Wednesday, April 04, 2007

'Should' and 'Good'

I want to use as a foil for today’s post, a posting by Marymyk at “Agnostic Atheism” on “Why should I Be Good?

I hold that atheists do themselves a lot of harm by being unable to give a satisfactory answer to this question.

Let me start with a disclaimer that it is pure coincidence that Mary posted these comments on the day that I decided that I wanted to address this issue. I dislike some of the aspects of using her post as an example to illustrate my points. However, it is useful, and I hope that I can be excused for any transgression.

I can even be accused of taking Mary’s post somewhat out of context, since she was responding to comments made elsewhere.

Also, learning to answer this question correctly will not cause atheists to be embraced with open arms. We can imagine an atheist charging into a burning building, saving the six children inside, and dying in an attempt to save the family pet. The mother will still thank God for the saving her children, and still complain that kicking God out of the schools is the cause of everything from teen sex to tsunamis.

Those who claim that all atheists need to do is be nice and they will be loved do not understand how bigotry closes peoples’ minds.

Anyway, on the question “Why should we be good?”

Good

Mary begins her essay by making a stipulation about ‘good’. She writes, “[L]et’s assume that goodness includes love, mercy, compassion, kindness, generosity, etc).”

That begs a lot of very important question.

The theist says that you cannot be moral without God.

The atheist says, “Yes I can. Look at how moral I am!”

A theist may well answer, “Yes, I see that. You permit homosexuality, condemn abstinence education, drive God from the schools and the public square, and argue that we allow abortion. You rob the wealthy of their rightly earned property through taxation and give the money to those who make the least contribution to society. You coddle criminals and condemn their victims. You oppose Israel’s right to establish its historic borders. You promote ignorance in the classroom by teaching evolution and do not even have the courtesy to grant us equal time. You put a few spotted owls above the man who needs a job to provide for his family. You defend cultural relativism that says that there is nothing really wrong with slavery, the Holocaust, or Stalinist Russia.

“You do all of this, yet you stand there and say to me that without God you can still be moral. This is so absurd and contradictory that it is absolutely amazing that you can stand there and utter it with any sincerity. Any sane person would instantly see the contradiction. If you could truly be moral without God, you would be on the same side of the line as the rest of us on these issues. The fact that you oppose us on this is proof that you cannot be moral without belief in God. You cannot even know what morality is.”

As it turns out, many of the things that many theists call ‘moral’ is, in fact, the sacrifice of real-world life, health, and well-being for the sake of values that are as imaginary as God. Because the harm these people do is real, while the good they seek is imaginary, these people are devoting countless hours and dollars to making the world a worse place than it would have otherwise been. There might be some comfort to think that those who inflict these thoughtless harms will be punished in the afterlife, and their victims will obtain compensation as well, the real world that does not work this way. Those real-world harms are . . . well . . . very much real.

In short, the claim, "You cannot be moral without belief in God" often reduces to, "You can't eagerly sacrifice real-world life, health, and well-being in the pursuit of the same imaginary (fake) values that I do without belief in God."

Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

In her essay, Mary reported that one of the things she missed about being a Christian was the motivation she had to be moral. Yet, as the list I gave above indicates, theism gives a lot of people motivation to be immoral as well. The ‘good’ they claim to pursue is imaginary. In real-world terms they do pursue an evil that they merely think is good because it is disguised in clerical garb.

However, (and this is an extremely important caveat) there are many theists who have shown themselves to be quite good at realizing and promoting real-world value. At the same time, atheists are not immune from the problem of causing real-world harm in the pursuit of imaginary goods. This is the reason that I maintain that the important moral question is not whether a person believes in God or not. It is whether this person is promoting real-world harm in the pursuit of imaginary values or not.

Should

When asked the question, “Why should we do good?” it is important not to confuse this question with the question, “Why do you do good?” These are two distinct and separate questions.

Mary titles her post, “Why should we be good?” She then starts her second paragraph with the question, “Why do I bother?”

This is not the same thing.

If a person breaks into a house and kills the entire family, we can ask the question “Why did he do this?” It will have an answer. It does not matter what a person does – it does not matter how good or how evil – we have an answer to the question, “Why did he bother?”

However, if we ask the question, “Why should he do this?” it requires an entirely different answer.

