Why Be Good?
by Stephen McAndrew
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?
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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?
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