Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Why Be Good?

In my last blog, I talked about drivers who ignore the one-way sign posted at the end of the street on which I live.  A frequent tactic of those who live on the street to discourage this flouting of the rules is to shout “WRONG WAY”, at cars failing to adhere to these rules.  I suppose this will alert someone who was not aware they were driving in the wrong direction to their misdeed, but mostly it will make them aware that people are watching.

If we see morality as rule following is there a danger that we only follow the rules when someone is watching, or when someone can catch us.

Plato asked what we would do if we could do what we liked without anyone finding out?  In The Republic, he gave the example of a magic ring that made the wearer invisible. (1)  An ancestor of Gyges of Lydia was said to have used this ring to kill the king and take his place on the throne, without anyone finding out what he had done.  Plato pondered whether anyone with such power that he could not be caught would do the right thing.  So we have to ask ourselves if we just follow rules because we are afraid of getting caught or if we had Gyges’s ring would be do what we want?

To take a more contemporary example, imagine, on a dark night, a car hitting a pedestrian on a deserted road and driving off.  If no one sees the incident, and assuming that the driver successfully conceals or explains away other evidence such as damage to the car, should the driver stop and help and put himself or herself in possible legal jeopardy?

Would the driver’s actions be bad even if he was not caught or otherwise found out?  I would say that whether or not he or she faced any consequences his or her actions would still be bad.  If that is true, then something is bad even if you don’t get caught. Even in the ring of Gyges the point is not that the ring makes his actions good, the problem presupposes that there is a good and a bad way to act, but rather why we should do what is good?

However, what about those who don’t get caught?

We could respond by stating that most people don’t “get away with it”.   We have police and justice systems designed to make sure that the guilty are punished.  But in a world with this much corruption and selfish ambition, can we say that no one gets away with it?  Moreover, if someone were truly successful in getting away with their crimes, we would never really know what they had done.

It seems to me that unless there are consequences for wrong actions, then there is no reason to do the right thing if one can get away with it.   Since, it is likely that there are some at least who get away with things, take a moment to reflect on unsolved crimes, it would seem to follow that there would be no reason to do what is good if one can "get away with it".

This is indeed a great problem.  We could try to solve it by better policing and a fairer judicial system, but will we ever reach perfection, or even near perfection?  That is to say, that it is likely that we will never see complete justice in this world.  Perhaps if all of our actions were watched or recorded all of the time, we might achieve such justice.  However, not too many would find that to be a palatable solution, and our experience of human nature would lead us to believe that instead of using total surveillance to achieve total justice, it would be used to perpetuate total forced submission.  Moreover, we might distrust that the judicial parts of that system would act fairly and impartially.

What we would need is a fair, impartial judge who observes everything, and carries out a just punishment, so that no one “gets away with it” in the end.  Further, this judge would need absolute power to see every crime and be able to punish all of the guilty, while at the same time be above corruption.  If such justice is to have existed throughout history and to extend into the future, this person must have endured throughout human history and must continue to do so for as long as we exist, or else this perfect and powerful person, would need to be replaced from time to time with no gap between such powerfully, perfect persons.

It is clear that if such a person does exist, he or she would be morally perfect, supremely powerful, all-knowing, be everywhere at the same time.  If you think about it, this sounds a lot like God.

(1)             Plato, Republic, trans. Robin Waterfield (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 47-49.