Mary explains the fact that she does that which is good by claiming that it makes her happy. However, the counter to this is easy enough. “What if it made you happy to be cruel? What if you were a happy slave owner in Georgia in 1790? Or you were a happily Roman emperor who found enjoyment killing blind and lame Roman citizens in the arena? What if you enjoyed battle, or you had a child locked up in your basement that nobody would ever find that you enjoyed torturing? Then what would your happiness wrought?”

In this case, “Why did he do this?” has an answer, while “Why should he do this?” probably has a false assumption that makes the question unanswerable.

In order to answer the question that was actually asked, we need to understand what the term “should” means.

I hold that “should” refers to “reasons for action”. “X should A” says that there are reasons for action for X to do A. Saying that X should do A, while saying that there is no reason for X to do A, is nonsense.

However, these reasons for action are not explanatory reasons. Every action can be explained. Every search for an explanation is a search for the reasons why that action happened. Yet, even here we notice that there is a distinction between the reasons why an action does happen, and the reasons why an action should happen. The same reasons that explain why the man did murder the family does not explain why the man should have murdered the family.

So, what is the difference?

Well, a person acts so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires, given his beliefs. However, he seeks to act so as to fulfill the more and the stronger of his desires. If he acts on a false belief, he typically thwarts his own desires. The difference between the two questions, “What will I do?” and “What should I do?” is “Which action will best fulfill my desires, given my beliefs?” and “Which action will best fulfill my desires?”

Now, there is also a distinction between practical “should” and moral “should”. The above question gives an answer to the question, “What practical-should I do?” Now, we need to answer the question, “What moral-should I do?”

The difference here is that practical-should considers the desires that the agent has, while moral should considers the desires that the agent should have. The practical agent asks, “What would a person with my desires do if his beliefs were true and complete?” The moral agent asks, “What would a person with good desires do if his beliefs were true and complete?”

So, now we need to ask what a “good desire” is.

A “good desire’ is no different than a “good knife” or a “good map” or a “good movie”. It is a desire (knife, map, movie) that tends to fulfill (other) desires.

When we ask the question, “Why did the man go into the house and kill the family?” we are asking about his current beliefs and desires. When we ask the question, “Why practical-should the man go into the house and kill the family,” we are asking about the action of a hypothetical man with the same desires, but with true and complete beliefs. When we ask the question, “Why moral-should the man go into the house and kill the family,” we are asking about the action of a hypothetical man with good desires and true and complete beliefs.

These are three different questions.

Good and Should

I have looked at the concepts of ‘should’ and ‘good’, so now I can return to the question, “Why should I be good?”

This is really an ambiguous question, with several different possible meanings. Some of these are:

(1) “Why (practical) should I do that which is (practical) good?”

(2) “Why (moral) should I do that which (practical) good?”

(3) “Why (practical) should I do that which (moral) good?”

(4) “Why (moral) should I do that which is (moral) good?”

The two versions where ‘should’ and ‘moral’ both have the same extension are trivial questions. Ultimately, (1) asks, “What reasons do I have for doing that which I have the most and strongest reasons to do?” While (4) asks, “What reasons does a person with good reasons have for doing that which a person with good reasons would do?” It’s like asking, “What color was George Washington’s white horse?”

In the case of questions (2) and (3), the question sometimes does not have an answer. It is not always the case that a person (practical) should do that which is (moral) good. And, sometimes, a person finds himself in a situation where what he (moral) should do is not that which is (practical) good.

Where this gap between what a person (practical) should do and what is (moral) good gets large enough, this person is evil. Here, we are talking about a person who has desires or, in milder cases, lacks good desires, such that he causes others to suffer while he pursues his interests.

When I call this person ‘evil’, I mean that people generally have a lot of very strong reasons to act so as to make it the case that this type of person does not exist. We have reason to bring what this person (practical) should do closer into alignment to what is (moral) good. We can do this with threats of punishment if he does what he (practical) should do – making it far less practical. We can also do this by changing his desires, so that what he (practical) should do is more like what a person with good desires (practical) should do – which makes him less evil.

Conclusion

These, then, are the answers to the question, “Why should I do good?” The question is ambiguous – ‘should’ and ‘good’ mean different things. This means that the question has several answers – one for each meaning of ‘should’ and ‘good’. In some cases, the question answers itself, like, “What color was George Washington’s white horse?” In other cases, the question it may be the case that a person does should not do good. However, people generally have a lot of good reasons to make sure that such people are rare, because people who (practical) should do that which is not (moral) good are a threat to others.

