How to be Good?

A Chat with a Moral Philosopher

January 10, 2022 Season 1 Episode 21
A Chat with a Moral Philosopher
How to be Good?
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How to be Good?
A Chat with a Moral Philosopher
Jan 10, 2022 Season 1 Episode 21

What does it mean to be good according to a Moral Philosopher?

In this episode, I talk with Professor of Moral Philosophy, Jeff McMahan.

Jeff McMahan is Sekyra and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He has written extensively about issues concerning harming, killing, and saving, such as war, abortion, euthanasia and the evaluation of death. He is also the co-editor of the Journal of Controversial Ideas.

In this conversation, Jeff introduces us to the plurality that exists when it comes to being good according to moral philosophy, as well as sharing his more personal views about moral goodness.

This is a great interview for the times we're living in as we cover what it means to act morally in times of conflict and uncertainty, and most importantly how we engage and remain morally good when talking with those we disagree with.

If you'd like to support this podcast, please visit https://www.buymeacoffee.com/exploregoodness - we appreciate you listening and supporting each episode. Thank you!

Show Notes Transcript

What does it mean to be good according to a Moral Philosopher?

In this episode, I talk with Professor of Moral Philosophy, Jeff McMahan.

Jeff McMahan is Sekyra and White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He has written extensively about issues concerning harming, killing, and saving, such as war, abortion, euthanasia and the evaluation of death. He is also the co-editor of the Journal of Controversial Ideas.

In this conversation, Jeff introduces us to the plurality that exists when it comes to being good according to moral philosophy, as well as sharing his more personal views about moral goodness.

This is a great interview for the times we're living in as we cover what it means to act morally in times of conflict and uncertainty, and most importantly how we engage and remain morally good when talking with those we disagree with.

If you'd like to support this podcast, please visit https://www.buymeacoffee.com/exploregoodness - we appreciate you listening and supporting each episode. Thank you!

[Podcast Theme Music: upbeat electro/beats]

Sarah Buckmaster  0:03 
Hi everyone. I'm Sarah and this is How to be Good? - the podcast that explores what it means to be a good person in today's world.

Today I'm talking with Moral Philosopher Jeff McMahan.

Professor Jeff McMahan  0:18 
Philosophy is deep, careful, rigorous, impartial, honest thought about moral issues.

Sarah Buckmaster  0:27 
Jeff McMahan is a Professor of Moral Philosophy at the University of Oxford. He has written extensively about issues concerning harming, killing and savings - such as war, abortion, euthanasia, and the evaluation of death. He is also a co-editor of the Journal of Controversial Ideas.

Professor Jeff McMahan  0:46 
Good moral philosophy does change people's views about things.

Sarah Buckmaster  0:50 
Jeff grew up in the American South as a hunter, and then stopped hunting when he got to high school as he felt it was wrong and became a vegetarian. He went on to study, research, teach and exist within the world of morals and ethics, being particularly concerned with moral issues around causing suffering and killing.

Professor Jeff McMahan  1:08 
I got into moral philosophy would cause I wanted to understand moral issues and make a difference in the world for the better.

Sarah Buckmaster  1:18 
This is a great interview for the times we are currently living in, as we talk about what it means to act morally in times of conflict or uncertainty, and most importantly, how we engage and remain morally good when talking with those we disagree with. So without any more description from me, it is my absolute honour to introduce you all to Professor Jeff McMahan.

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Professor Jeff McMahan  1:42 
There are many different moral theories that people defend. Some moral philosophers believe that what is of importance, and indeed perhaps the only thing of importance, is the consequences of what we do. And so we are good to the extent that our action has good consequences.

Other people think - others in philosophy - defend what is called virtue ethics, which is a way of understanding morality, according to which being moral consists in manifesting certain virtues in one's action, and in one's character.

There are other people whose views are informed by the moral philosophy of Kant, or moral theology of Christianity or Catholicism in particular. They think there are absolute prohibitions on certain forms of action, and so on. So there's a great plurality of belief about how we ought to act among philosophers. But there's also an effort at understanding across the different theories. And I would say a lot of philosophers are undecided about what they think is the right moral theory and are paying attention to what all the theories say when they think about particular moral problems, or, in general how to be a good person.

And so really, what I would say here is that philosophy doesn't come with any doctrines the way a religion would, it's rather, that what philosophy contributes is just very serious, prolonged and honest thought and argument about what we ought to do, and how we ought to live. And that's really important, because it's impossible to be a good person, unless one is getting it right about what it's actually good or right to do.

