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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Why be Good? A Systemic Approach

One of my pet peeves with a lot of ethical philosophy is that it either weakly addresses, or entirely skips the question of "why care?" For this reason, I've tried to keep in mind that foundational issue as I've proceeded. In the past, I have written some reasons on "why be good", such as in my Principles of Socio-Personal Humanism, 2.4 "The Basis of Secular Ethics", I give a lot of answers to the question. But the basic approach I take there is this: Here are some reasons, listed from the most shallow, to the most profound, and as you practice ethics, you find the more profound reasons become more important to you, even if they seemed unimportant at first. I recall Kurtz's listing of stages of moral development.

The problem with that approach is that I basically present a lot of reasons, some of them obviously advantageous to those who might ask 'why be good', and the rest of them irrelevant to such a person - and then I go about 'shaming' them into the more profound reasons by telling them it's part of being more ethically mature. Not a really solid line of argument.

But then the realization happened, which is the purpose of this post...

That realization has made me understand how each of those different reasons work together in a system which links them all together. Basically, it starts with a simple odds assessment:

1) We can see that bad actions, if discovered, will lead to bad consequences for us socially, legally, or otherwise. We might try to get away with it once, but ultimately over a lifetime of performing bad actions, the statistical likelihood of being found out approaches near certainty.

2) Given human psychology, it only takes one or two such discoveries to 'pigeonhole' us for a long, long time in the minds of peers.

3) We might think we can perform bad actions only once in a while, or only when being really careful, or only when our emotional urges are exceptionally strong. However, even the most extreme of temptations are likely to happen several times to us throughout life, and no matter how careful we are, we are talking about many decades of life and statistically, we are going to have all sorts of trouble with any kind of bad behavior even slightly approaching 'regular'. Worse behaviors require only one flub to forever generate consequences not worth the aim of the original behavior.

4) So, the wise course is to set about a long term plan of behavior which, even over the long term, will yield statistically good results. But here's the catch: human beings are not typically strong enough to resist all of the various urges and temptations they may encounter while having a nature so coldly calculating. The task would seem to be a near impossibility.

5) This is where character development comes in. If we begin a program of molding our character in such a way that is more inclined to good actions and disinclined toward bad actions, then it becomes much easier to live according to a rational plan of behavior. It is easier to resist temptations and habit building makes it easier to perform more actions which will be admired by peers.

6) At that point, we will begin to enjoy deeper more fulfilling relationships. This feedback, plus the character development, will nurture a certain subset of our instinctive emotional responses, such as empathy and compassion. This will happen automatically as we set about habit building and the fruits thereof.

7) As these instincts are nurtured, and as our intellectual and behavioral norms change, we eventually become open to other lines of argument for being good, which the basic beginner asking "why should I be good?" would find irrelevant or unimportant. At this point, we are living so in tune with our full nature as social beings, that we can enjoy a contentment that is scarcely available to the surface-level agent who makes materialistic and short-term calculations for each individual action as it comes up.

8) There is an intellectual thread that follows in all this, whereby hardships are approached with greater skill and fascinating concepts enrich life and make happiness possible that is independent of material circumstances. This would include things like Stoic and Buddhist teachings and, more importantly, practices.

All of this must be experienced to be fully understood or appreciated by the surface-level agent.

Anyway, that is the general concept. I just rattled it off the top of my head to get it into my journal here for future reference, but I thought the idea of how these things connect and interrelate was worthy enough to make note of.

Of course, we are rarely so able to perfectly enact this process. We are forever facing the temptations of a particular moment or action, and our characters are never perfected completely. Nevertheless, to whatever degree we achieve this process is the degree to which eudaimonia becomes possible.

But suppose someone traveled this path with perfection from the beginning of life. Such a person would be indifferent to the material. Is it really possible to have eudaimonia without experiencing any of the delightful individual-level experiences in life, materialistic as though they may be? If a person could have such experiences, would it be worth a few interruptions of their perfect path to eudaimonia to at least enjoy them here and there? Maybe a little hardship such materialism may cause might be worth it to really live?

Of course, I'm in no danger of living a perfectly ethical and stoic life, try though I might. But the thought experiment of the perfect practitioner does give me pause and wonder about the absolute validity of the stoic approach.