Home & News Activities Non-UK Members Joining the Society Archives Events Programme The Review Members' Weekend International Members' Weekend Away Day Discussion Forum Chadwick Prize Philsoc Student Prize Philsoc Twitter Feeds Contacts Links & Portraits

ThePhilosophical Society


Sat 4th - Sun 5th September 2021

LectureTheatre, Rewley House, 1 Wellington Square, Oxford, and on-line via Zoom.

“Why Should I Be Good?”

Seven speakers will tackle what is perhaps the most fundamental question in Ethics and Moral Philosophy. Join us in person or online to discover why the question is not as easy as we might think, hear a number of proposed answers, and add your contribution to the debate. Details on costs and how to book will be available on the website from July.


Saturday 4th September

1.00 Registration

1.20 Welcome to the Members’ Weekend

1.30 Introduction to the Question – Tim Bollands

The question Why Should I be Good? is arguably much harder 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, why should *I* choose to behave that way?  If I can get away with acting purely in my own self-interest, then why shouldn’t I? 

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 if my ancestors hadn’t competed against weaker individuals and put their own self-interests first. So, being selfish is what life is all about; it is in our DNA. Why should I go against nature and seek to ‘be good’ (whatever that means), if by doing this, it may harm my own self-interests?

Of course, the majority of people do believe they should be good, that it is the right thing to be. But why is it “right”? 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?

1.50 Normative and Motivating ReasonsJames Aitchison

James presents our first response to the question by distinguishing between normative and motivating reasons to be good. Normative reasons tell us why an action is good in itself, and hence why being good is the right thing to be. Motivating reasons are those which motivate a person to act in a certain way. A compelling answer to the question, therefore, is one that provides both normative and motivating reasons to be good.

James Aitchison has been concentrating on philosophy since taking early retirement from a career in property and finance.  He has completed a Philosophy MA at Birkbeck, and his main interests are metaethics, utilitarianism, effective altruism and consciousness.

2.35 Short break

2.45 Kierkegaard's Aesthetic Sphere of ExistenceRob Beadnell

Rob draws upon the philosophy of Soren Kierkegaard to argue that one should be good because the alternative is subjectively unsatisfactory. The default state for human beings is to focus on their own desires and wishes - an existence which leads ultimately to despair. We have the choice, however, to leave this aesthetic sphere of existence and enter the ethical sphere, committing ourselves to others, to moral norms, and what Kierkegaard refers to as the ‘universal’.

Rob Beadnell has been in the Royal Navy for 28 years and works at Navy Command Headquarters in Portsmouth, where he lives with his wife and daughter. As a young man he did a degree in Physics and two Masters degrees in Nuclear Physics and Engineering. More recently, he studied Theology with the University of London by distance learning, and 5 years ago began studying Philosophy with OUDCE and Cambridge ICE. His interest in philosophy is broad, but he’s been particularly influenced by reading Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.

3.30 Beverages in the Common Room

4:00 I should be Good because I must be SocialChris Conway

As human beings, we strive naturally for happiness. However, happiness does not arise in isolation, but in community with others – developing friendships with other people, doing good acts and developing a virtuous character. If we are not good, we risk suffering social sanction and isolation, removing our ability to function in society and frustrating our means to seek happiness and satisfaction. Being good enables us to achieve that happiness and avoid social punishment.

Chris Conway is a faculty member at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and a Fellow of Loyola’s Center for Compliance Studies. He teaches and lectures in courses on law and society, jurisprudence, health policy, administrative law, and constitutional law. He is the co-convenor for The Common Good Project at Oxford and serves as an editor of a book-in-progress of a collection of essays on law and the common good.

4.45 Short break

4.50 Utilitarianism and the Social ContractPaul Entwistle

For Paul, ‘The Good’ is best defined by the philosophy of Utilitarianism within the context of the Social Contract. In other words, one should seek to optimize individual and collective human flourishing by acting in alignment with a society that does the same. We all gain benefit from society, including protections provided by the state. It is only right, therefore, that we are good and follow the laws and social norms that a utilitarian state has laid down. The more pressing question is what one should do when society or the state fails to uphold its side of the bargain.

Paul Entwistle’s background and career were in Finance and Economics – not the usual route into Philosophy! Realising that ‘there was probably more to life’, he has developed his interest by contributing to various national and local groups, including the U3A and attendance at OUDCE weekends. Paul believes that the most worthwhile philosophy underlies and informs our everyday lives, and vice-versa. This ‘applied philosophy’ approach is visible in his current offering.

5.35 Short break

5:45 For Truth, Beauty, Justice and Love Jean-Yves Woestyn

Western philosophers across history have offered various perspectives on ‘goodness’, together with reasons for why one ought to be good according to each perspective.
Jean-Yves draws upon these to offer his own response to the question, grounded upon fundamental values of human existence - values which are not imposed upon us by some external authority, but found within ourselves by a process of self-reflection.