There are a lot of people who are highly idealistic and self sacrificing, and pursuing ideals and goals who actually turn out to be quite evil, because what they are pursuing turns out to be bad, evil, whatever. And so we can't just determine whether somebody is being good by evaluating how committed they are to what they think of as moral goals, you know, they may think of themselves as highly moral and aiming to achieve morally important goals. I think Hitler thought of himself in that way, a lot of a lot of people like that do. But if your goals are actually vicious and evil, the consequences are going to be pretty terrible, if you pursue them with great moral fervour.

Sarah Buckmaster  4:35 
And how would the teachings of philosophy guide us or help us try to work out what the good or the right action may be?

Professor Jeff McMahan  4:44 
In philosophy, the idea is try to achieve understanding before you act. That's what I was saying a moment ago; people can act just on the basis of some kind of emotion or intuition. They think they're doing the right thing, when more reflection would have shown them that what they're actually trying to bring about is bad. So yeah, I've always thought the purpose of moral philosophy is to think ever more deeply about what we really ought to be trying to achieve. And to be honest about that with ourselves and try to get self interest out and to be objective and impartial in understanding these things.

Sarah Buckmaster  5:27 
When you mention that deeper reflection time before we act, it brings up the balance between intention and actions, and whether an action that had good consequences can ever be morally good if there was a bad intention behind it. How is that balance between intention and action approached within moral philosophy?

Professor Jeff McMahan  5:50 
The question about intention is is really a question in moral philosophy. How much does the intention with which a person act affects the morality of the action? I think everybody would agree that if someone acts with a bad or wrongful intention, but their action actually brings about good consequences, that person is not a good person. But there are some people in particular, Catholic moral theologians for example, that believe that the intention is essential to good action. And so they think it makes a huge difference whether one harm somebody intentionally or as a side effect, for example. And that's a contentious issue in moral philosophy, whether an act that would otherwise be permissible becomes impermissible because it's done with an intention that's not the right intention.

Sarah Buckmaster  6:50 
Thinking about the opposite of good, how are these  good versus bad - or good versus evil - concepts approached within moral philosophy?

Professor Jeff McMahan  6:59 
Philosophers don't use the term evil all that much. And when they refer to good, they tend to be discussing outcomes as states of affairs, consequences that we produce - are these good consequences? or the best consequences? or whatever. Contemporary moral philosophers tend more to think about what we ought to do, what we have reason to do, what we have moral reason to do.

Now, I mentioned earlier, the people who describe themselves as virtue ethicists -  people who think about morality by reference to the virtues. They are more than most other moral philosophers concerned with what it is to be a virtuous person. And for them, you could say that's much the same as being a good person.

But I should say your question is, how to be good. And the way most philosophers, most moral philosophers, think about this is by asking what we ought to do... what we have most moral reason to do. And they don't think of it in terms of the self - as in, am I being a good person, what I aim to do is to become a good person and be a good person. Being a good person is just a corollary of acting the way one ought to act in whatever circumstances one finds himself in.

Sarah Buckmaster  8:27 
We've been speaking generally about moral philosophy and the idea of goodness, but you grew up in the American South as a hunter, and then you stopped hunting when you got to high school as you felt it was wrong. And you've continued to study and research and teach and exist within this world of morals and ethics, and you write extensively on issues of harming and killing and saving. So I'd be really interested in hearing what being good means to you personally, and how that's evolved over the different stages of your life so far.

Professor Jeff McMahan  9:01 
What it is to be a good person, I think, is essentially to have wide sympathies and concern for others. The more limited one is in one sympathies and concerns, the less good one is going to be, other things being equal.

But I think there are really two levels at which this kind of sympathy and concern with others can be manifest. One is personal relations with other people. I've come to have more thoughts about that recently. The other level or dimension is more global or impersonal.

There's a lot that each of us can do to avoid causing harm, to prevent harm to, and provide benefits for people who are not among our personal acquaintances, people who are relatively disadvantaged and so on. And I think, caring about these people even when one doesn't know them, and making efforts to help people whose needs are greatest, is a really important feature of being a good person. There are a lot of people who think that's the essence or core, you know, doing the best one can for others. And these people are often accused of ignoring personal relations. And in practice, they actually don't.

But I would like to see more explicit acknowledgement of the fact that being a good person also involves being kind, generous, understanding in one's relations with all the people one comes in contact with and one's life. And in particular, you know, the usual things like being a good parent, a good friend, a good partner, a good colleague, helping those with whom one interacts. And I think treating them kindly and generously and doing one's duty to them when that arises. This is I also think, real important.

So for me, being a good person involves a blend of both of these things. That is having wide sympathies, trying to help people one doesn't know, but also being kindly and helpful and generous in one's relations with the people one does know. And that's something I've come to more recently.

