Why Be Good?
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Why Be Good?

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is in the fabric
of the universe.

Martin Nowak


Why be good? It’s a question we seem unable to avoid, and unable to answer. At all times and in all places, philosophers and theologians have wrestled with it. In kindergarten, we were taught to be kind to our classmates; in Sunday school, to love our neighbors. But why?

Is the motivation for being good related to a belief in God? For many people, believing in a transcendent order of justice animates the desire to live a good and moral life. For others, the motivation is more secular and humanistic. But it is never absent.

Perhaps there are deeper forces at work? Nature seems to favor certain kinds of moral behavior. A number of academic studies have shown the many tangible benefits to being good. People who volunteer, for instance, lead happier and healthier lives.

Indeed, evolutionary biology has demonstrated that goodness, in the form of altruism, likely evolved as a survival strategy. At some point, individual cells gave up their autonomy to form multicellular organisms. Social insects and primates chose lives of collaboration rather than unadulterated individualism. Competition, therefore, is not the only driver of natural selection. Deep within evolutionary processes, there is an element of cooperation.

So, why be good? Because, just like reading this series of essays, it’s good for you.

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Martin A. Nowak

Professor of Mathematics and Biology at Harvard University and Director of the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics. Author of Evolutionary Dynamics and SuperCooperators.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna asks Arjuna to see the Deathless One in every creature, to respond to the joys and sorrows of others as if they were his own, to act unselfishly, and to be unattached to the fruits of his work. Mahatma Gandhi explains this last point further, “By detachment I mean you must not worry whether the desired result follows from your action or not, so long as your motive is pure, your means correct.”

In Platonic philosophy, the purpose of life is striving for the highest good. The Lover, desiring what he has not, becomes an expert in Love, until he loves Goodness and Beauty itself.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus puts it succinctly: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” And at another time the address “Good Teacher” elicited the response, “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.”

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Eranda Jayawickreme

Assistant professor of psychology at Wake Forest University.

I have an optimistic view of human nature. I think most of us ask ourselves questions like, “Why be good?” or, “What makes someone good?” I heard one such version of this question on Netflix the other night.

I don’t watch a lot of television, but my brother Nuwan recently introduced me to the comedy Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. In the third episode, the title character, who is finding her bearings after being imprisoned by a cult preacher for 15 years, asks a World War II veteran: “Do you think going through something like that, a war or whatever, makes you a better person, or deep down does it just make you bitter and angry?” 

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Christian B. Miller

Professor of philosophy at Wake Forest University and the project leader of the Character Project.

My three-year-old son has entered the Why? stage.

“Daddy, why should I pick up my toys?”

“Because I don’t want you to leave a mess in the playroom.”

“Daddy, why can’t I leave a mess?”

“Because that’s not what good boys do.”

“Daddy, why should I be a good boy?”

How do you answer a question like that from a little child?

I suppose I could try, “Because I said so.” But it’s not very satisfying. Sometimes I am tempted to say, “Just wait 15 years and then you can take my ethics course.” But that won’t work either.

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Stephen G. Post Ph.D.

Professor of bioethics and Founding Director of the Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University.

Norman Rockwell captured the flourishing associated with being good to your neighbor. Up in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, Rockwell created The Golden Rule: Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You. There is a palpable serenity and deeply meditative joy in the facial expressions of each individual, from every religion, age, ethnicity, and race. Rockwell placed a white halo-like circle in the middle of the picture to suggest that such a state of mind at its deepest is about as close as we can get to perfection and to the Eternal (if it exists).

The serenity that is so notable on each face in this image probably involves the mesolimbic pathway, which spreads dopamine around the brain, causing a feeling of happiness; in addition, there is probably some secretion of oxytocin, known as the hormone of tranquility in behavioral endocrinology. Studies also point to increased levels of endorphins, which help block pain signals, increase the sense of well-being, and cause what I refer to as the “giver’s glow.” It all looks so appealing!

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Daniel Jacobson

Professor of Philosophy at the University of Michigan.

Ours is not just a scientific era but a scientistic one. At least among those who consider themselves the people who matter, non-scientific sources of knowledge have become increasingly suspect.

No surprise, then, that scientists have increasingly turned their attention to the curious phenomenon of morality. Some of this work offers genuine insight. But the more progress science makes in explaining how humans are capable of being good (inasmuch as we are), the less satisfying becomes what scientists say about why we should be good (when we should).

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Kristján Kristjánsson

Professor of character education and virtue ethics at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, U.K.

“Why be good?” It’s one of those questions that every undergraduate in a philosophy course is asked to write about—usually, to test their intellectual acumen. The aim of the exercise is typically to see how much of the lectures the student has absorbed and how well she is able to express those lessons in writing. All of which is fine and well, if a bit of a wasted opportunity. After all, that very question can—and should—be at the center of a student’s existential quest. Why should I be good? What’s in it for me? Every day, every one of us is presented with a choice between virtue and vice. Why is the former more reasonable than the latter?

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Robert C. Roberts

Distinguished Professor of Ethics at Baylor University.

One afternoon, sometime around 1974, I was jogging around the track at Western Kentucky University when I felt an especially forceful sense of the futility of my work. I had been teaching ethics in the philosophy department for a year or two, lecturing in much the same way as most professional philosophers did (and to a large extent still do). In class, I rehashed the normative theories of utilitarianism, deontology, social contract theory, and the various theories in meta-ethics, considered the objections to each theory, and came up with no very compelling answers, all while trying to give students an impression that the questions were somehow crucial.

Those issues had to be important. Otherwise, why would I, like so many others, be earnestly teaching them to our students? But I was having trouble seeing or feeling that importance for myself. (If anything, I’ve come to think that the combination of earnestly teaching the theories—and thus implying that they are important—with criticism of them that shows that none of them is completely successful, is a good recipe for turning out moral skeptics.) Briefly, I thought of abandoning philosophy and seeking another career.

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Jay L. Garfield

Kwan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple Professor of Humanities at Yale-NUS College and Professor of Philosophy at National University.

There is an old Yiddish joke: “Why do you always answer a question with another question?”

The answer: “Why not?”

When we pose the question, “Why be good?” the answer might simply be the same: Why not? This is the message of the eighth century Buddhist ethicist Śāntideva. We are accustomed to taking what economists call “rational self-interest” for granted. That is, we believe it is rational when contemplating action to view our own interests as determinative. We also take those interests to be largely independent of the interests of others, or perhaps even in competition with them. This view of what it is to be a rational agent provides the groundwork for much of decision theory, economic theory, and policymaking.

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