Why be good when it seems like nasty guys finish first?

Unthinkable: Liars and cheats cannot ultimately fool themselves, says philosopher Vittorio Bufacchi

It is commonly believed, particularly in business and sporting circles, that nice guys finish last.

Never mind that a pile of psychological research trying to uphold the theory has failed (look it up if you've time to waste). Never mind that there's zero scientific proof to show human selfishness provides an evolutionary advantage. The average person might look at a man like Donald Trump and reasonably think the path to success is paved with lying, cheating and boorishness.

Even if one can overlook examples of not-so-nice-guys finishing first (step forward Real Madrid's Sergio Ramos, for example, or any number of tax dodging, regulatory-busting, financial tycoons), it can be hard to provide positive justification for acting ethically when you're incentivised in our competitive society to do otherwise.

Unthinkable has this week sought the assistance of University College Cork philosopher Vittorio Bufacchi to provide some concrete reasons for being good. Bufacchi, a specialist in political philosophy who is currently writing a book on the Roman orator Cicero, says "in the history of Western philosophy there are two dominant positions" on this matter.

One tradition, spanning thinkers from the Stoics of ancient Greece to Philippa Foot in the 20th century, "suggests that one should always be truthful to one's nature, and to live a life of virtue is to live in harmony with our human nature". In other words, "goodness or virtue has an intrinsic quality".

A rival tradition “refutes the intrinsic approach in favour of a more self-interested, instrumental approach: if there is any reason for being good, it is only because being good brings out better consequences, or rewards, for that person than being bad”. While this tradition is “often associated with the 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes”, says Bufacchi, it is commonly championed today by utilitarian thinkers who encourage us to measure morality simply by end results.

The important point is, whichever side you take, there’s no reason to think morality is without foundation. And if you’re wondering whether to do the wrong thing to get ahead, Bufacchi suggests you’re asking yourself the wrong question.

If there’s no God to either punish or reward you, is there any reason to be good?

“It is best to keep God out of it, since ethics can be assessed independently of religion. There are still good reasons for being good even if there is no God.

“First of all, the suggestion that we may be good only in fear of punishment or in anticipation of a reward corrupts the idea of goodness, since it raises questions about our motivation for being good. The reason why I should be good is not because God will know if I don’t, but because I will know. I’m the one who has to live with myself, and my actions, so the reason for being good is because it matters to me, and not because of what others - including God - may think about me.

“As the Stoics argued, one cannot take pride in one’s life unless it is a virtuous life.”

Virtue does seem to stand in the way of success. Does this suggest we should do the right thing only when convenient?

“Let’s assume that success could be secured in the immediate future via evil or unscrupulous means, for example cheating in sport or corruption in politics. This is still not advisable since eventually one is almost always going to be found out; in the long run cheating never pays off.

"Lance Armstrong enjoyed the success of winning the Tour de France seven times, and the praise that comes with this superhuman achievement, only to be vilified and stripped of his triumph after the well-documented doping scandal.

“But there is also another way of looking at this question, which is perhaps more interesting: even if I could get away with it, and no one will ever know that I have cheated, I still have good reasons for not doing it, since there will always be at least one person who will know the truth: me.

“If I cheat on my wife, I will have to live with the fact that I’m not the person I thought I was. If I achieve fame by plagiarising someone else’s work, I will know that I’m not the fabulous philosopher everyone thinks I am.

“In the last analysis, I’m defined by my actions. I am what I do. That should be sufficient motivation to do the right thing, always. On this issue I agree with the Roman philosopher Cicero that a salient characteristic of humankind is our quest for truth. To live a lie is no way to live.”

Can you be both virtuous and successful?

“I don’t see why not, although I’m uneasy with the idea of putting virtue and success on an equal keel. Success is overrated. In our success-obsessed society we forget that success has an ugly side.

“As a comparative concept, success is about being better than others, which in part explains why success tends to bring out the worst in people: narcissism, egotism, vanity, pretentiousness. Success is profoundly anti-egalitarian. One should strive for a good life, not a successful life.

“If a good life brings about success, so be it, but if I had to choose between being good and being successful, personally I would always opt for the former.”

Ask a sage

Question: Can two wrongs make a right?

Philippa Foot replies: "Wise men know the means to ends and know what these ends are worth."