When I first started thinking about moral issues and moral philosophy in high school and afterwards, at University, my thoughts centred more on how to prevent wars, how to achieve greater justice in the world, how to help people. My great heroes were Bertrand Russell and Noam Chomsky, people who were brilliant philosophers, but also devoted a lot of their time to trying to achieve justice in the world. So that was my ideal. Now I've come to think more about the personal dimensions of morality and not saying I think they're necessarily equally important. But I think I've learned a lot in recent years from seeing just how cruel people can be to each other, even to people who should have the same aims and goals. And I think the internet is, in part responsible for that kind of division and polarisation of different groups and with everybody so ready and eager to condemn and vilify people they disagree with rather than discussing with them their ideas and trying to achieve some kind of mutual understanding. So that's why I think actually, the ideals I would have about personal relations, I think, would be very helpful in informing action to bring about more impersonal global change. We're not going to get anywhere just reviling each other all the time.

Sarah Buckmaster  13:12 
What would be your advice in how we operate in today's world, how we can stay true to our moral values when we may disagree with those around us?

Professor Jeff McMahan  13:22 
I think one should be - insofar as it's possible - actively engaged in these issues, but referring back to a couple of points I made earlier, one needs to think carefully and impartially about the issues which I think people often don't do. They just pick up a bunch of prejudices from the internet and that fits their way of thinking and go charging off and condemning everybody else who doesn't agree with their largely unreflective beliefs.

So, think about these things before you go attacking everybody who disagrees with what you initially believe. That would be very important. Try to make sure you're getting it right. And to do that, one has to listen to people on the other side, and find what's plausible in what they say, and take it into account. And again, I think that the way one participates in these public discussions and debates about these issues can be considered either moral or less moral or immoral. That is, as I was saying about personal relations in all of these debates, I think it's really important to express oneself politely, respectfully, non-polemically. If you disagree with the ideas, attack the ideas. Don't attack the people. And don't always just be vilifying other people.

Sarah Buckmaster  14:59 
What would be the key thing we could learn from moral philosophy that would help us to engage more effectively as you're describing?

Professor Jeff McMahan  15:06 
Philosophy is deep, careful, rigorous, impartial, honest thought about moral issues. We look at our intuitions, we try to find conflicts between the intuitions, we try to resolve the conflicts and achieve a consistent view - preserving the plausibility of things that we're reluctant to let go of.

Good moral philosophy does change people's views about things. And my views about all kinds of things have evolved quite a lot over many, many years of doing moral philosophy. And one of the most important things that I've learned is that the harder I think about a particular issue, and the deeper I go, I just keep going deeper and deeper and deeper. And I think about it for years and years and years over and over and over again. At each point of advancement, I realised how much more difficult the issue is to understand than I thought it was earlier. And that really almost never ends.

These are not simple, easy issues. In their own way, they are as difficult as theoretical physics or something like that. We all have our intuitions and the beliefs that we've acquired from our society or from our families, or whatever. And we seldom subject these beliefs that we have to rigorous, critical thinking. But that's what philosophy involves, and it's really hard.

Sarah Buckmaster  16:40 
And across your journey so far, have you ever had any moments personally, where you've doubted whether you're a good person, or you've considered whether an action you've taken is good or bad?

Professor Jeff McMahan  16:51 
I don't mean to sound vain or self important, but I don't recall any time when I have thought that I was a bad person. What I have experienced many, many times is the knowledge that I have done something that was wrong. And so I try to make up for that, to compensate for it. And often, not deliberately.

I got into moral philosophy because I wanted to understand moral issues and make a difference in the world for the better. So all along, that's been my aim. That's why I got into philosophy.

In fact, I'm not really a philosopher in the paradigmatic sense, because in most areas of academic philosophy, I've never studied and never read anything. And so I got into philosophy, because I was interested in morality and politics. And my work has centred on moral philosophy and political philosophy. And so I've been guided by the same, but like everybody else, I've done a lot of things that were wrong. And usually, because I acted on impulse, rather than restraining myself thinking about things and acting reflectively - I just would would do something in response to some kind of provocation. And then I'd realise I'd done something really wrong. Or just something hurtful, or inconsiderate, or, or whatever. But no - I haven't murdered anybody or robbed any banks.

Sarah Buckmaster  18:31 
You mentioned just there that the times you felt you've done the wrong thing was actually when you acted on impulse rather than restraining yourself. Can you just tell us a bit more about that?

Professor Jeff McMahan  18:41 
Now, I was thinking of a quotation from Samuel Johnson, the great British lexicographer, literary critic, and really moral philosopher, he said something like, well, in an exaggeration, something like this, I'm not getting it quite right. But all that is good in man consists in resisting the impulses of his nature. This is 18th century so it's male gender pronouns, but that's always stuck in my mind, you know, we're just naturally nasty. And what we need to do is restrain ourselves, I do think that being a good person involves very much restraining those impulses.

Sarah Buckmaster  19:21 
And if you could give our listeners some advice or recommendations about how they could live a good life, how they can be good, what would you recommend?

