Why Be Good?

by Bill Meacham

Copyright © 2007, William Meacham. Permission to reproduce is granted provided the work is reproduced in its entirety, including this notice.

I wrote this in the August, 2007, and it was accepted for publication in Philosophy Now, a popular journal of philosophy. The assignment was to write 400 words or fewer on the topic.

Why be good? Because the consequences of doing so are more favorable than those of not being good. This can be seen no matter how we interpret the meaning of "being good". For children being good means obeying one's parents. In this sense being good is the opposite of being naughty. By being good we gain parental approval and avoid punishment.

Extending this to the social norms of one's community, being good means being a good citizen. Doing so we gain the approval and avoid the scorn of those whose opinions matter to us, not to mention avoiding fines and jail sentences.

To a more mature mind, being good might mean obeying the dictates of one's conscience, an internal voice which judges our actions as right or wrong, as worthy of approval or disapproval. By being good we gain a sense of uprightness, of rectitude, and we avoid feeling guilty.

Further reflection leads us to wonder where the voice of conscience comes from and what the justification is for what that voice tells us. We find ourselves with a sense of duty and wonder who or what imposes that duty. Many believe that God defines the moral rules and imposes the duty to obey. God is thus a surrogate parent, and by being good we gain divine reward and (we hope) avoid divine punishment.

Kant alleged that the dictates of pure reason impose the duty to act so that the basis on which we act could be universalized without contradiction. For a rational being, contradiction is certainly unfavorable.

Others postulate an unseen world of values, not unlike Plato's Forms, which the moral sense in some way apprehends. The consequences of doing one's duty in this view are an internal sense of being in harmony with moral reality, of being virtuous and worthy of approval, whether or not anyone actually approves.

All these meanings of "being good" involve obeying moral rules. We need skill to determine, in each situation, what the rules compel us to do. In another sense, to be good means to be of benefit to someone or something. By being of benefit to other people and to our environment we can create a milieu in which everyone flourishes, including ourselves. Whether we succeed depends on our skill in choosing actions that have good consequences. In either sense of "being good", consequences are of utmost importance.

The published version was edited somewhat, and you can find it here: http://www.philosophynow.org/issue63/63question.htm. It's the second one in the series of answers to the question.

About the Author: Bill Meacham lives in Austin, Texas, USA and is an independent scholar in philosophy. You can contact him at bmeacham@bmeacham.com.