Why Be Good?

by Ben Weiss (c) 2006-2016

Jean-Jacques Rousseau seems as unhappy as I am to be dependent upon the good will of a sovereign to determine what is right for him in return for freedom from the perils of nature. Naively therefore, he has decided that since a state which owes it's allegiance to a sovereign must somehow exist before that sovereign so ordered it (as though no sovereign had ever owned a state by right of arms) then there must have been some underlying utopian social contract by which that state thus pre-existed. He then proceeds to prove brilliantly how it is possible for a confederation of persons -without the benefit of an individual sovereign- can govern themselves and trade away as few natural rights as possible for collective security and freedom from nature in return. How does he accomplish this?

He would answer that by handing our freedom to the state, we are freed in return. How can this be? By virtue of the dual meaning of freedom. In particular, since, Hobbs has pointed out, in the state of Nature we are free to do as we will, whatever the consequence to others, Rousseau sometimes uses the word "freedom" as Hobbs meant it; natural freedom is that set of choices each of us might have were we living within the sad state of nature. We would be free to take whatever we thought we wanted for ourselves by right of arms and keep it for as long as was possible against the right of arms of another.

Rousseau then contrasts this with conventional liberty, which is derived from living in a society free from the ravages of nature (a state of perpetual war; each against all). But unlike Hobbs' view of society which requires a beneficent sovereign to hold all of our natural rights in exchange for peace, Rousseau shows us how a mere confederation of persons can agree to hold their natural rights in abeyance with one another in society so long as each becomes both legislator and citizen.

Within this view, each person in society fills two simultaneous important roles; the role of the citizen and that of the legislator. As a citizen, each member of society obeys laws set by the society. Why would this person do that? Because these laws are created by the legislative body composed of all citizens, including him or herself. As legislator, each person is only obligated to represent not him or herself during legislative council, but the combined general will of all citizens.

As each person fills the roll of legislator within society, they must constantly be working to make collective decisions which are best for the whole group, not at the expense or to the advantage of any subgroup or individual. In this way, as each owes to all the others this obligation, the whole of society benefits from the emotional generosity of each to all others, and the society as a whole thrives without the need of a sovereign. Indeed, Rousseau himself uses the word, "sovereign" to collectively identify the entire group of citizens insofar as they are acting as beneficent legislators of their own society. So Freedom, from Rousseau's perspective, is the liberty from nature experienced by each in the group in exchange for fulfilling the dual rolls of citizen and legislator within society and especially while fulfilling the legislative roll, to make all decisions for the good of all, rather than any one in particular.

So since all the laws and regulations of this group of citizens are created by this same group, obeying them is tantamount to obeying one's self. Another important obligation arises from this; that of each citizen-legislator to always vote according to his or her own individual interpretation of the general will and not to conform to the opinions of another, for as soon as this occurs, Rousseau warns us that factions will form and the ideas proposed by a faction will necessarily only be to the benefit of the members thereof, to the exclusion of the rest of the citizenry. It is especially bad when different factions war with one another and then the general will becomes lost amidst the squabbles of those within the group most influential and we end up with -what we've got today, here in America; a sad state of affairs in which rather than each legislator representing the best interests of the whole, each represents first the interests of their particular groups of constituents and then -eventually- merely themselves.


This essay concerns an ancient Greek myth called, The Ring of Gyges. The myth was created by [male] philosophers as a tool to help discuss why it is good to do good for its own sake rather than just because you might get caught. In the myth, Gyges was a sheppard who got a ring of invisibility. He could do anything he wanted in society and he would never be caught. Remember, these are male philosophers. It even explicitly says he could ".. sleep with any woman .." because of this ring of invisibility. Because yea - if any woman suddenly found an invisible guy in her bed, the first thing she'd wanna do would be to have sexual intercourse with him.. ahhhhh.. yea..... hmm.... I guess that's what you get when you exclude women from your philosophy dicussions, eh? Anyway, the point is that there are other reasons to do good in society besides just because you might get caught if you didn't. That's what this essay tries to pin down.

While it is probable that even this author would -given suitable opportunity and sufficient guarantee that no social harm would come- sleep with any woman with whom he so chooses -just as Gyges the shepherd is said to have seduced the queen, there are still appropriate reasons to behave justly even in the absence of such social harm. These reasons and their premises will be presented.

