. The aim remains the same.

    • Tom More says

      Good post. We are all called , in our very being and its transcendent ground in Being. .to be saints. Dare one say… God help us..?

  22. I believe there is another position on this question which hails from the left, and is particularly evident in many syntheses of Freud and Marx. It is the notion that the disagreement between the public and private good can be overcome through universal consciousness. That is, the human subject can be so reconstituted (through the unleashing of the libido for example), as to no longer distinguish between ‘mine’ and ‘thine’. He would then spontaneously seek the happiness of the whole rather than the part. At least this was the revolutionary hope, it seems, that animated much of the ‘countercultural’ activity in the 60s in this country and elsewhere. But the achievement of cosmic consciousness through the unleashing of the passions has deep roots, I think, in the revolutionary movement in the West.

  23. Gregory Bogosian says

    ” or who may connect the pursuit of aesthetic greatness with cruelty (as the Nazis did by misinterpreting Nietzsche).” In what sense did the Nazis misinterpret him? Doesn’t the fact that we have so many songs about violence and war imply that there is something aesthetically meritorious in violence?

    • If I recall, N. remarked that Germans were Frenchmen who couldn’t cook, and broke with Wagner over his Anti-Semitism and his “Christianity”. German nationalism was much too proletariat (reeking like a used Bavarian jock strap) and much too football Christian-y for Nietzsche, and so the Nazi appropriation of Nietzsche was consistent with everything else they appropriated: crude, barbaric and violent.

    • peanut gallery says

      The Nazi took certain parts to justify their twisted ideology without understanding the whole.

      Depending on the context, violence is meritorious.

  24. Gregory Bogosian says

    The reason this is such a problem is that the question itself puts the cart before the horse. If I ask you “Why be blank?” You would rightfully respond “That depends on what you mean by blank.” The reason you should be good is in and of itself a function of what exactly it means to be good. So, your meta-ethics is in and of itself a function of your ethics. I don’t think that a consequentialist or deontologist would ever give the same reason for being good.

  25. Mark says

    Peterson isn’t right wing. He’s a classical liberal.

  26. John says

    I wouldn’t say Peterson or Deenen are on the right. Deenen actually makes quite leftwing critiques of the market economy. He’s probably best described as post-liberal. However, I think the real issue is that the author doesn’t touch on the idea of God properly. This is something where Peterson (for all my criticisms of him) is right. Idea of God in Christianity (and I suspect other religions) is the idea of transcendental Truth. Logos as it where. Which Kant and Nietzsche touch on in their own respective ways. So rather than the moral absolutist religious fundamentalist position, we should accept our naturally imperfect state but seek to find the Truth. Hence the need for debate, dialogue, reason etc. We do these things because we want to find the right way to go about our lives and be the very best we can be. Which is why we should be “good” – we want to be as true and reach the Truth as far as possible because that gives us flourishing. For eg. when you acquire knowledge, you grow as a person and are better placed to be a full member of society and use your talents to help yourself and others. Similar principle in morality.

    • Tom More says

      Meh.. we all recognize self sacrificing love as the highest good; the finest teleological path for life. That this must have a transcendent and personal ground is virtually unavoidable which is why most folks are naturally and properly religious. And this isn’t “moral absolutism” but moral principles to guide intelligent life towards worthwhile ends. Only a materialist fundamentalism finds this repugnant and that’s more the sign of narcissism and unreason.

      • peanut gallery says

        No we don’t and it’s not. Depending on context, self-sacrifice may be not good. YMMV.

  27. defmn says

    I find it very strange that anybody could write an essay on “Why Should We Be Good”; cite numerous philosophers, and not bother to mention that this is the subject of an obscure little dialogue written by Plato usually translated as ‘The Republic’.

    In fact every question asked in this essay is part of the challenge made to Socrates by Thrasymachus in Book One of the Republic as Plato prepares his audience to make a truly radical assault on the question of what justice is.

    SInce every argument mentioned in this essay attributed to Hobbes,Hume, Kant, Nietzsche and Sidgewick – is in need of a footnote to that work of Plato’s I would think it could have at least been mentioned in passing.

    Have to commend the mentioning of Alan Bloom, of course. The most famous of Leo Strauss’ many students but I think that for a more profound discussion of the question of whether to live a just or unjust life – which is technically what the author of this essay is asking – a reading of Leon Craig’s ‘The War Lover’ is more helpful in that he unpackages Plato’s Republic in a radical and unique manner that is accessible to all regardless of whether or not they have familiarity with the tradition of political philosophy.

    A thank you the author of this piece. A most difficult subject to take on. I don’t agree with many of the points but I do think it is the most important question we face as humans.

