The Good Life vs. Moral Duties

Many philosophers have regarded ethics or morality as decisive in authority.  In other words, if you believe that some act, X, is morally the right thing to do (rescue someone, for example) and the act truly is morally right and it would be wrong for you not to do it, for you to ask ‘But should I do it?’ would seem odd at best.  It would be like asking: Should I do what I should do?  This
seems dangerously close to: Is the color red, red?  One can, of course, ask why an apple appears red and why some act is right, but once you are convinced that an act is right or you are seeing red, further questioning seems confused.

The above model has been challenged by Susan Wolf, Bernard Williams, and others.  They claim that there are great non-moral goods; these are goods like writing poetry, entertaining friends, performing in the opera, romantic love, which are good but they are not good because of some moral duty or ethical virtue.  Arguably, most poets are not writing poetry out of a moral duty, except perhaps if they have entered into a contract with a publisher or whatnot.  Wolf and other philosophers have contended that being a good person and living a good life can provide grounds for you not doing what is right or even doing what is wrong, from a moral point of view.

Imagine you are a great painter, married with children in Paris.  Although you promised to support them, you feel such an urge to go to the South Pacific to paint that you abandon them (leaving them vulnerable to poverty but not utterly destitute), go to an island, and produce some of the finest post-impressionist paintings the world has seen.  Your work enriches the aesthetic lives of millions of people.  At the end of the day, is it possible or plausible to claim that you (ultimately) did the right thing even though you broke your vow of supporting a family which you believe  (and everyone believes) was your ethical duty?

Such a thought experiment is sometimes described as ‘admirable immorality.’
How might this tension be resolved?  There is some reason to think that Williams thought the tension cannot be resolved.  One way to bring about some unity would be to integrate the so-called non-moral goods into a wide ethical point of view.  So, some philosophers have proposed that we have some duty to create works of beauty, to cultivate friendships, and the like.  Admittedly, the urgency of these duties would pale before stringent moral obligations, but some broadening of a conception of what persons should do can and perhaps even should (‘should’ in terms of conceptual clarity) include things like the cultivation of beauty or the very idea of duties and obligations may look moralistic or look too burdensome, and thus more easy to resist.

Ayn Rand

Ayn Rand

EGOISM. Psychological egoism is the view that persons by nature always act ultimately upon some perceived self-interest.  Ethical egoism is the view that one ought to act out of self-interests if one fully understands a situation.  Such an ethical type was popularized in the 20th century by Ayn Rand in her essays and novels.  Some philosophers deny that egoism should be recognized as an ethical theory, as ethics involves impartial, disinterested inquiry.  A reply to this charge is that egoism can (at least in principle) be defended on the grounds of impartial reflection.  In the worn-out but useful phrase, “A rose that beautifies itself, beautifies the whole garden.”  One of the most prominent and forceful critics of psychological and ethical egoism was Bishop Joseph Butler in the 18th century.  Also, Dostoevsky criticized the popular secular egoism of Western Europe according to which, if one pursues one’s own best interests, the best interests of society will also be pursued (notably his work, Notes from the Underground).