9 comments:

Atheist Observer said...

Alonzo,

I'm not even sure you answered the question. You did a philosophical parsing exercise that was correct, but spent virtually no time really answering question 3, which is what the non-philosopher would automatically assume the question was.
In my view the practical answers include external reasons, such as developing a reputation, recieving gratitude, setting an example, and creating good will, that make doing good as a pattern more desire fulfilling than making an immoral choice. The other reasons are internal ones of feeling like you are making the world a better place, being the kind of person you and others want to be around, and being able to treat others the way you want to be treated.
These are clearly not enough to determine behavior in every instance, but in reality I believe they are far more compelling than winning some after-life lotto game.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer

I thought I answered (3).

Let me try again.

The good person (practical) should do what is (moral) good because, since he has good desires, what fulfills his desires will tend to fulfill the desires of others.

It is not the case that the evil person (practical) should do what is (moral) good because what will fulfill his desires will tend to thwart the desires of others. That is what makes him evil.

However, people generally have many and strong reasons to make sure that there are more good people in the world than evil people, precisely because the good person will tend to fulfill the desires of others and the evil person will tend to thwart the desires of others.

Threats of punishment can make it more likely that an evil person will do what he morally should, simply by making it more practical to do so. However, it is still not the case that the evil person (practical) should do what is (moral) good when he or she can avoid punishment.

The other way to make it that a person (practical) should do that which is (moral) good is to alter his desires. To the degree we are successful, then to that degree the person will still do what is (moral) good even when he or she can escape punishment, because it is what he or she wants to do.

However, to the degree that we are successful we are not giving an evil person a reason to do (moral) good. We are changing a person from an evil person to a good person, who does (moral) good becaues he wants to.

Atheist Observer said...

Alonzo,

Perhaps we're answering this question at different levels. If a theist asks me what reasons I have to act morally, and I say, "I act to fulfill my desires, and since I'm a good person, I have good desires" I don't think that's going to get me very far in answering his question.
I think he would be looking for some specific reasons why I would want to be a good person and have good desires. I believe it would be worthwhile to explain the advantages of behavior patterns that fulfill the desires of others.
It was at this level it didn't seem like you answered the question.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

If a asks me what reasons I have to act morally, and I say, "I act to fulfill my desires, and since I'm a good person, I have good desires" I don't think that's going to get me very far in answering his question.

My concern is whether or not it is true.

The only reasons that exist are desires.

The only reasons that you have are the desires that you have.

The only reasons that you have to act morally are the desires that you have to act morally.

I think he would be looking for some specific reasons why I would want to be a good person and have good desires.

The question does not lend itself to any substantively different answer.

It is still the case that the only reasons that exist are desires, and the only reasons why you would want to be a good person are the desires that you have that being a good person would fulfill.

To the degree that those desires are lacking, to that degree you have no reason to be a good person.

Now, you do have reason to have others be good people. Good peole tend to fulfill the desires of others. Others have reason for you to be a good person since, if you are a good person, you will tend to act in ways that fulfill their desires.

So, people generally have reason to promote good desires and inhibit bad desires in society at large.

However, this does not change the fact that the reasons a person has for doing anything are his own desires. No other type of reason exists.

I believe it would be worthwhile to explain the advantages of behavior patterns that fulfill the desires of others.

This assumes that there are advantages.

Of course, behavior patterns that fulfill the desires of others has advantages for those others. That goes without saying.

And behavior patterns in others that fulfill the desires of others has advantages for the self. Again, that's axiomatic.

However, to claim that behavior patters that fulfill the desires of others necessarily provide advantages to the self?

That takes some argument, and I do not think that argument can be made.

Just consider an extreme case - somebody who has a desire to rape children, who is in a situation where he can get away with raping a child, and nobody can stop him. Say, he and the child are the last two people on the planet, and he has a disese that will leave him dead in two years anyway.

What advantages are there for behavior patterns that fulfill the desires of others?

Atheist Observer said...

