Goodness Derives From Dubious Roots

Are we good people, and do we even care about being good people? If we do care, what are our motivations for being good? With everything going on in the world — the not-so-slow decay of our planet, the rapid spread of disease, the consistently rising political tensions and divisions — do we still think about being good? Or are we more concerned with appearing good in the face of the chaos that surrounds us? Simply put, are we good (and if so, how are we motivated to be good people)?

From Aristotle to Kant, there exist several inquiries on being good, how to live life virtuously, and why, if at all, it matters for us to be good people. While I acknowledge the various perspectives, I will focus on the modern philosopher Heather Battaly’s discussion of virtuous motivations as seen in her book Virtue, as I have had the opportunity to explore in Christian Miller’s philosophy class on Virtue and Character. 

Battaly points out three types of motivation that have the ability to produce virtuous, or good, actions. First, there are egoistic motives. These are motives to produce good with the intention of benefitting oneself. Battaly would agree that one example of egoistic motives could be donating a large sum of money to some charity or organization in order to receive widespread recognition or fame. 

Next, there are dutiful motives. If we have dutiful motives, that means we feel a sense of obligation to complete an action to produce good. Those who believe in a god and perform good deeds because their faith commands them to have dutiful motivation. 

Lastly, there are altruistic motives, perhaps the most “pure” or admirable of motives. One who is altruistically motivated performs good actions simply for the benefit of others. Battaly would argue that any benefit to oneself, such as feeling joy from helping someone else is simply a by-producgand not part of the altruistic motivation.

Many of us are members of organizations whose intended purpose is to produce good. ”

Now, which of these aligns with what motivates us to be good? Many of us are members of organizations whose intended purpose is to produce good. Here at the university we have an array of organizations such as Campus Kitchen, Best Buddies and events such as Wake N’ Shake that all aim to produce good effects for people who need help in our community. However, as participants of these organizations and events, what is truly motivating us to take part? Speaking broadly, I think it is possible that many of us are egoistically motivated to be members of such organizations and events. 

As college students, we face many pressures in terms of preparing ourselves for life after college and we are constantly participating in different clubs and activities with the goal of building our resumes. We are taught that we have to appear involved so that we can achieve our goals — whether that be a job we are seeking or a graduate program we wish to attend. It is stressed that we need some type of community service activity, otherwise we will not appear as an active, caring member of our community. 

So, when we sign up to participate in clubs and events that help others, are we motivated to do so solely because we want to help others or because we want to build our rèsumè and help ourselves? 

Even if rèsumè-building is not a priority for you, helping others or being active in organizations that aim to help others is a part of the college culture. It is possible that our motivation to participate in activities that produce good is that we want to fit in and be a part of the mainstream. So, rather than genuinely caring about the cause at hand or truly wanting to help just for the sake of helping, our motivation to help, is because “everyone else is doing it” and we want to fit in with everyone else. 

Thus, is it the case that we are egoistically motivated to perform good actions? If so, can we be considered good people if our motivations are egoistic? Moreover, is it possible that the lack of “good” in the world is connected to the idea that we are only thinking about and acting for ourselves and not truly concerned with doing and being good for goodness’ sake? In other words, how can the world become a better place if we are motivated to do good in order to make ourselves appear better so we can achieve our goals?