Professor Brennan’s Magic Bridge Argument

 Ethical inquiry often begins with this perennial question — Why be good?. This is a tough one because nasty behavior is often so rewarding. A compromise here, a petty theft there, and before you know it you can amass power and earn a fortune. Moreover, once you have money and clout, you’ll find many people eager to pay obsequious homage to your posterior. Why give up money and status for something as amorphous and elusive as “integrity” and “honor?” Modern intellectuals have struggled to address this question, but some of their answers seem unsatisfying.

We can get at one solution to this problem by framing the question a bit differently — “Why take the interests of other people into account?” This re-statement lends itself to at least one sort of answer, which you have almost definitely heard — Because taking other people into account will advance your own interests. A well-known variant on this general solution is provided by Ayn Rand’s objectivism. Objectivists recommend the ethics of self-interest, but they maintain that our true self-interest involves at least a modicum of moral decency. Actually, a bit more than a modicum, as objectivist virtues include such things are integrity, honesty, and justice, among others.

To state this solution more generally, you should behave morally to the extent that others’ concerns are really your own interests in disguise. If you, my reader, are a student or a teacher at a business school, then you have almost definitely heard a loosely articulated variant of this position. Business people should behave themselves, so the argument goes, because it is costly to misbehave. For instance, a firm that breaks the law might deter investors, alienate customers, incur legal bills, and so on. This position is impressively trivalized by the slogan “good ethics is good business” or some other such banality.

Despite its popular appeal, the attempt to ground morality in self-interest has somewhat less than universal support. Whether the explanation is formulated in detail, as by objectivists, or whether it is formulated more loosely, as by vague “business necessity” arguments, most scholars are less than completely convinced. When ethicists speak of an act as being moral, they usually mean that it transcends self-interest by meeting the needs of others (e.g., altruism) or by affirming a transcendent principle for its own sake (e.g., justice). If people and principles are only a means of realizing self-gain, then one’s “morality” is conditional upon one’s own needs. This sort of code, which places the self at the center of moral concern, is a wide departure from the traditional view.

So what remains of our lot is a rather serious problem without a readily obvious solution. You already know why you should take into account your own interests. This is almost true by definition. But it is less apparent why you should concern yourself with the interests of others, unless there is a fairly clear payoff to yourself. Faced with this situation, most people seem to muddle along, usually behaving decently enough, though without a good reason for doing so.

The rest of us read ancient philosophy.

It might make you feel better to know that the Hellenistic Greeks grappled with this same problem. The heirs of Socrates devised a number of philosophies that have come down to us. The major ones were Platonism, Aristotelianism (the Peripatetics), Stoicism, and Epicureanism, though there were a few others. In his 2012 book, Pursuits of Wisdom, the philosopher John Cooper calls these “ways of life,” for each of them provides specific guidance for how to live. A point of departure, shared to some extent by all of these philosophies, was the belief that the happy or flourishing life was lived in accordance with the nature of things. This includes our human nature, though some of the philosophers, most notably the Stoics, emphasized nature as a whole. Differences among these philosophies tended to follow from their particular starting assumptions about the nature of people and of the cosmos. Regardless, the virtues, including but not necessarily limited to moral virtues, were important because they brought about a flourishing life. I promise to add detail in a moment. For now, let me sum up how these philosophers answered the “Why be good?” question. Roughly, you should be good because the happiest or best life for a person is the life that is consistent with nature, both our own nature and the nature of things.

We aren’t yet finished because there are a couple of objections, which we would do well to consider. The first challenge is that we close the gap between the ethical or virtuous life, on the one hand, and the flourishing or happy life, on the other. That is, we need a mechanism that tells us why being good will make our lives better. The second problem is that we need to examine whether or not these ancient philosophies are only promulgating another form of self-interest. Everyone seems to think that the second question is the hard one, but as we’ll see that’s the simple part. It’s the first question that worries me, so let’s begin there.

Our first problem is how to get from virtue, on the one hand hand, to happiness, on the other hand. This is where Tad Brennan’s book The Stoic Life comes in. Professor Brennan argues that all of these philosophies need a “bridge argument” that spans the chasm between these two ideas. That is, these arguments provide a “bridge” that connects virtue to well-being. According to Brennan, one approach used by the Greeks was to define both virtue and happiness in terms of a third idea, whereby virtue becomes the equivalent of happiness. (Since if A=C and B=C, then A=B). Aristotle used this approach. In Peripatetic thinking, the happy life was conceptualized as the flourishing life. (Aristotle’s actual term was “eudaimonia.”) The virtues were those elements that comprise a flourishing life. Hence, happiness = flourishing and virtue = flourishing, so happiness = virtue. The more you think about this idea, the more sense it makes. It is reasonable to think of the happy life as one that flourishes, and it is also reasonable to think of the virtues as aspects of flourishing. Once we conceptualize virtue and happiness as flourishing, then everything falls into place.

But what if we don’t define virtue or happiness in this fashion? We moderns — who are really postmoderns — are likely to find this unsatisfying. We prefer to think of happiness as pleasure or perhaps tranquility. That is, we see happiness as the presence of positive emotion without accompanying negative affect. To our thinking, the virtues are something entirely different. They are more similar to behaviors and values. If we define happiness and virtue as distinct phenomena, then what sort of bridge argument would we need to connect them?