Jean-Yves Woestyn is a lawyer and graduate from the University of Louvain, who believes that one cannot be a good lawyer without a strong background in philosophy. He is currently living in Belgium, working for the teaching regulation agency of the Belgium French community. After graduating, he travelled to Taiwan where he studied both the Chinese language and Chinese philosophy at the National Chengchi University. Later, he followed the philosophy lectures by French philosopher and former education minister Luc Ferry, before enrolling at OUDCE.

6.30 Bar

7.00 Annual Society Dinner, with presentation of Chadwick and Boethius Prizes

Sunday 5th September

8.00 Breakfast (for Rewley House residents)

9.30 It is our Nature to be Good Hugh Millar

Hugh brings a biological perspective to the question, challenging the Humean convention that it’s not possible to derive an 'ought' from an 'is'. He argues that our satisfaction lies ultimately in giving full expression to our innate behavioural impulses, which are teleologically aligned to group cohesion and dampen those selfish impulses that threaten social relationships. It is these biological imperatives that tell us that we should be good.

Hugh Millar is a retired school head from Ayr, in Scotland. He has a degree in physics and a lifelong interest in science and related technological developments, to which, in retirement, he added philosophy. Hugh joined the OUDCE Philosophical Society in 2003, contributed to the design of the Society's new web site, and has since 2006 administered the PhilSoc Google Discussion Group. Hugh spoke at the Members' Day in 2008, arguing for the moral relevance of a biological perspective. Today he will share his developed thinking on the same theme.

10.15 Short break

10.20 Because God is Good Jeff Morris

If one is truly obliged to be good, Jeff argues, those obligations must be objective and grounded by facts. And the only way to ground moral obligations is with a theistic view of reality, rather than a naturalistic view. So, if we are obliged to be good, theism must be true, and the only coherent answer to the question is because God is Good.

Jeff Morris is an Oxford Trinity 2019 student essay prize winner who has studied metaphysics, logic, and epistemology. He has published a dozen popular level articles, and a short philosophical novel entitled, A Moment in Time. He just completed his Masters in Theological Studies at Tyndale, one of Canada’s leading theological Universities, and is now working on his graduate studies in philosophy at Lincoln University.  

11.05 Beverages in the Common Room

11.30 Panel Discussion

12.30 Bar, then Lunch


If you would like to read about Moral Philosophy in advance of the Members’ Weekend, the following books, papers and internet resources are recommended.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Ethics. https://www.iep.utm.edu/ethics/

Grayling, A.C (2004), What is Good?: The Search for the Best Way to Live  https://www.amazon.co.uk/C-Grayling-What-Good-Search/dp/B004195YPW  

Alvarez, Maria (2017), Reasons for Action: Justification, Motivation, Explanation, Stanford Ency-clopedia of Philosophy https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2017/entries/reasons-just-vs-expl/

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Søren Kierkegaard (2017): https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/kierkegaard/

Palmer, D.D. (2007), Kierkegaard for Beginners, Red Wheel/Weiser. https://www.forbeginnersbooks.com/kierkegaard

Kierkegaard, Søren, Either/Or: A Fragment of Life, Penguin Classics (abridged 1992). https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/24970.Either_Or

MacAskill, William and Meissner, Darius, Utilitarianism.net.

Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy (2016), John Stuart Mill (4.2 Happiness and 4.3 Morality). https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/mill/

De Lazari-Radek, Katarzyna, and Singer, Peter (2014), The Point of View of the Universe: Sidgwick & Contemporary Ethics. OUP. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/22329153-the-point-of-view-of-the-universe

Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nicomachean_Ethics

T. Burns (2011), Aristotle and Natural Law, Chapters 1 & 2. Bloomsbury.

Stanford Encyclopedia Of Philosophy, Contemporary Approaches to the Social Contract. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/contractarianism-contemporary/

Koyré, Alexander (1957), From closed cosmos to the infinite universe, Johns Hopkins University Press https://www.sacred-texts.com/astro/cwiu/index.htm

Hadot Jean-Pierre (1993), What is ancient philosophy? Harvard University Press. https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674013735

Churchland, Patricia (2011), Braintrust: What Neuroscience Tells Us about Morality, Princeton.

de Waal, Frans (2013), The Bonobo and the Atheist, W.W.Norton Company.

Brian Davies, and G. R Evans (1998), Anselm, "Proslogium". The Major Works. OUP.  
(Original 1077-1078) https://etimasthe.com/2019/06/18/how-to-argue-graciously-anselm-of-canterbury-and-gaunilo-of-marmoutiers/

Craig, William Lane (2008). Reasonable Faith : Christian Truth and Apologetics. 3rd ed. Crossway Books. https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/455523.Reasonable_Faith

Plantinga, Alvin (2011). Where the Conflict Really Lies : Science, Religion, and Naturalism. OUP https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/11289743-where-the-conflict-really-lies