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Morality and the good life

morality200The expression “the good life” is systematically ambiguous. It might refer to a morally good life, or it might refer to a life that is good in terms of self-interest, that is to say, beneficial to the person who has it. Wanting a life that is both morally good and good in terms of self-interest is certainly reasonable. Still, what is the connection between a morally good life and a life beneficial to the person who has it? Or to put the question more succinctly, what is the connection between personal good and being moral? Is being moral always best in terms of one’s personal good? Is being moral at least an element of personal good, even if sometimes it’s less important than other elements?

What is it to be moral? Different moral theories disagree about what makes actions morally right or morally wrong. This is not the place to wade into those disagreements. Instead, let us presuppose a “commonsense” conception of morality.

According to this conception, morality is made up of (a) prohibitions on how one treats others, (b) special duties to others who are related to one in special ways, and (c) a general duty to do good for others. The prohibitions forbid one to do acts of various kinds, such as killing or injuring the innocent, stealing or damaging others’ property, threatening to do one or more of these things, breaking one’s promises, telling lies, treating people unfairly or unjustly, and so on. The special duties to others who are related to one in special ways typically give one a strong reason to favour one’s own families and friends when deciding how to allocate one’s time, energy, and other resources. The general duty to do good for others is of course very familiar – as is the problem of specifying plausible limits to it.

This short sketch of morality is necessarily abstract and vague. A very long list of important questions need to be answered before we have a reasonably clear picture about what commonsense morality requires, prohibits, or permits. Furthermore, one or another element of commonsense morality is challenged by some moral philosopher. What’s more, controversy surrounds the question of what, if anything, underlies and unifies the elements of commonsense morality. These are all questions we must bypass here in order to make room for a discussion of the relation between personal good and being moral. Let’s just assume that being moral is a matter of complying with commonsense moral prohibitions, special duties to family and friends, and the general duty to do good for others.

Of course, being moral can be instrumental to personal good – doing the right thing can be a means to improving one’s welfare. Being moral might bring you trust, private admiration, affection, and public praise from others. Others might feel indebted to you because of your kindness or honesty or fairness. Being moral might even bring you honours and prizes. In many different (and very familiar) ways, being trusted, admired, liked, praised, and honoured can be instrumental to your obtaining the elements of the good life. Most of us want to see good deeds rewarded somehow, and we are motivated to promote this outcome.

On the other hand, people’s being immoral does sometimes instrumentally aid them in obtaining benefits for themselves. Knaves sometimes thrive. And being moral sometimes handicaps morally decent people in their pursuit of worthwhile goals. This is especially likely to happen when those with the most power in society either don’t care about morality or have badly mistaken ideas about what morality requires or allows. Where other people don’t care about morality or have badly mistaken moral ideas, your being moral might win you neither admiration nor public endorsement. Indeed, just the reverse could happen. Your being moral might even put you in fatal danger. A good person might not last long at all in a bad society.

Now, whether or not being moral is instrumental to personal good, does being moral itself somehow constitute an element of personal good? Is being good a part of living a good life? There are three different theories about what constitutes personal good. They give different answers to the question of whether being moral is a component of personal good.

Perhaps the most familiar theory of personal good is hedonism. According to hedonism, one’s personal good is a matter of how much net happiness one experiences. Sometimes hedonists talk in terms of enjoyment instead of happiness. Sometimes they talk in terms of pleasure minus pain. However they spell it out, all hedonists agree that what matters for personal good is the positive felt quality of one’s experience.

Some moralists have contended that the sweetness of the experience of being moral outstrips the felt rewards of any other kind of experience. The idea might be that being moral – for example, passing up opportunities to steal, to cheat, to lie maliciously, or to inflict suffering on others – provides one with a unique and unequalled ecstasy. Maybe this description fits some people’s experience.

A much more common experience, however, is the suffering a guilty conscience inflicts on people who believe that they have been immoral. The ubiquity of painful guilt feelings counsels people to avoid doing what they think is immoral. Even if being moral doesn’t guarantee happiness, doing what they believe is immoral guarantees unhappiness for those who are highly susceptible to feeling guilty.

This is not to go so far as to claim that doing what one believes to be immoral can never be, on balance, what of the available options that best serves one’s personal good. Even if doing what one believes to be immoral will definitely result in one’s suffering painful feelings and thus being unhappy, the alternative might result in even greater unhappiness for oneself.

Let us now move on from hedonism to the second leading theory of personal good. This theory, which we can follow Derek Parfit in calling the “desire-fulfilment theory”, holds that personal good consists not just in having the mental states that one desires but also in the fulfilment of one’s non-instrumental desires for other things, like the desire for success in some personal project, or the desire to be admired and liked, or the desire for knowledge for its own sake.

The difference between the desire-fulfilment theory and hedonism is that, while hedonism counts nothing but experiences as additions to or deletions from personal good, the desire-fulfilment theory accepts that facts that do not feature directly or indirectly in one’s experiences can nevertheless benefit or harm one if one cares about those facts non-instrumentally. What matters, according to this theory, is whether one’s non-instrumental desires are fulfilled, not whether one knows of and gets pleasure from their fulfilment.