  28. X. Citoyen says

    We all live in Plato’s cave, most of us watch the shadows on the wall or try to make our way to the light; only academic ethicists vie to become the new shadow-makers. Whatever your aspirations, you’ve internalized the shadow-maker’s analytical toolkit: “Pushback,” “responded to,” “attacks,” “calling for a return,” “motivations,” “disdain,” “worry” “challenge,” “values,” and so on belong to the framework of contemporary ethics where there’s a “we” (= everyone) who’s tossed about in a post-Christian sea of uncertainty with everything hanging on a “we” (= intellectuals) creating a new grand consensus, a transvaluation of values. (I’m a little disappointed you didn’t talk of so-and-so’s “move” or get a chance to use “no one takes that seriously anymore.”)

    All this might be taken as a Socratic search for truth. But it’s a lot less sincere than Socrates’s own search because it isn’t an open-ended journey toward truth, whatever the truth might be. The would-be shadow-makers already know the world they want, and they all know what they don’t want—at least in sentimental outline. So why haven’t they gotten there yet? The official reason is that they haven’t hit on the magic formula that would bring about intersubjective assent among the contending parties (n.b. I say “intersubjective” instead of “universal” because no one “important” really believes that everyone has a vote on implementing the new, even if they’ll be compelled to obey it).

    Nietzsche would point out, on an analogy with history-making, that the ethical shadow-maker’s toolkit is inconsistent with the shadow-maker’s aspirations. You’re trying to use the tools of critical history—the methods for tearing down foundations you dislike—to create a monumental history—the methods for creating new foundations. Though perhaps that’s too edifying. The framework you (and so many others) use to understand the past and create the new consensus turns what might be a Socratic journey into a multi-player game of individuals and teams making moves and countermoves in the same imaginary world—like Minecraft for the tenured.

    Here’s the point in my response where I would insert The Answer. Unfortunately, I plan to make it available through a streaming subscription service hosted by a digitally resurrected Charleston Heston, and I haven’t gotten around to setting it up yet. In the meantime, a few technical points:

    1. Dogmatism, ethical or otherwise, doesn’t entail a “relativistic epistemology,” even if some particular dogmatist happens to invoke it to defend his beliefs. Suppose I believe God told me to build an ark in my backyard. You provide a long list of reasons for why I shouldn’t believe such a thing. I shrug my shoulders, offering no defence but my conviction. My rejection of your reasons doesn’t make me an epistemological relativist because I don’t have to believe in multiple truths to persist in my belief in the face of your objections. The same goes for the Christian dogmatist: He doesn’t have to persuade you or, failing that, adopt epistemological relativism. He can simply persist in his faith.

    2. Bloom and Socrates on “universal values.” You made it sound as if Bloom’s argument (and Socrates’s mission) was apiece with the shadow-making in Tenured Minecraft. Bloom wasn’t “worried/concerned/unhappy” that students wouldn’t engage in the search for universal values because, say, the modern ethics project was short staffed. His point was that a certain type of person at a pivotal age needs to undergo self-examination for his own sake—the search for value, full-stop—through its Socratic stand-in, liberal education. The unofficial relativism of the academy forestalled that process at the door, stunting the intellectual growth of the people who needed it. The consequence, as Bloom predicted, is large numbers of hollow presentists and radical absolutists. Hardly the sort of people needed to run a republic.

    3. Sidgwick wasn’t the first to ask or answer the why be good question, Plato was. The Republic, from Gyges Ring to the myth of Er, is an answer to the why with the what thrown in (a sort of philosophical double-feature). Of course, we can nip any thought of this classical revanchism in the bud with a tactical appeal to history and authority from Tenured Minecraft: We live “after virtue,” and many “well-respected” professional philosophers (who’ve written many books and papers and wrung their hands till they hurt) have assured us this is the case, so it’s “problematic” to “return to” an “unappealing” time before “the death of God” because “our scientific era” has absolutely changed everything for all time—you play Tenured Minecraft as a spectator, a shadow-maker, or a creeper.

    • Tom More says

      Wonderful post. Odd that we are so uninformed when it was Plato who gave us the “forms”. And I think Aristotle and Aquinas who elevated the reasoning agent… the potentially moral person should a person be open to such a fate as wholeness. Yet wholeness and integration to our actual identity as moral agents is, as identity, our fullness.

  29. dirk says

    Is the question- Why should we be good- a human question? Or is it already something playing in the animal world (the apes, the dolphins). If I may believe Frans de Waal, it is not a typical human affair. Apes are also fiercely punished by their mates where they don’t know how to behave.

  30. Nicenihilism says

    I’ve skimmed through comments here and don’t think anyone yet has mentioned Alex Rosenberg. Rosenberg accepts you can’t traverse the is/ought distinction but explains general human niceness through game theory.

