SKYE C. CLEARY: You’ve already written 11 books, many of which consider existentialism, God, death, nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre, and cricket. What tempted you to write about goodness?
GARY COX: Ethics is an area of philosophy I’ve studied and taught for many years, and although I’ve touched upon ethics in other books, I’d never written a whole book about it. I felt it was time to address that deficit, not least because ethics is the ultimate goal of all worthwhile philosophy. I try to answer questions about what there is and how we know it in order to answer questions about how we should live, which is the most important philosophical question. Also, it turns out that How to Be Good rounds off my How To philosophical trilogy, complementing How to Be an Existentialist and How to Be a Philosopher. I never really knew I was writing a trilogy until it was finished.
Religion is one way to assess what’s good and bad, but you argue that philosophy holds the key to figuring out what you call “the mind-bending ethical caboodle” of goodness. Why is this such a caboodle, and how does philosophy help us figure out what it means to be good?
Well, to get my full answer to this question people will have to read the book, but it has almost everything to do with how we treat other people. Goodness is not a saintly light that shines out of us, but a pattern of behavior, ideally a whole way of life. As Immanuel Kant argues, being good means treating people as ends in themselves rather than as a mere means to our own selfish ends.
The existentialists will add that being good involves valuing the freedom and self-determination of others as much as we value — or should value — our own freedom and self-determination. For utilitarians, or consequentialists as they now prefer to be called, goodness is about acting in a way that promotes happiness for the greatest number of people. Happiness can seem an elusive concept, but John Stuart Mill’s common-sense answer is that happiness is concerned with what reasonably well-adjusted people the world over want and have always wanted, broadly speaking: comfortable subsistence, constructive occupation, entertainment, and the love, support, and companionship of family and friends.
For Aristotle and Buddha, happiness comes from developing our character in such a way that goodness becomes second nature to us. We do this by striving for balance in all things, by seeking to achieve the golden mean or the middle way between the extremes of excess and deficiency. The virtue of generosity, for example, lies between the extremes of meanness and profligacy, and the virtue of courage lies between cowardice and rashness. Given that we all have different temperaments and circumstances, strengths and weaknesses, advantages and disadvantages, generosity or courage for one person will not be the same as it is for another. Hence it is important to be wise about who we really are so that we can understand what constitutes generosity or courage for us. Meanness in a rich man might be profligacy in a poor man. I argue that goodness is very often simply the exercise of intelligence, whereas badness is often the exercise of stupidity. Being good, despite certain moral dilemmas that arise, is not rocket science. Most of the time it is pretty obvious what the right thing to do is.
Why should we strive to be good?
This is actually a tricky philosophical question, especially in a largely post-religious world. In the past, people thought we should be good because God said so, and we would be rewarded or punished accordingly, at least in the hereafter. Today, we have to see that being good is worthwhile in itself, better for us, for others, and for the world we live in because only through goodness, by becoming ethical beings, do we achieve our full potential as human beings.
Kant argues that to be moral is to act in accordance with our core attribute, rationality, whereas to be immoral is to be acted upon by our desires, to be swept along by our desires like leaves in a storm. It is not always easy to tell people that being good is to their advantage, the means to achieving their highest potential, because there are always examples of wicked people who seem to be leading a great life and getting everything they want. But are they really happy in themselves? Would a good person want to be them? Does anyone really care about them? Will they soon get their comeuppance? I tend to go with the age-old wisdom that goodness is its own reward, and that nothing can truly harm a virtuous person.
Would you go so far as to say we have a duty to be good?
Kant certainly thinks we have a duty to be good, to act according to our highest faculty of reason, rather than allow ourselves to be swept along by our animal desires, certainly when these desires disrespect others. Most moral philosophers variously equate goodness, reason, and intelligence.
The subtitle of your book is “How to Be Moral and Virtuous in a Wicked World.” Is that because there are so many morally corrupt people?
