Friday, January 28, 2011

Be good but not too good

Many wise people like Kant have known that the good tend to suffer far more than their fair share in life. It often costs considerably in terms of suffering to live a just life in an unjust world. People have gone to prison, suffered social costs, lost all their positions, been tortured, and even lost their lives to further a just cause.

This claim that the good tend to suffer far more than is their fair share is not just a cliche but has some odd moral implications. There seems to be some limits to how far we ought to live a virtuous life if that life will harm us. If as many philosophers have thought, we have a moral duty to ourselves to be good to ourselves there may be limits to how moral we ought to be from morality itself. This would be one way morality limits itself. Many philosophers have given such an argument against suicide. We have duty to ourselves to not only be good to ourselves, to treat ourselves fairly but to maintain our lives. If some people are living lives at terrible costs to themselves because they are trying to be the best people they can be in the face of evil, do they have a moral obligation to not live a life that is so harmful? In other words, how much does their moral obligation towards themselves to be fair factor into consideration when deciding what kind of life they should live? Should they be martyrs? That seems to be asking too much if we are to take their obligations to their own lives seriously. Their obligation to their just cause may have to be balanced against their obligation to themselves.

But how do we respond to those who would use this as an argument that we ought to live a virtuous life that would not cost anymore than it is expected of the average person (or no less). If anymore, it would be "unfair" to us. If less than it would be a life that is in some way a life of "moral freeloading." How are we to become better people if we only ought to seek moral mediocrity?

My suggestion against this is that we ought to change our fundamental value structure so that we derive happiness and pleasure from being virtuous itself and displeasure at not being virtuous as much as possible for us individually. In this way, we change, and the pleasure we derive from doing good for its own sake is balanced out by the negative consequences of being virtuous in a unjust world. The burden on our shoulders is lightened by the mere fact of us reorienting our fundamental values so that the costs are balanced by some benefit to ourselves. Many people when they take up a cause reorient their values so that they come to derive pleasure from contributing to a just cause automatically. But often this does not work as many people, I think, do not further just causes as much as they know they should because they are afraid of the social costs. But if they work on consciously valuing certain ethical values in themselves more than they do, they would change their fundamental outlook. Society can further this as Kant suggests by creating and endorsing certain kinds of moral parables that show and celebrate people who have lived virtuous lives all to no benefit to themselves but at considerable costs (they were not rewarded or even recognized for their actions either in their life times or in the after life and suffered greatly). Too often will tell children lies that being good will be rewarded with some benefit when that is often the opposite of the truth. Instead, they should learn to value doing good for itself.

However, no matter how much we try, I believe there are limits to the "wiggle room" in how much we can change our value structure. We are, for the most parts (except for those rare people capable of being happy martyrs), simply constrained by our nature to not go behind certain limits and be too selfless coming at a cost to ourselves. To each his own, but I have no doubt that most people are capable of far more reevaluation of their fundamental values than is the case.

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