Is Goodness Really so Far Away?
Is goodness really so far away? If I simply desire goodness, I will find that it is already here.
Think of a morally excellent person. Not the saint or olympic athlete of the moral sphere, but someone who is virtuous. A family member, friend, or acquaintance. Ordinary people who you admire for their kindness, self control, generosity, and courage. How hard is to be as good as they are?
Eric Schwitzgebel recently argued that it's not hard - or at least not hard if you want it.
Here's my take on basic the argument:
- If becoming excellent at something is hard, then that must be due to either cognitive, physical, emotional, or preference limitations.
- Becoming morally excellent doesn't face cognitive, physical, emotional or preference limitations.
- So, becoming morally excellent isn't hard.
Math is hard because of cognitive limitations. Whether it's calculus, physics, or staring at models with billions of parameters, at some point, it's hard for humans to understand and compute. Many activities are physically difficult. I don't have the physical makeup or skill to be a professional basketball player. Even I had devoted my life to the game, the probability of success is vanishingly low. Other tasks are emotionally difficult. Running a massive public company would be too stressful for many. The emotional demands of social work can be high. Finally, some tasks are hard due to preference limitations. They are hard because we don't want to do them. It's hard for many addicts to ween themself off a drug they desperately want to use again. If you don't care at all about becoming an accountant, it will be hard to be a great one.
Is being morally excellent like any of this? Not really.
It doesn't demand impossible cognitive skill. Sure, some good things are complicated and difficult to pull off. Nelson Mandela and Norman Borlaug were geniuses and that enabled them to do a lot of good. But it's not at all required.
It doesn't demand physical skill.
On occasion it is emotionally difficult, but how hard is it? It's not hard to donate money. It's not hard spend an hour helping someone who needs it.
Although it's true that it's often difficult to do things that we don't want to do, it isn't that hard:
With a little thought, I'm sure you could think of lots of morally good things to do that you aren't doing.
Instead, if you're like most of us, you choose to do other things. You watch videos or play computer games or scroll through Twitter. You spend some extra time and money having yourself a delicious instead of a simple lunch.
A point that Schwitzgebel makes repeatedly is that we don't even try:
Morality isn't hard like calculus and rock climbing are hard. In fact, it's almost the opposite. Just trying to do it typically gets you at least halfway there! ("Is goodness really so far away?") You might try and fail to be helpful; but even if you try, that's already (usually) morally better than not trying at all.
If we did genuinely try, that would go towards our moral excellence. But many of us don't. We don't want to be morally excellent.
What to make of this argument?
It's true that one step on the ethical path is merely trying to be good and often we don't do that. But that is because we, or at least I, forget, in the same way that I forget that I'm watching the breath during meditation. In Christian language, I'm a sinner and forget that I don't want to be.
If you've every tried to meditate you'll find that it's difficult to hold your attention on your breath for more than 10 seconds. After you've poured hours and hours into meditation practice, you'll find that you'll be able to do it for minutes at a time! Which doesn't seem like much of a payoff. Vice is like becoming distracted. There's the smallest mental movement, something frustrating captures your attention, and we say something marginally meaner than we would have otherwise.
In meditation, like the Confucius quote, there are many reminders that the insight that you're aiming to uncover is already there. Whatever it is: you're already in the present. You're already experiencing the transmundane. The reality of no-ego is here. All you need do is notice it. And then return to noticing it when you forget it - which yo will. Whatever you think of that, it's a useful take on cultivating virtue: if you simply desire goodness, you will find that it is here. You can turn to it and it will be so easy to be good! Yet, you'll forget. You will become distracted and prioritize other mundane desires.
Becoming morally excellent may be hard, but that's not a good reason not to pursue it.
Do you want it? If so, it's already here. It just needs to be prioritized. Again and again.