Actually, I think most people are quite good and decent, even in the most extreme circumstances. The problem is that the effects of wickedness tend to spread a long way, such that it only takes relatively few wicked people to make this a wicked, or seemingly wicked, world. A life is built up and prospers only through many selfless acts of love and generosity by others, but a life can be destroyed by one act of violent stupidity and selfishness like a murder or a rape. Random acts of kindness spread their goodness and goodwill like ripples in a lake, but sadly, random acts of wickedness spread further and with more force, not only damaging the immediate victim, but their family, friends, and the community at large.
A particularly wicked act that you mention in the book is the abduction and brutal murder of two-year-old James Bulger in 1993. You argue that the two murderers, aged 10 at the time, should be held accountable despite their young age.
I chose this harrowing case partly to support my view that being good, doing the right thing, is generally not rocket science, indeed that most often being good is child’s play. In examining the details of this case, I was struck by the fact that James’s killers, although unusually young, knew what they were doing and did it because it was bad. They were fairly intelligent boys who craftily tried to deny their grotesque actions, cried crocodile tears and tears of self-pity when they thought it would help their cause, cunningly blamed each other, and finally confessed with a significant degree of shame and even embarrassment.
I recall that a psychologist on TV at the time argued that because a 10-year-old is too young to try a case for murder as a member of a jury, he is too young to stand trial for murder. I completely disagree because being a member of a jury — concentrating for long periods of time, weighing evidence, and understanding procedures — is far more complex than understanding that it is wrong to throw bricks at babies with the intention of killing them.
At what age should a person be held morally accountable?
I am hesitant to put a figure on it, but clearly there is a level of maturity below which a child cannot seriously be held responsible for their actions. We have to look at the individual child and the particular circumstances of the case. One of the most useful maxims in ethics and law is that “circumstances alter cases.” My argument in the book is that these two 10-year-olds were certainly guilty, and that most 10-year-olds know the basic difference between right and wrong, particularly with regard to prolonged and disturbingly inventive acts of violence. It is controversial stuff, and I urge people to read my full account in the book before taking me to task for my view.
Other case studies you cover in the book include abortion and factory farming of nonhuman animals. Can you speak to the “good” attitude in such cases?
I picked these two not least because they illustrate certain key ethical concepts: speciesism (bias toward one’s own species), personhood (what it is to be a person as distinct from a human being), and morally relevant characteristics (those characteristics relating to personhood that render a person, as distinct from a rock, of moral value).
After considering both the conservative and liberal positions, I argue in favor of allowing abortion up to 24 weeks primarily on the grounds, following Peter Singer, that a human fetus below a certain number of weeks is a human being but not a person. That is, it lacks the development to have any characteristics of personhood: consciousness, self-consciousness, rationality, autonomy, and capacity to experience pleasure and pain. A being is not worthy of moral consideration simply by virtue of being alive, otherwise we would have to confer moral rights on germs. The moral rights, health, and well-being of the mother override those of a fetus, certainly one below 24 weeks’ gestation. It is not easy to do justice to these subtle arguments in a few words, hence I urge people to keep an open mind and read the book.
The abortion debate and the animal rights debate overlap, as the same key concepts are in play. To what extent are some nonhuman animals persons — whales, dolphins, octopi, and primates for example? There is a very strong case for arguing that primates are persons, and that they should therefore be given the same moral respect as human persons. This raises issues for medical research and the benefits that even some animal rights activists may gain from drugs that could not have been developed without testing them on primates first. But if primates are truly persons we should not use them for dangerous medical research, whatever the benefits, any more than we would use a human baby for such research. To think that primates are less worthy of moral consideration is speciesism, which is akin to racism. Pigs, dogs, cats, and horses also lay strong claims to having a degree of personhood, yet no animal is more abused than the highly intelligent pig.
For animals with less personal characteristics, Jeremy Bentham’s famous question — “Can they suffer?” — comes to the fore. Since animals can clearly suffer, as they are sentient, they should always be well treated, and in the case of farm animals, slaughtered painlessly. I found myself taking quite a strong animal rights position overall, but did not go as far as saying that painlessly slaughtering and eating a well-kept sheep, for example, is wrong. However, factory farming methods often cause animals to suffer and that provides a strong argument in favor of vegetarianism.
