Saturday, February 26, 2005

Why do good?

In his comment on "The Good Hunger" below, dan said:
I recall the words of a co-worker as he told me of his Uncle the philosopher who waxed on about how everything we do in life is based purely on greed, even good deeds and such, because it makes us feel good about ourselves and/or gives us something good to speak of about ourselves. I don't know, maybe he was right, but I thought: "what a miserable way to look at the world!".
One thing I'd ask "Uncle" is why he bothers to say any of this - is it just to make himself feel good about himself? And what proof does he have of such a broad assertion - has he looked into the minds of everyone and discovered that they all have no better motives for their good deeds than to bolster their self-esteem?

At one level, of course, "Uncle's" statement is a tautology - no one intends in advance to feel bad about anything he does, so it follows that we intend to feel good about all we do. But the question is whether the intent to feel good about an action is the primary cause of the action, or a result of the awareness at another level that we have done something that is worth feeling good about. But how do we know that an action is worth feeling good about?

I discuss this below in my first posting (credit Hugh Hewitt for the stimulus to begin blogging), where I ask if there is an external moral standard or whether our own happiness is the final moral arbiter. If our happiness is the ultimate norm, then "Uncle" is right - the things that are right are what make us feel good and that's why we do them. But if there is an external moral standard, then it is possible to do something not chiefly to feel good, but because we are trying to conform to a moral standard that we know is right. Of course it may make us feel good to make such an effort, but we would make the effort even if it did not, simply because it is the right thing to do.

But there's a risk to acknowledging an external moral standard - your friend's uncle may call you a legalist or a hypocrite.

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