Desire-fulfilment theory does not take the fulfilment of merely instrumental desires to constitute benefits. Some examples will help make all of this clear. Suppose I have a non-instrumental desire that my children like me. If I have an instrumental desire to listen to pop music because I think my listening to it will make my children like me, then the fulfilment of my instrumental desire to listen to pop music cannot add to the benefit to me of their liking me. Likewise, if my desire that my children like me is not fulfilled, then the fulfilment of my instrumental desire to listen to pop music will in no degree make up for the loss to me of not fulfilling my desire that my children like me.

Suppose I have the non-instrumental desire that at least most of the people who know me like me. And suppose I want to be moral because I think this will make them like me. If my desire that they like me is fulfilled, then that is a benefit to me, according to desire-fulfilment theory. But the fulfilment of my instrumental desire to be moral is not an extra benefit to me.

So, on the desire-fulfilment theory of personal good, whether being moral constitutes a benefit to me depends on whether I have a non-instrumental desire to be moral. If I do have a non-instrumental desire, then being moral does constitute a benefit to me. If I don’t have a non-instrumental desire, then it doesn’t constitute a benefit to me.

And even if being moral does constitute a benefit to someone with a non-instrumental desire to be moral, being moral might also result in the non-fulfilment of many of this person’s other non-instrumental desires. Thus, even if being moral does constitute a benefit to someone with a non-instrumental desire to be moral, it might nevertheless not be, on balance, what of the available options is most beneficial to this person.

A third theory of personal good holds that one’s good consists not in the fulfilment of whatever non-instrumental desires one happens to have and not merely in pleasure, but in a limited number of things in addition to pleasure. These are typically claimed to be the successful pursuit of worthwhile goals, knowledge of important matters, and friendship. This theory might also claim that being moral is one of the things – alongside friendship, pleasure, knowledge, and achievement – that constitutes personal good. Is there a good reason for thinking that being moral is part of one’s personal good, on this view?

Consider this argument. Being highly moral is highly admirable. Indeed, being consistently at least decently moral is admirable. And, to the extent that one fails to be moral, one is less admirable and more contemptible. Being admirable is in one’s best interest and being contemptible is not. For the sake of being admirable and avoiding being contemptible, being moral is thus part of personal good.

There are, however, several problems with this argument. The most important problem is that there are many different ways of being admirable, and at least some of these cannot plausibly be supposed to have a necessary connection with personal good. Natural beauty, for example, is admirable, as is sheer natural ability. Natural beauty and natural ability are normally instrumentally advantageous to all sorts of benefits. But having natural beauty and having natural ability are not themselves elements of personal good. So if not all admirable qualities are elements of one’s personal good, the bare fact that a quality is admirable does not entail that having it is part of personal good.

A more promising argument goes like this. Achieving one’s goals is an important component of personal good. Being consistently moral is an important achievement. So being consistently moral is an important component of personal good.

This argument is important, but so are its limitations. Often, the goal of being consistently moral competes with the pursuit of other worthwhile goals. For example, attending to one’s needy family can get in the way of pursuing artistic or sporting or professional goals. Being consistently moral can also conflict with pursuing important knowledge, protecting one’s friendships, and obtaining pleasure. Thus, even if being moral is a component of personal good because being moral is a kind of achievement, there can be cases in which someone’s being moral is not on balance best for this person. In these cases, the personal benefit of the achievement of being moral would be accompanied by even greater losses of other components of personal good.

Before finishing, I want to say that I have not assumed and do not believe that being moral is reasonable or rational only if it adds to personal good. Imagination (if not personal experience) reveals many compelling counterexamples to the thought that one always has most reason to do what is best for oneself. Still, we can be interested in possible connections between being moral and personal good, even if our loyalty to personal good has limits.

Brad Hooker is professor of philosophy at the University of Reading.


3 comments for “Morality and the good life”

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  2. I’d be interested to hear some of these counter-examples. I tend to think that hedonism, or blatant self-interest, really does rule the day. But for me, this fact is about as applicable to everyday life as is the reality of quantum mechanics. Still, I’m intrigued by the possibility of counter-examples.

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    Posted by Justin | April 20, 2011, 5:00 pm
  3. This argument is interesting but seems to ignore that fact that the choices we make are not determined by our best interest or even our highest aspirations. Rather, it seems to me, we tend to do the thing which perpetuates the status quo ante - a highly individual reality. For example a friend of mine drinks and gambles too much on payday and suffers remorse the rest of the week until the ‘relief’ of payday rolls around again. If we were not born of flawed parents and if, by the time of our maturity we had not already perfected our coping mechanisms, Mr Hooker’s thesis would be more compelling and helpful. Self denial and self gratification are just flavours. The icing on top of the cake we are condemned to spend our lives consuming.

    Posted by Don | April 23, 2011, 1:31 pm