It is not possible to be wantonly cruel to nonhuman animals and be a good person. Blood sports, torturing, and killing animals for fun or glory is abhorrent and morally unjustifiable. Nonetheless, there have been animal lovers who were not good people. Hitler is an example.
There are many philosophical theories about goodness — Mill, Kant, Hegel, Aristotle, Buddha, Hume, Moore — and you argue that Kant came closest to getting it right, but not entirely, because he is missing out on practical wisdom in the form of what you call a “utilitarian, multi-purpose sonic screwdriver,” so that a person does not become a “complete moral ass.”
Well, I’m a big fan of Kant, I love his depth, clarity, and philosophical rigor. His categorical imperative — act only on that maxim you can will to become a universal law — provides a sound test for establishing if an action is right or wrong. To put it simply, before I act I only have to ask myself: What if everyone acted this way? Would it even be possible to act this way if everyone did?
Take false promising. If everyone made promises with the intention of not keeping them, then the convention of promising would be undermined as nobody would trust that a person’s promises were genuine. To fail to act according to the categorical imperative is to treat others as a mere means to one’s own selfish ends, rather than respect them as ends in themselves — that is, as autonomous beings with their own ends and goals. It is okay to treat someone as a means, as we all do in everyday life — for example, the bus driver is my means of getting to town — so long as we have their genuine consent.
Kant famously argues that one should never lie as it breaches the categorical imperative, even if it is lying to Nazis who are asking where the fugitives are hidden. One can say nothing or throw them off the scent, but one should never lie. A utilitarian, or just a common-sense person, struggles with this. Surely the decent thing to do here is to tell a lie. Who wouldn’t? Sticking doggedly to the categorical imperative would surely make one a “moral ass.” I recommend that people should lie, or at least be economical with the truth, on such extreme occasions. However, in a world where we all adhered to the categorical imperative, Kant’s idealistic kingdom of ends, there would be no Nazis to lie to.
Given that we are discussing this in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, what’s the best way for people to be good in crises like these?
On the one hand, it seems the best way to be good is to follow government advice and stay at home as much as possible so that they don’t spread the infection and put further strain on health services. People should also be kind, patient, and altruistic to those they live with and to their neighbors, particularly those who are vulnerable. After all, we are all in this together.
On the other hand, the more realistic, skeptical side of me asks: Are we really all in this together? Is the lockdown placing more value on the lives of wealthy people in the developed world than upon the lives of poor people in the developing world because people in the developed world are able to demand more from their governments? Will the lockdown eventually kill more young, poor migrant workers in India than wealthier, older people in Western Europe?
The poor — often frontline workers with less access to quality medical facilities — will inevitably suffer the consequences of it more than the wealthy. The young and healthy have far less chance than others of being ill with COVID-19, let alone dying of it. Others, particularly those in the developing world, have far more chance of suffering the dire economic, social, and political consequences of a prolonged lockdown. Will we come to the point where we simply have to accept a certain body count, given that a prolonged lockdown is likely to cause years of widespread strife, poverty, suffering, and death?
Tough utilitarian decisions are already being made in hospitals throughout the world with regard to the use of limited medical resources. Should a younger person with few underlying medical conditions take priority over an elderly, infirm person with far less chance of surviving? In utilitarian terms, the answer is surely yes. Ethics is not always about being nice to everyone, sometimes it is a stark choice between bad and worse. Perhaps we aspire to an idealistic Kantianism where every person is treated as an end in themselves, but when the chips are down, as now, we are forced to a brutal utilitarianism in order to guarantee the survival of our civilization, the future of the young, healthy, and productive — those who really do have their lives before them.
This pandemic is certainly making me reconsider what my moral compass really is and should be, and is raising tough moral questions that have never presented themselves to me so sharply before: What does and does not matter now, how should I (or we) live now, in this new nightmare reality?
Skye C. Cleary is the author of Existentialism and Romantic Love (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and co-editor of How to Live a Good Life (Vintage, 2020). She teaches at Columbia University and Barnard College and is the lead editor of the blog of the American Philosophical Association.