Three reasons to behave justly in addition to mere consequences can, in fact, easily be derived:

  1. To promote one's own self-confidence, based on adherence to rules which are likely to create sustainable human civilization.
  2. To better empathize with others in society who also behave justly.
  3. As an example to others (children, in particular). Empathy

Humans derive pleasure from associations with other human beings. In particular, I feel the need to empathize with other human beings. Communication and association are the primary objectively observable means for this empathy, although there are others. Love is, among other things, an experience of this empathy. So maximizing love in the community of human beings is consistent with my desires. Behaviors that contribute to maximizing love in society make me feel better whereas behaviors which diminish love are less desirable. This is true for both my behaviors as those of others with whom I come into contact.

What is Self-confidence?

In order for me to survive, I require these things:

  1. Clean Oxygen and room to breath
  2. Clean Water and a place to piss
  3. Healthy Food and a place to shit
  4. Other humans to love. If they love me, too, that is nice, but optional.
  5. Stimulation such as through engaging in leisure activity or perception of intellect or beauty
  6. The belief that I can continue to get all of these things.

Let us assume -to maintain the succinctness of this dissertation- that all humans also need these things. While I can get all of these things using some combination of my own wits and strength, my having many of these things depends either in whole or in part, on the participation of others -some aware and some not. Since others can choose whether or not to behave in ways consistent with me receiving what I need for my survival, the more of my survival needs which can be assured through my own means or the means of those with whom I share bonds of emotional empathy, the more I will have good reason to continue to believe that I can get what I need to survive. This is called, "Self-confidence".

That is, self-confidence is the belief that my own personal well-being is controlled by my own choices. While it is certainly possible (and popular) to choose to experience the feeling of self-confidence by choice without the need for substantiated proof that one's choices have in the past inferred that one's survival was thereby positively influenced, it is still required for most of us during or after our adolescent development to create the feeling of self-confidence initially out of observations of our own abilities to affect the world in ways which positively contribute to our own survival. More simply put, we develop self-confidence initially because we experience success credibly caused by our own hand.


Self-Confidence feels good. That is, it feels good to believe that I will continue to get all those things I need to survive. Even if my life is to end, I still derive good feeling from the prospect of the lives of those I love prospering and continuing. Even if my life and the lives of those I love were to end, I derive a small amount of good feeling from the prospect of the lives of other persons of my race, my country or -at least- persons who speak my language- continuing. Even if my country is destroyed, I still value the belief that other members of the human species will continue and -hopefully- thrive. I hope that my species does not end. Given this, it is reasonable that I prefer that people behave in ways consistent with the preservation of my species, my country, my loved ones and myself. Given this, it would follow that I, myself, prefer to behave in such ways. Once again, it is necessary for us to assume that all human beings have similar feelings in order to facilitate the brevity of this missive.

What is Justice?

Justice is behavior which -if enacted by every member of society- creates sustainable friendly community. Justice is a social contract between members of society so the weak can have power over the strong (without having to show up at their gates with pitchforks and torches).

To behave justly is to adhere to a social contract consisting at least largely of a set of principles for social interaction which -if followed by everyone- would create a harmonious and therefore sustainable society. Justice is the feeling that comes from living in a society in which each person (including all persons loved by someone in the society) experiences feelings of self-confidence, as described above. When one or more of these persons' feeling of self-confidence is threatened by someone, we say that "injustice" has occurred. Notice that it is important that the threat to self-confidence must come from another human being (or, at least, from another intelligence with whom humans in the society can communicate). This is important because there are many other phenomena in the world which often cause persons to loose self-confidence but these phenomenon, except in cases in which we can attach causation to a person or persons are not considered injustice.

There are many different ways in which we can influence the world towards the ends of our own survival and the survival of those we love and our species. Of those, behaving justly is available to all of us.

Because -as stated above- humans enjoy manifesting love through -among other means- empathy, and because I personally derive satisfaction from imagining that my behaviors -if implemented by everyone in society- will result in a further increase in love and human survival, it feels appropriate to me to behave justly, both for my own personal satisfaction as well as to encourage through empathy others to also so behave. In addition, others who feel the same as I will like me better if they observe that I behave in a just manner for the same reason.

In addition, the influencing of children through example to behave justly will also contribute to human survival hence, appearing to behaving justly in the presence of children is also useful.