Thursday, July 05, 2007

The trouble with wanting to be good

Richard Chappell writes:

It seems plausible that a person should try to be the best that they can be, and that their "idealized self" serves as a normative ideal. But this runs the risk of self-idolatry, by which I mean a fetishistic concern for the mere image of virtue.

He gives the example of the way that “some conservatives to care more about looking ‘tough on terror’ than in actually achieving security”, and he quotes Laurence Thomas with another example of “conceited good intentions”:

it is about “Look how wonderful I am for having helped you”. With genuine good intentions, by contrast, the accent is on you — and not that I have helped you...
When I think of white liberals, I am stunned by how interested they (initially) are in helping me and how much they admire me just so long as I underwrite their image of a white who just adores people of color.

Richard concludes:

So, it seems, there's a sense in which we shouldn't fundamentally aim to be ideal agents after all. We should instead conceive of virtuous character as a mere means, a kind of guiding ideal that will help us realize true value in the external world (which is what really matters). This conception will hopefully make us less susceptible to 'image' hang-ups.

This is all true, but it’s only part of the story. Certainly, those whose prime concern is to look good people are acting out of vanity, which is less than laudable. But there are people who are concerned not with having an image of goodness but with actually being good.

(Caveat: we can distinguish public image from self-image. Trying to look good is to focus on one’s public image; trying to be good isn’t. But if one knows that one’s efforts to be good are succeeding, then one’s self-image will change accordingly. In terms of wanting to be good and wanting to be able to think of oneself as good, motives can be hard to disentangle – although it’s unlikely, in this case, that one would consciously want the self-image with no regard to the reality. Rather, the self-image is taken as an evidential measure of how well one is succeeding.)

So what about wanting to really be a good person – are there problems with that? I think so, and for the same reason that Richard condemns ‘image’ hang-ups: it’s about oneself rather than an external focus on what really matters.

A moral outlook driven by a desire to be good may take the form of a self-focused virtue ethics but it’s really more an individualistic egoism for people of a certain disposition. On this view, what’s most important to achieve is not consequences for people’s lives and the wider world, nor adherence to general moral principles, but the fulfilment of a personal ambition for oneself.

Morality should be impartial, and this outlook is anything but.

A paramount concern with one’s own virtue can have two dangers. First, there’s the risk of avoiding difficult decisions in order to keep one’s hands clean: if lesser evils are eschewed as much as greater evils, then sins of omission beckon.

Alternatively, if one succeeds in becoming firmly convinced of one’s own high moral calibre, then that can result in a lowering of standards. Someone who is satisfied that they are a good driver, for instance, will stop regularly evaluating whether this remains so, and perhaps get sloppy. Likewise, we all know of people who are so assured of their personal virtue that they become arrogant and intolerant of disagreement; they may develop blind spots or self-serving rationalisations for their own behaviour, confident that as they are a good person, the things they do will be good things.

I think it was Henry Sidgwick who said that happiness isn’t something you can directly pursue with much success; instead, you must pursue other things – career, family life, friendships, interests – which will end up making you happy. The paradox, though, is that you have to pursue these things for their own sake, not because you intend for them to make you happy. Virtue, I think, is much the same.


Anonymous said...

I am guilty of this as well....

Tom Freeman said...

I think it's hard not to be (except for psychopaths, of course).

anticant said...

I have some "how wonderful we are for helping you" next-door neighbours who were extremely supportive during the early months of my chronic illness two and a half years ago, but who haven't spoken to me for 18 months since I mildly criticised something thoughtless that they did. Thank goodness they are removing soon!

Tom Freeman said...

That's really frustrating when things like that happen - gratitude's one thing but nobody has a right to expect uncritical adulation.

(Almost reminds me of the fanatics who demand deference under the guise of 'respect'.)