The first question of moral philosophy, going back to Plato, is “how ought I to live my life?”. Perhaps the second, following close on the heels of the first, can be taken to be “ought I to live morally or not?”, assuming that one can “get away with” being immoral. Another, more familiar way of phrasing this second question is “why be moral?”, where this is elliptical for something like, “will it be good for me and my life to be moral, or would I be better off being immoral, as long as I can get away with it?”.
Bringing together the ancient Greek conception of happiness with a modern conception of self-respect, it turns out to be bad to be a bad person, while in fact, it is good to be a good person. Here are some reasons why:
(1) Because being bad is bad. Some have thought that being bad or immoral can be good for a person, especially when we can “get away with it”, but there are some good reasons for thinking this is false. The most important reason is that being bad or immoral is self-disrespecting and it is hard to imagine being happy without self-respect. Here’s one quick argument:
Being moral (or good) is necessary for having self-respect.
Self-respect is necessary for happiness.
Therefore, being good is necessary for happiness.
Of course, a full defense of this syllogism would require more than can be given in a blog post, but hopefully, it isn’t too hard to see the ways in which lying, cheating, and stealing – or being immoral in general – is incompatible with having genuine self-respect. (Of course, cheaters may think they have self-respect, but do you really think Lance Armstrong was a man of self-respect, whatever he may have thought of himself?)
(2) Because it is the only way to have a chance at having self-respect. We can only have self-respect if we respect who we actually are, we can’t if we only respect some false image of ourselves. So, self-respect requires self-knowledge. And only people who can make just and fair self-assessments can have self-knowledge. And only just and fair people, good, moral people can make just and fair self-assessments. (This is a very compacted version of a long argument.)
(3) Because being good lets you see what is truly of value in the world. Part of what being good requires is that good people know what is good in the world and what is not. Bad people have bad values, good people have good values. Having good values means valuing what deserves to be valued and not valuing what does not deserve to be valued.
(4) Because a recent study of West Point cadets reveals that cadets with mixed motivations – some selfish, instrumental, and career-oriented, while others are “intrinsic” and responsive to the value of the job itself – do not perform as well cadets whose motivations are not mixed and are purely intrinsic. (See “The Secret of Effective Motivation”)
(5) Because being good means taking good care of yourself. It doesn’t mean that you are the most important thing in the world, or that nothing is more important than you. But, in normal circumstances, it does give you permission to take better care of yourself and your loved ones than complete strangers.
(6) Because being good means that while you can be passionate, you can choose what you are passionate about; it means that you don’t let your emotions, desires, wants, and needs “get the better of you” and “make” you do things that you later regret. It gives you true grit.
(7) Because being good means that you will be courageous and brave, in the face of danger and pain and social rejection. It gives you the ability to speak truth to power and “fight the good fight”. It helps you assess risk, spot traps, and seize opportunities. It helps you be successful.
(8) Because being good means that you will be wise as you can be when you are old and grey. Deep wisdom may not be open to everyone, since some simply might not have the intellectual wherewithal for it. (Think of someone with severe cognitive disabilities.) But we can all, of course, be as wise as it is possible for us to be. This won’t happen, however, by accident. Wise people have to be able to perspicuously see into the “heart of the matter”, and this won’t happen unless we care about the right things. And we won’t care about the right things unless we have good values, so being good will help make us be as wise as we can be.
(9) Because being good means that we are lovers of the good and, if we are lucky, it means that we will be loved by those who are themselves good. And being lovers of the good means that we become good at loving what is good, to the best of our ability. So, being good makes us become good lovers. And it is good to be a good lover, isn’t it? And good lovers who value what is good are more likely to be loved in return by people who also love the good. What could be better than being loved well by a good person who is your beloved?
(10) Because of 1-9 above, only good people can live truly happy lives. Only good people live the Good Life.
Headline image credit: Diogenes and Plato by Mattia Preti 1649. Capitoline Museums. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons