Why be good?
Why be good? The answer to that question may depend in part on our answers to the theological questions discussed in the previous essays. Certainly if one anticipates certain rewards or penalties after death, being good could be seen as being in one’s own interest. Alternately the theist could say they are responding to God’s love, that they want to be good, because they want to do as God wishes them to do.

A purely materialist view could be similar. The atheist could say that they are good, simply because they want to be, or alternately, they could believe that there is a secular rule that generally dictates, “what goes around comes around”, so that being good would be in their own best interest.

I would claim that there are only two basic possible answers to the question, “Why do anything?” There are internal motivating factors, and external motivating factors. That is one can be internally motivated to do something, because one genuinely wants to, or one can be externally motivated to do something because of external consequences associated with the action, or lack of action.

So, whether we decide on a theist or an atheist position there are only two possible answers to the, “Why be good?” question. They are, "I want to" and, "It's in my best intrest". However, the agnostic answer that I arrive at in previous essays, does present an interesting twist on this. In the essay on faith and evidence,
http://www.davegentile.com/philosophy/FandE.html , I argue that if there is insufficient evidence to strongly favor one hypothesis or another then it is reasonable to base our beliefs on other factors like optimism.

If we are faced with the agnostic situation, we have two choices. One choice is that we may believe that there is some sort of continuance after death. If we believe in some sort on continuance, then logically we must believe in some sort of fundamental connection to others. Whether we believe in some sort of reincarnation, or some sort of life associated with a supreme being, a general one-ness of creation, or any other sort of after-life, a believe in that after-life involves our good being connected to the good of others.

The other choice is to believe that this world is all that is for us. Choosing to believe in an after-life may make us happier in this life, however. This leads to an interesting situation. We could say, “wanting to be good is in our own interest.” That is, believe in an after-life, and not caring about being good are incompatible, and believing in an after-life may be in one’s own self interest, so the fact that one cares about being good, could be in one’s own interest.

This is in interesting combination of the two original possibilities. We can add to “being good because one wants to”, and “being good because one is better off”, “being good because one is better off to want to”.

The above view is reductionist. As with many reductionist views of things best viewed holistically it may be completely true, without telling us much about the question that is relevant. In human relations, the motivation to be good is often based on trust of others.  We act ethically towards others, trusting that they will reciprocate. This can be demonstrated in simple game theory experiments. In this more holistic picture, the ultimate motivation for ethical behavior could be trust in others. A motivation for unqualified universal ethical behavior then could be a trust that such behavior is ultimately rewarded. That is an ultimate exterior motivation. Similarly, compassion for others is an internal motivation for ethical behavior. Universal ethical behavior could be motivated by universal compassion which, while not humanly possible, is something to which we could aspire.

A Christian view

A Christian perspective could be very similar to what I have said here. On previous pages I have argued for the existence of a God of sorts,


I’ve also argued that while faith can not be used to counter overwhelming evidence, it can be used to fill in where there is little evidence. A belief like this may be based on things other than evidence, like optimism.


An important aspect of Christianity and ethical monotheism in general, is a faith in God’s goodness. (Or trust in the Other) Specifically that human affairs and concerns and ideas of goodness are relevant to God. (universal compassion)

We could also talk about faith in a Logos, or meaning, and specifically a Logos connected to human concerns.

If we look at this bible verse:

Matthew 22:37
Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' 38: This is the first and greatest commandment. 39: And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40: All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

We have first the motivation for being ethical, and secondly the definition of what it means to be ethical.
We might be able to see religion as not being about what is "true" about the natural world or about history. Rather, religion could be about ethics, and teleology, or meaning and purpose. Christianity could just be taken to mean “Have faith that there is a purpose and meaning,” and that ethics is about universalizing our thinking to include what is good for all of us, not just ourselves. The religious narratives could then be seen as any other stories with a point. They could function to spread the ethical and teleological message of the religion, without making truth claims.

For Christians, of course, the Logos is Jesus. Although some liberal Christians might use formulations like "Jesus lives on in the mind of God" (the Father), or "Jesus lives on in the lives of his followers" (the Holy Spirit). Or they might see Jesus as an exemplar of an ethical life of sacrifice for others. Jesus could also be viewed as the messenger, or carrier, of the Logos. But for most Christians, Christianity makes certain historical claims about Jesus.

However, it may be that this can be shown to be highly improbable when examined purely on the basis of evidence. And, I don't think it is possible to decide to believe something is true, if objectively, you find it extremely unlikely. But, see
the problem of miricles for one possible solution here.

The bible could also be seen as containing stories with an ethical point, that may or may not represent history. Even the specific ethical doctrines in the bible may not apply to today's world, when they are removed from their context.

In this case, what could be taken on faith is a believe in a God, and his goodness, a belief in a Logos or meaning, the fundamental definition of goodness, and a motivation for ethical behavior. This faith should influence what you do, not what you believe is factual about the natural world and history. This could be seen as the message of Jesus carried forward to today by the Holy Spirit and carried forward through the lives of his followers.

This is not a doctrine of "works". It says that one should accept, based on faith, that one
should be good, and that the definition of goodness means compassion for others. That could be seen as faith in the Logos. It is then up to the individual to try to live according to their faith.
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