This doesn’t pose a major problem; we just need to revisit the nature of human beings. Recently, I completed Dependent Rational Animals, a volume by Professor Alasdair MacIntyre, which took just this approach. The title of the book comes from Dr. MacIntyre’s view of people. We are, he points out, “dependent rational animals.” To explain this, I’ll work backwards, beginning with the “rational” part of his description. MacIntyre maintains that one feature of our existence is that we can represent our experiences in abstract form, such as with words and numbers. This allows us to effectively reason about them. Human rationality is only part of the story. Another feature of our existence is that we are closely tied to other people. Indeed, we rely on others for our well-being. It is noteworthy that our ability to use our reason is partially dependent upon the social groups to which we belong. As one example, we can employ our abstract knowledge and communication skills to store information and hand it down to others. As another example, we can represent problems and solutions in general forms, allowing us to serve the interests of our groups (and to be served by them). What sort of life is best for a dependent and rational animal? I won’t walk through all of MacIntyre’s logic, though I do recommend his book. However, it should be clear that we live best when we are compassionate, just, wise, and otherwise virtuous. In this way, we benefit from both our natural reason and from our connection to others.

The key to understanding MacIntyre’s work, as well as related bridge arguments, is to understand that a “virtue” is not simply a “preference” or “something that many people happen to think is nice.” Rather, a virtue is a fundamental personal orientation that makes it possible for us to live our lives successfully and effectively. There are things that impress people but are probably not virtuous (e.g., being “cool”) and things that people may not especially like that are (e.g., being prudent). A virtue is akin to a skill or, better yet, to personal excellence. I’m going to return to this point about the nature of virtues in a moment, so don’t lose this thought.

A few paragraphs back, I promised to return to our second problem. This is the issue that everyone thinks is serious, but as we shall see, it really is not. Here is the basic question — If you are going to be good in order to have a happy or flourishing life, then isn’t your goodness just another type of self-interest? The short answer is “no,” at least not in a way that need concern us here. In my experience, this question results from confusion about the nature of virtue. People sometimes treat virtue as if it were behavior and nothing else. So, for example, a courageous person would be equivalent to a person who behaved in a brave fashion. When we think of virtue more broadly, the way it was defined by the Hellenistic philosophers, the problem goes away.

My former colleague from the University of Arizona, Regents Professor Julie Annas, deals with this issue directly. In her book, Intelligent Virtue, Dr. Annas reminds us that a virtue includes behavior, to be sure, but it also includes the appropriate cognitions, feelings, and motives. Within a virtue these components coalesce into a harmonious whole. To illustrate Professor Annas’ point, let us consider the virtue of compassion. Compassionate people feel badly when they see others suffer. They believe that they should offer aid to the other person, and they are motivated to do so. Compassionate people are indeed more likely to act on behalf of those in need, and they genuinely desire to help. But beyond this, the assistance provided by compassionate people is done with the right goals, the right beliefs, and the right feelings. In a virtue all of these things come together.

It is also important to understand what happens when some of these pieces are missing. Suppose a person wishes to be compassionate in order to become happy, but has no other reason to be concerned with others (i.e., she could care less whether or not other people are better off, except to the extent that her own well-being is served). Such an odd individual may well exhibit the right behavior. Unfortunately, by definition this individual is simply not compassionate. He or she does not genuinely care about other persons (wrong beliefs), does not feel for their suffering (wrong affect), and is not motivated to provide succor for the victim’s sake (wrong motive). Simply put, our self-interested individual does not possess the virtue of compassion. The virtue of compassion may lead to a flourishing life, but to reap its benefits you need all of its parts. This includes a genuine concern for others, a concern that involves both your thoughts and your feelings. In short, virtue is not only about you. It is also about other people and, in addition, about some higher purpose. If you lose these things, then you don’t have the virtue even if you retain virtuous-looking behavior.

We’ve covered a lot of ground, so let me see if I can pull everything together. To the original question — Why be good? — Our philosophers would give us a simple answer. You should be good because this is the best life for a human being, given our nature and the nature of the universe. This life is, or at least will bring about, flourishing and happiness. What is a virtue? Cultivating the virtues is how we become a good person. For this reason, a virtue is more than behaving kindly. It involves performing the right behaviors, to fulfill the right motives, for the right beliefs, and with the right feelings. Isn’t this simply a Hellenistic version of self-interest? No, because the right motives, beliefs, and feelings include people and principles beyond yourself. If you are only looking out for numero uno, then you do not possess the necessary virtues.

There you have it. The ancient philosophers believed that you could be happy and you could be virtuous. To reverse and develop their point a bit — As your virtue is incomplete, so will be your happiness. You can have a good life, even the best of lives, but to get there you have to think about things and people other than yourself. Flourishing comes from cultivating the virtues, and these virtues are not only about your personal well-being. Virtue is the excellence of character that produces a happy and successful life.


As I was completing this essay, my youngest son handed me the message from a fortune cookie, which he happened to be eating. It seems appropriate to close with its words: “[The] Virtuous find joy while Wrong-doers find grief in their actions.”