Professor Jeff McMahan  19:31 
First, think about the plight of people who are much less off than you are. And think of ways in which one can help those people - such as giving to some charitable organisation. There is a website called Effective Altruism or The Life You Can Save - these different organisations. That's not going to make you a good person, but it is doing something that is good and is important to do. And so it's a step in that direction.

The other thing I'd say is something that I've gone on about endlessly as we were talking - in your relations with other people, please try to be understanding of the other people. Be kind to them. Be gentle, be generous.

This is not to say - there's one other thought that I'm having - this is not to say don't be judgmental. I think we have to be judgmental. We have to judge, act morally, and we have to judge people morally. But if we judge that somebody is acting wrongly, again, the response should be to try to understand why, and engage these people in a constructive way to see if one can persuade them to stop acting in the wrong way, rather than just shouting at them and telling them how terrible they are. That's not only cruel, but counterproductive. It doesn't work.

Sarah Buckmaster  20:48 
And if we're approaching someone with that hope that we can change their mind, does that mean we also have to go in with the willingness to have our own mind changed as well?

Professor Jeff McMahan  21:00 
Absolutely, exactly. Yeah. I mean, this, this kind of thing happens in philosophy, just in the arguments that one has within philosophy. I think I've got great arguments. I've assembled all these arguments, arguments for a particular view, somebody else reads them. I think I've refuted that person's position. The person actually has a reply. Turns out yeah, I made a mistake. A parallel to that can occur in morality as well. We can misunderstand each other, and fail to see what somebody else is seeing.

Sarah Buckmaster  21:36 
And finally, one last question I'd really like to ask, does being good help people feel good? Is there that connection there?

Professor Jeff McMahan  21:46 
It does make them feel good if they believe that they are morally good.

This is more a question for psychologists than for moral philosophers. But there is something one can say about this. both psychologically and philosophically.

There is ample evidence in social psychology, that it is highly important to people's wellbeing and their satisfaction in life that they should be doing things that they believe are important and good, so that they have these aims in life, and have the sense that they are doing something that's good, and in particular, good for other people. Again, I referred earlier to a website for the Effective Altruism organisation and some of the people in the Effective Altruism organisations have studied these matters. And it seems to be pretty clear that when people are just trying hard to do good for others, they're not aiming at their own happiness and doing this, but their own happiness is a kind of byproduct of that, of doing it. In fact, that's what's confirmed by psychologists. We are happiest, not when we're thinking about ourselves and our own well being and trying to be happy, but rather, when we are stepping outside of ourselves and pursuing goals that we think are impartially important, and good. When we get absorbed in that, that's when we are dealing best.

The moral philosophical side of this is that many philosophers, starting with some of the earliest philosophers like Socrates, and Aristotle, have thought that being a good person - and I should step back and say, also the stoics - thought that being a good person is the essence of well being. And most people thought well, that's really exaggerated, and perhaps it is, and maybe being a good person isn't even part of wellbeing, but it seems certainly to be part of living a good life.

So one way I have always thought about this is by reference to what one would wish for one's own children, whom one cares about for their own sake and loves deeply. Here's a thought experiment. You get a phone call from the school, a child has been bullied and beaten. Would you prefer to learn that your child was the victim or the bully? - I would always prefer for my child to be the victim rather than the bully. I'd rather my child to suffer pain and injury rather than be morally bad. Maybe the bullies wellbeing, suppose the bully gets away with it and doesn't get punished, maybe the bully comes out of this with higher well being, but who's got the better life? The one who is not the bully.

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Sarah Buckmaster  24:59 
My deepest thanks to Jeff McMahan for taking the time to talk with me.

If after listening to that conversation you'd like to learn more about moral philosophy, Jeff recommends the work of his colleague and friend Peter Singer to get you started, as well as some of the work of British philosopher Jonathan Glover.

Professor Jeff McMahan  25:16 
If your listeners were interested in reading books that are accessible, but also probing honest, careful and rigorous, I would recommend looking at books by Peter Singer. Also Jonathan Glover, a British philosopher, someone who also writes in a highly accessible way.

Sarah Buckmaster  25:44 
If you've enjoyed this episode, and would like to hear more episodes and interviews exploring the question of what it means to be a good person in today's world, then please visit www.howtobegood.co.uk or subscribe on your favourite podcast listening platform.

And if you'd like to support the podcast, then head over to buymeacoffee.com/exploregoodness, and you can buy me a warm drink to help with the creation of these episodes.

Thank you for listening. Please share with your friends. And if you have any questions or suggestions, email me at any time. It's sarah@howtobegood.co.uk and I always love to hear from you.

Thank you!

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Transcribed by https://otter.ai and Sarah Buckmaster