Alonzo,

There is a difference between an isolated act and a behavior pattern. As you've shown, you can come up with a theoretical case where one can see no advantage accruing from a specific act of morality.
However a behavior pattern across many real situations in a real society, could easily lead one to the conclusion that expressing honesty, fairness, love, kindness, and tolerance of others results in many of one's own desires being fulfilled, whether or not one begins with a desire to express them.
You state:
"It is still the case that the only reasons that exist are desires, and the only reasons why you would want to be a good person are the desires that you have that being a good person would fulfill."
That is only true if you include getting the rewards in this society that a person known and respected as a good person receives.
You have made no case for what desires a person might have that being a good person would fulfill, or why a person would want to choose those desires.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

"The sum of any subset of a set of numbers is equal to the sum of the whole set."

If somebody were to make that claim, I am certain you would not accept it. It is easy to disprove. The sum of (1 + 2) is not equal to the sum of (1 + 2 + 3). All you need is one counter-example, and the claim has been discredited.

The claim that a person always (practical) should do what is (moral) good is just that type of claim. It is a claim that what has value relative to a subset of desires is equal to what has value relative to all desires.

There is simply no reason to accept that as true.

The (practical) should aspect considers only a subset of all desires - the desires a person has. The (moral) good considers a different set of desires - desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Unless everybody actually has desires that tend to fulfill other desires (good desires), it is not the case that some of them (practical) should do that which is (moral) good.

It is often the case that a person (practical) should change his desires. This is true when those desires come into conflict. If his desire for A thwarts his desire for B, C, and D, then his desire for B, C, and D give him reason to get rid of his desire for A. Not, his desire for A also gives him reason to get rid of his desires for B, C, and D.

Which should win?

It depends on which is the more and stronger desires.

Now, we can make it the case that a person (practical) should change his desires to good desires by manipulating the facts surrounding this equation. We can threaten to thwart desires B, C, and D for those people who cultivate desire A (giving him reason to get rid of desire A). We can do this through fines, imprisonment, and public humiliation.

Also, through praise and condemnation, we can directly bring it about a change in people's desires independent of any decision on their part to acquire those desires. Positive and negative feedback do not require the person's intentional participation to have an effect.

However, people do not all always have a reason to acquire good desires. Sometimes we have to give them a reason to acquire those desires or manipulate those desires directly.

You write, "You have made no case for what desires a person might have that being a good person would fulfill, or why a person would want to choose those desires."

This is because I have been arguing so heavily for the claim that a person does not necessarily have any such desires. It is like, after arguing against the existence of angels, I face the accusation, "But you have not presented any argument for the necessary existence of angels."

An evil person is somebody who, to some degree, does not have desires that being a good person would fulfill, and may not have a reason to choose those desires.

We can give him reasons to choose those desires - by threatening things that have universal instrumental value for the fulfillment of almost all desires (rewards and punishments). We have some power to influence the reasons he has directly (praise or condemnation).

But people do not necessarily have desires that being a good person would fulfill, or reason to choose such desires.

mary said...

Hi, I'm the mary that created the post called `why should we be good'. Having read your post I now realise that although I wrote on the subject I wished to, I worded my title incorrectly, it should have been 'what is my motivation to do good' all I explored in the post was that my motivation is my own happiness and I would like to clarify that I am not implying that it is true for everyone that following their own desires will result in moral good. You seem to have taken this idea a stage further than I did by looking at the question of why (practical) should we do want to do moral good? Atheist observer asks what desires a person might have that being a good person might fulfill, I suggest that being good fulfills the desires of others and therefore makes them happier, if they are happy (particularly if they they know they are happy because of you) the happiness is likely to refect back on you, fulfilling everyones desire to be happy. However I accept that many people will either not realise this or decide that the benefit to themselves is not large enough to make the good deed worthwhile.

I apologise for any awful spelling or grammer, this is the longest thing I've ever typed on the keypad of a mobile! (I don't know if I'll see a computer for a while)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Mary

Thanks for stopping by.

Actually, it is quite easy to demonstrate that your motivation for doing good is almost certainly not, in fact, your own happiness.

Doing good may make you happy. However, it is not your motivation.

This is true in the same sense that eating chocolate may make one fat, but getting fat is (usually) not the motivation for eating chocolate.

This can be shown by showing you that there are instances in which you would likely (I assume) do that which good, even though it would not make you happy.

See:

Happiness and Desire Fulfillment:

More on Happiness and Desire Fulfillment.

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