Why Be Good

In periods of personal crisis and upheaval, my first response is to find a quiet place and think. I’m not sure this is useful, but it is what I do. I map out how I arrived at this point. I ponder my choices and reconsider my worldview, and I wonder if and where I have gone wrong. I assess the direction of my life and question whether I should pursue new aims. Or maybe my method is the thing to revise. But above all, I wonder whether I am a good person. I like to think that I am not alone in my angst over this, that to doubt is to be fully human, aware of the fragility and changeability of oneself and of life. For me, the questions of whether to be good, and what goodness is to begin with, lie at the heart of personal identity.

            Yet the problem inherent to the question why be good is its implication of a self distinct from these other lives—the “I”—that can choose to be good and give reasons for its actions. This notion of a self with separate, isolated interests and the agency to choose is a recent invention of the Western world. Some scholars trace its origin to the 1600s, but by the nineteenth century the concept of selfhood was entrenched in the daily experience of the common person.[1] Coinciding with the birth of psychology and one of the richest periods for the European novel—both fields of knowledge concerned with the inner life that came to define the self in the twentieth century—the idea of the individual makes such questions as “Why be good?” conceivable in the first place.

But because the “I” is embedded in the larger “we”, the question is unanswerable through contemplating myself, alone. As a human being, I am rooted in a system of relationships. Every decision I make, whether I mean for it to or not, bears upon the lives around me and our coexistence. The self that chooses to be or not to be good—and gives reasons for the choice—exists in tandem with other selves.

In order to render the question of why be good answerable, I must first determine the entity that can be good. The self is permeable and even, at times, fluid. It is a collaborative performance between the community as a whole and its members. For a species evolved from nomadic family clans where the concept of unique self-interests and desires would have jeopardized survival, the self, like a life committed to the arts or to theoretical physics, is a modern luxury.

In fact, human beings, scientists are finding, are wired to consider—and even experience—the welfare of others as part of their own. Neuroscientists’ recent discovery of mirror-neurons shows that when humans see another person’s physical expression of an emotion, most will feel those same emotions instinctively.[2] Evolutionary biology has found evidence of empathy among our hominid ancestors, hypothesizing that it was an adaptation to ensure group survival, and empathy has been widely observed throughout mammals.[3] Group cohesion depends upon an awareness of the moods and feelings of others, so much so that we have evolved to experience alleviating another’s suffering as comforting oneself. It is such a habit of our species that therapists and participants in group therapy must be trained to withhold physical and verbal comfort so that they may let others cry and express suffering, without immediately trying to reduce the sufferer’s discomfort.[4]

And while we suffer no psychological ill effects from acting with compassion toward our fellow men and women or from adhering to the laws that ensure a stable society, the average person does suffer tremendously from perpetrating violence against other human beings. Soldiers must be trained to suppress their natural instincts against harming others, and even after intensive training, the percentage who intentionally miss their targets or fail to fire at all remains around 75%.[5] Successfully overcoming this instinct often costs veterans their mental health, as firing at or killing other combatants correlates with an increased chance of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.[6] With 1.64 million men and women serving in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Center for Military Health Policy Research estimates that “the number of servicemembers returning home with PTSD will range from 75,000 to 225,000 and with depression, from 30,000 to 150,00.”[7] To induce suffering in another is often to suffer ourselves, and to kill members of our species, when Homo sapiens evolved in small groups where each member’s survival depended upon collective effort and care, is to do violence to oneself. It endangers the survival of one’s offspring, it damages social bonds, it fragments the self through dissonance and dissociation, and it renders the social contract more tenuous with each instance it is broken. And so, the entity of which one must ask why we should be good is perhaps closer to Jung’s collective consciousness than to the modern individual. The “I” experiences life through the “we”.

To examine, then, why I should pursue goodness requires that I recognize this interdependent nature and acknowledge that being enmeshed is not a pathology but a quality inherent to being human. To single out one mind, one life, and inquire “Why should you be good?” is a bit like plucking at one thread in a spider web or a single knot of root below a cedar. Examining the inner workings of this piece will tell us something but not much; the larger system is better, and I think fields such as law are best suited to the task, because they require social sanction and are refined across generations. They reflect a kind of collective agreement as to what goodness is and why we should bother with it at all. Human justice and morality have, for most of our species’ history, been the domain of the tribe, the counsel—which more accurately represents our social nature. But since I live in the modern world, as an individual, and my response to this question determines, in part, my response to life, I must make an attempt, and it is this: to be good is the best course because it serves the interests of both the self and the community. Goodness, if one is capable of empathy, is the route of least resistance, acting in accordance with the facts of our humanity, our interdependence, and our instinct for empathy.

Although goodness is a social construct, empathy is not. Empathy is an evolutionary adaptation to ensure the continuation and stability of the group, the state—even the species. And the question of being good is specifically the question of responsibility for the emotional, psychological, and physical welfare of other lives and the community. In modern life, I am fortunate to be able to opt in and out of communities until I find one where deep empathy with the group is possible. Goodness is not possible without empathy, and empathy is not possible without the group. And often, I find that my quest for my own goodness is nothing more than a search for belonging, for the community within which I feel the greatest empathy for its members. Why should I be good then? Because goodness—the expression of empathy, of sharing my life with others—is my natural state, upon which my health, my identity, and my belonging all depend.


[1] Harvie Ferguson, “Moodiness: The Pathos of Contemporary Life,” The Hedgehog Review: Critical Reflections on Contemporary Culture 13, no. 1 (2011).

[2] Lea Winerman, “The Mind’s MIrror,” in Monitor on Psychology 36, no. 9 (2005): 48, http://www.apa.org/monitor/oct05/mirror.aspx (11 September 2011).

[3] Francisco J. Ayala, “The Difference of Being Human: Morality,” In the Light of Evolution: The Human Condition, ed. John C. Avise and Francisco J. Ayala (Washington, D.C.: National Academies Press, 2010), 4:335.

[4] John Bradshaw, Reclaiming Virtue: How We Can Develop the Moral Intelligence to Do the Right Thing at the Right Time for the Right Reason (New York: Bantam Books, 2009), 245.

[5] Samuel Lyman Atwood Marshall, “Ratio of Fire,” Men against Fire: The Problem of Battle Command (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), 50-63.

[6] Terri Tanielian and Lisa H. Jaycox, eds., Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries,Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery (Santa Monica: Center for Military Health Policy Research, 2008), 51.

[7] Ibid, 55.

Published by M.C. Easton

Novelist and teacher.

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