One of my more memorable philosophy classes during college was when our teacher tackled the ethics of Aristotle and Kant, not because it was a huge epiphany on my part, but because I already had a mental debate with myself over their philosophies seven years prior — before I had even heard about Aristotle and Kant. This is an oversimplification but Aristotle was more concerned with actions rather than intent while Kant placed more of an emphasis on the latter. It would seem that considering I’m more of a practical bent, I’d side with Aristotle because his side delivers results and as for Kant, we all know that the best intentions can sometimes lead people to ruin. But to be honest I’m more Kantian in my belief. For me intent plays a crucial role in morality which brings me to my next point.
There are lots of good people in the world, don’t doubt that fact. What I am concerned about, however, is what leads them to be good. There is a prevalent philosophy which can be summed up by its motto: “What’s in it for me?” It’s a selfish philosophy but then again, people should be selfish on one level or another. What might confound people is that such a philosophy can bring about much good. Here are two examples. Following that philosophy, one could donate to charities, not because it’s purely altruistic on our part but because it gives me tax breaks and improves my reputation (in addition of course to giving us an ego boost or soothing our conscience). There’s also the practice of recycling and other nature-friendly policies not simply because it’s eco-friendly, but because it’s actually more efficient to do so and it is actually preserving our very lives. Don’t get me wrong, “What’s in it for me?” isn’t a bad philosophy. It’s actually a good start for people to start doing good. My problem with it is its limitations. In the end, there will be some good acts which can’t be justified by “What’s in it for me?” Just because something stops being profitable to us doesn’t mean we stop supporting it.
Another prevalent philosophy is that of divine retribution. It can best be summed up by what parents tell their children: “Be good or you’ll go to hell.” Again, much like the “What’s in it for me?” philosophy, it’s something to start with (and in fact most of us, I think, begin with this incentive). Unlike the “What’s in it for me?” philosophy however, the concept of divine retribution is inconsistent at best. Let’s be honest with each other – divine retribution doesn’t always work. First off, the only certain punishment in divine retribution is in the afterlife. And even then, that fact can’t be proved. The other incentive there is that the just will be rewarded and the unjust punished. But let’s face it, that’s not how it works in real life. There are good people who suffer and evil men who succeed. That might not always be the case but it happens. Sometimes it’s just a matter of not being caught. And that perhaps is its biggest flaw. Divine retribution needs an omniscient corporeal entity to police its policies but we usually end up with mortal proxies such as our parents, our teachers, our bosses, our law enforcers, our government. And they’re not doing a good job of it. Simply put, divine retribution works because it’s a threat and it stops working because the threat can’t be perfectly enforced. At least in the “What’s in it for me?” philosophy, the incentive to do good comes from the self rather from an external source.
Of course if you’re thinking divine retribution only applies to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, you might want to take a fresh look at your own belief system. Some people don’t believe in God but they believe in karma. Under these circumstances, they’re really one and the same. Karma may not originate from a divine entity but it is still of divine origin. Just because you act good doesn’t mean you’ll be treated with goodness. People might feel predisposed to act good towards you but that’s still not a guarantee. For others, acting good means you’re a susceptible victim. Again, it could go both ways. And just because two “good” people believing in karma meet doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll get along with each other. It’s even easy to suppose that they’ll get into conflict with each other. Suffice to say, karma for me is the same as “Be good or you’ll go to hell.” Except it’s shrouded with better words and sounds more appealing. You’re still trapped in the negative reinforcement philosophy which can be limiting.
So where does that leave us? Well, people who do good because it’s simply good. It’s not an easy path – in fact it’s the most difficult and it’s hard to imagine that people would embrace this kind of philosophy. Even I don’t do good deeds simply because it’s good. There’s a part of me that’s tinged with selfishness and expecting something in return. Another part of me might be thinking I’m racking up karma points or at least letting God jot me down in his book of good deeds. But I do believe that if man wants to transcend his current state, to live a better life, he needs to practice this kind of philosophy not because it simply benefits him but because it’s simply the right thing to do. Of course adherents of other philosophies will find this shocking. The “What’s in it for me?” man might claim one’s following this philosophy because we’re getting something out of it. And that’s true but I’d like to think that the benefit we get doesn’t necessarily extend to our individual selves but to humanity in general. It’s what makes self-sacrifice and martyrdom possible. Adherents of divine retribution, on the other hand, might reply that goodness must have a source such as faith or religion to make it more meaningful. But the problem with that is what happens when one discovers that there’s no divine will? Or worse, a divine will exists but he either doesn’t care, isn’t omniscient, or simply impotent. In the end, divine retribution is akin to a parent watching over his child. What happens when he isn’t there to watch him or her? Some children continue to do good. Others start rebelling. That’s not the kind of environment I want to nurture goodness.
Of course this only works if you subscribe to the Kantian philosophy. To Aristotle, results are results no matter what your motivation is. In the end, this is a dilemma only Kantians will probably ponder about. Or people who believe in morality.