    Simple human altruism won’t hold because you always have bad actors (or opportunists). People acting selfishly as well won’t hold from a game theory perspective because it will incur wrath. Something theoretically in between, a tit-for-tat strategy, allows people to be nice and to also be assertive, which is exactly how to get ahead in this world.

    I know, I know. Evolutionary psychology on stilts. Except I think Rosenberg is onto something. All without traversing the is/ought distinction.

    • The is/ought distinction is bunk.

      When a group faces an existential threat, it will fight for its survival, and it will choose leaders that it believes will insure its survival. That is to say that the prospect of non-being (is not) gives rise to a clear sense of ought.

      The survival instinct, generally well established in groups, is sometimes less established in individuals–but since it is an instinct rooted in biology, we have no need for conceptual foundations.

      The real problem is when you are an individual who belongs to a polyglot society without a clear identification with a particular group, and this polyglot society is not facing a clear and organized existential menace, how should one live one’s life?

      I’m not sure–all these moral codes probably derived from hunter gatherer bands with 70% rates of male homicide who were constantly fighting other bands for territory while facing the vagaries of prey populations and foraging opportunities, living on the brink of starvation and death. Yet I have no doubt that everyone knew right from wrong (and if they didn’t, they got their brain case smashed in with a rock by their tribesmen when they were bending over to get a drink).

      • It should not be surprising that ethical philosophy (and philosophy in general) seems to emerge in cosmopolitan centers in cultures during peace time, or that philosophy historically seems to have driven things in an authoritarian direction (generating a belief in some abstract existential menace as an ordering principle).

      • Nicenihilism says

        Good points.

        I don’t personally see the is/ought distinction as bunk. You can’t secure morality in the way you can secure factual statements. This is a problem because many of us act as if you can. The distinction (is/ought) is uncomfortable. It’s important to keep track of why. Because you ought to do x if you want to survive doesn’t mean you ought to do x in some larger sense. And that difference is important.

        Yes, I’m with you that our general moral orientation came from our predicament in ancient times, outside of industrial society. And so within industrial society our moral orientation makes us confused. People can be resistant to evolutionary psychology to help explain this, but to me it really has a lot of explanatory power, particularly Rosenberg’s application of game theory.

        • I guess what I mean about the “ought/is” dichotomy, and securing and all that, is that if you are a Jew in Nazi Germany, the “ought” is pretty clear. You are going to lie to the government, break the law, and do everything in your power to save yourself and your family, without any pangs of conscience, and help others to do the same.

          Now there may be a problem securing the “ought” if you are not directly targeted in a regime like Nazi Germany. But that is because you are more of a passive spectator in a “game” of persecution, neither hunter nor quarry. And when the tables were turned, I am sure former Nazi’s possessed an equal “moral clarity” as they changed their identities and fled to South America.

          A better question is whether something like public morality is possible in contemporary society. [We as individuals are always free to don whatever eclectic hair shirts we think we must.]

        • But Rosenberg sounds interesting, I’ll be sure to check him out.

        • All ethics in my mind should be life boat ethics, as it is life boat ethics that in the final analysis that will dictate behavior. The rest is just polite hypocrisies which only stand so long as the Huns don’t succeed in sacking the city. Polite hypocrisies and status signalling is obviously important, but does not seem to express the essence of ethics.

  31. Tom More says

    It is simply one’s nature as rational free willed entities to be what we are. When we fail to act towards the objective good as guided by reason we will suffer. We may not even know we are suffering or why, but the haunted look of the addict reveals what choosing a lesser good, the nature of all immoral choices entails. We are ordered by our natures towards the divine; the transcendent ground of being demonstrated by Aristotelian metaphysical analysis of change. Evil is always the choice of a lower good over a higher one. One doesn’t see joy on the face of the malefactor. Aquinas and Aristotle have much to teach us as we rediscover purpose , nature and our teleological nature which will not be escaped.

  32. tom says

    The “good” is being considered under the aspect of desire. In human beings love becomes conscious of itself. To be good human beings as philosopher Ed Feser points out is to be like the squirrel that doesn’t eat toothpaste. Good squirrels don’t do that. To be good is to live in accord with a developed conscience.. to live as a rational moral agent in a finite world. Our very freedom of will and the apprehension of the relatedness of all things as ordered suggests the transcendent goal of selfless love, the only kind that can hope for eternity.

    • dirk says

      A person can be good or bad (in quite different qualifications) but so can an animal, plant or even a thing. A good stone for example. This last one is always anthropocentric, good for us, for me, for a special purpose. To fit in somewhere where we want it.

      • dirk says

        Or a word, an expression. Ie blah, blah is not good, should be; i.e. blah blah (copypaste, I admit).

  33. Matt says

    Didn’t MacIntyre give a teleological account to this question by way of Aristotle/Aquinas in After Virtue?

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