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Members' Weekend 2021, Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th September,
Rewley House, 1 Wellington Square, Oxford, OX1 2JA and/or Zoom

Why Should I Be Good?

I'm pleased to announce that the Philosophical Society's Members' Weekend for 2021 will be held on Saturday 4th and Sunday 5th September. I have the honour of organising the event again, and am very much hoping that we will be back in Rewley House in Oxford, socialising with old friends, as normal. If COVID restrictions don't allow for this, however, we will hold the event via Zoom, as we did last year. We are also looking into the possibility of holding a hybrid "In-Real-Life/On-line" Weekend, where you will be able to choose to attend either in person at Rewley House or via the internet, according to how you feel on the day.

As usual (and COVID permitting), the weekend will coincide with our annual dinner and presentation of prizes on the Saturday evening. This year's dinner will be particularly special, coming just two weeks before our long-serving President, Marianne Talbot, steps down from her role as Director of Studies in Philosophy at OUDCE. We hope as many members as possible will join us in celebrating Marianne's achievements, and thanking her for everything she has done for the public understanding of philosophy, both in Oxford and around the world. Further information and booking details will be available on the website from May / June.

The topic for this year is: Why Should I be Good? – the question at the heart of Moral Philosophy or Ethics. It is arguably a much harder question than the alternative "Why should We be good?". After all, it's very easy to see why one would want "We" to be good, because it makes for a safer and more pleasant world for us all to live in.  The more challenging question is: Why should *I*be good?  Even if I have a strong view of how I believe others should behave, and hence the rules I would ask them to live by, why should *I*choose to behave that way?  If I can promote such rules, while at the same time acting purely in my own self-interest, and get away with it, then why shouldn't I do this?  We live in a Darwinian world after all – a world of dog-eat-dog, where only the strongest survive and the weakest die out. I wouldn't be here, faced with such choices, if my ancestors hadn't competed against weaker individuals and put their own interests ahead of everyone else's. So, being selfish is what life is all about; it is in our DNA.  Why should I want to go against nature and seek to 'be good' (whatever that means), if by doing this, it harms my self-interests?

Of course, the majority of people do believe that they should be good, not just because of how society might punish them, should they fail to do this, but because being a good person, or acting in a good way, is the right thing to be, or the right thing to do. But why is this the right thing? If I were to justify my own selfish behaviour on the basis of the sentiments expressed in the paragraph above, how would you convince me that I was wrong? You might choose to be good and care about others, follow the rules and do the right thing (whatever you decide that means). And if you do, then well done to you! But why should *I*do all of that? Why should *I*act as you or others believe I should act, or be the person that you or others want me to be? On what basis would you argue that *I*should be good, whatever you consider "good" to mean?

The aim of the Members' Weekend will be to present a range of responses to Why Should I Be Good?, in the hope of casting light on this most challenging of questions. So, if you think you have the answer, or would like to present your own perspective on the question, then please consider giving a talk. You will, of course, need to explain what you consider "being good" to mean, before clearly presenting your argument for why any given member of the audience should be good, according to your definition. Alternatively, you might want to tell us why you personally choose to be good, what being good means to you, and why, in your opinion, members of the audience should (as individuals) follow your example.

Ideally, we will have a range of perspectives presented by our speakers, along with a number of distinct answers to the question. For example, you may believe that:

  • there are certain rules that I simply should follow – rules that may be discovered through reason, observation or perhaps revelation. (If you can, tell us what those rules are, how you come to know them and why it is that one should follow them)
  • the rules of behaviour are not fixed; what matters is that I act according to rules by which I would wish everyone to live. (Perhaps you can remind us why this most categorical of imperatives is the key principle one should follow. Also, who do you include within 'everyone'?)
  • happiness, freedom, pleasure, and the absence of suffering have value in of themselves, whether they apply to me or to others. I should therefore act with kindness and compassion, and in ways that maximise such value, wherever it exists. (Does this require that one cares about all people equally? And what about animals? Should we care about them too? If so, which ones?)
  • I have a duty or obligation to be good. Being kind and respectful to others, following the rules, paying taxes, etc. are the debt I owe to society in return for the many benefits that society has given me. (But why should a person adhere to a social contract they had no part in drawing up?)
  • what matters is fairness, equality and justice for all. I should act in ways that oppose this unfair and unjust society we live in, promoting the equality of all people. (Tell us why one should care about fairness, equality, or justice. Why should one consider these things to be good or desirable?)
  • being good is not easy; it is a skill (or virtue), which I may develop throughout my life by acting in ways I consider to be good. (Tell us why you think this striving to be virtuous is the right thing to do and what virtues you think one should be developing)
  • being good is about accepting the authority of God (or other supreme being), who wishes me to act in certain ways or according to their will. (Tell us why one should believe this, how one might come to know the will of God, and why accepting this authority is the right thing to do)
  • there are good people and there are bad people, according to how they act, the things they say or what they believe in. Ultimately, good people will be rewarded, and bad people punished, whether in this life or the next. (Is this fair? Is it kind? Do 'bad people' really deserve to be punished?).

Or you may have a quite different response to the question Why Should I Be Good? and would like to share it with the society. Please don't feel limited to the examples above. And do use the vast resources of Wikipedia, the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy when researching and writing your talk, as well as the writings of philosophers and others who have advocated for, or argued against, your chosen position.

If you are interested in speaking at our Members' Day, please contact me via email to indicate your interest by the 31st of March, including a working title and brief outline of your talk in one or two sentences. If selected, your talk will last for around 25-30 minutes (approx. 3000 – 3500 words), to be followed by 15 minutes of questions. Don't worry if you have not spoken at such an event before. We are not looking for experts, just good communicators who are prepared to do a little research and present a cogent and passionate argument, which is philosophical in character.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Tim (tim.bollands@oxfordphilsoc.org)