Ruth Grant Asks “What Does a Good Life Look Like?”

The first of my two interviews with Duke political scientist and philosopher Ruth Grant occurred on Jan. 12, 2011. There was too much material from even that one interview to squeeze into my magazine article about her work, so here’s a transcript for your reading  pleasure.

Why did you do this book?

I previously did a book called Naming Evil, Judging Evil. That was a collection of essays with eight or nine of my colleagues at Duke. That came up because of the 9/11 attacks. The question for that conversation was “Whether it’s more dangerous to call something evil or not call something evil.” That was the way the debate was taking shape at the time. That was a great project, and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed the conversations that led to the essays in the book and the conference we held to discuss it.

The year after, I saw the film The Lives of Others, which is about an East German secret service agent who is assigned to spy on a playwright. He ends up protecting the man. The movie seemed to me to be about a lot of things. The central thing for me is that it showed a political world where it was almost impossible to be a good person in an ordinary way.  You either had to be collaborating in some corrupting way with the regime or you had to be a hero or a saint. I thought the movie was wonderful. I walked out of movie and said we have to do a book on goodness. We reconvened almost the same group, and we did this on goodness with the same sort of process where we talked to each other over lunch for about a year. Everybody wrote his or her own draft, we had a conference to discuss it all and then we put it all together in a book.

Why use this kind of process?

To learn from each other. People in different disciplines take different approaches. What we did was choose things people wanted to read, and then we read them and talked about them around the subject of goodness. I think, when we started, none of us had an idea of what we wanted to write our own essays about. That developed out of the process.

Why is goodness important to society?

Do you mind if I change that question to: Why is it important?

Not at all.

My own feeling is that everybody wants to be able to think of themselves as a good person. There’s a need for self-approval that’s very powerful in all of us. Everyone has an interest in the question of what it is to lead a good life, to be able to come to the end of your life and say not bad, I didn’t do badly. I think this is one of the biggest motivations for people to be good. It’s also the motivation for people to rationalize when they’re not good. I think there’s a powerful psychological need not to feel regret, ashamed of yourself or guilty. These are extremely painful feelings. I think everybody is interested in this question.

But I’ve had a hard time finding people who are interested in goodness. For example, when I started my Goodness Project, I wanted to link my blog to other blogs where people were considering the same question, and I could barely find any. 

Part of that is the language. The term “goodness” or just “good” is so ephemeral. It’s used in so many ways. You would probably find more blogs about morality. Other reasons that this topic is important right now is that from an academic point of view there are a lot of people rethinking morality in terms of evolutionary biology (and many other disciplines). People are trying to figure out where moral behavior comes from, whether it is hard-wired in the brain. I think there is a lot of interest in the subject of morality out there.

There’s one more reason why I think the subject is important.  I think that we have ambivalence about whether we are on a trajectory of moral progress or a trajectory of moral corruption. We have some sense that things are always going downhill and that the last generation was better than this generation. We also have a sense that development in economics and science and technology also brings moral progress. I don’t think people are as confident about that as this moment. I think there’s a lot of anxiety about our moral condition right now. Take the financial crisis. There are concerns about whether that is, at least in part, a result of putting too much emphasis on success rather than on goodness.

Did the authors in the book come to any shared conclusions about goodness?

Not really. I don’t think that we really tried to. We were much more interested in our different perspectives. Different people took different questions as their important subjects to explore.

I organized the book around two questions: First, how do people become good? That one is about raising children and about moral conversion. Moral conversion is what happens later in life to people like Oskar Schindler, the subject of the movie Schindler’s List. (He was credited with saving almost 1,200 Jews from the Holocaust.)

The other major question was: What does a good life look like? Several of us wrote about different exemplars of goodness like Billy Budd (the title character in a novella by Herman Melville), which is about innocence as a form of goodness.

There are also two essays at the end of the book that are less particular and more philosophic about whether there’s a unified idea of goodness, or whether there are always multiple goods, or whether goodness is always a contextual kind of thing. The person who wrote the final essay came down on the side that it’s a contextual thing. If you want to know what a good person is, what you really need to know is what a person is, then you can tell what a good one is…

I don’t think I understand.

If I say this is a good frying pan and I say this is a good person, the word “good” doesn’t mean the same in those instances. Right?

Do you mean that a good frying pan is flat and conducts heat well, but being a good person doesn’t have anything to do with being flat and conducting heat?


We also got into more philosophical disputes that had to do with the unity of goodness, if there is such a thing as goodness itself. People do disagree on that.

My focus was on moral goodness, similar to what I think you’re looking at. This isn’t the kind of goodness where you could say that a good person is a person who develops his talents well. There are all kinds of ways in which people can be good. My real concern is with moral goodness in writing this book. I took it for granted so much that this is what we were talking about that it was a surprise to me that not everybody in the room was thinking about it in the same way.

How do you define a morally good person?

A person with integrity, a person who is responsible to others. Those kinds of qualities.

Was there a consensus among the authors of the book about what constitutes a morally good person?

Among the authors of the book, we didn’t really try to come to a consensus on that. We deliberately asked the question: What does a good life look like? rather than asking: What is a good life? We did that to acknowledge that this is a hard thing to define, but it’s not hard to recognize. We also did it to acknowledge that there is not just one way to be a morally good person. I can’t think of a quality of goodness that you couldn’t argue about what it actually means as it manifests itself. I wrote about altruism. Did you see the Duke University video where I talked about altruism?

Yes, it was very interesting (The video can be found at

If you gave people a list of qualities and asked them to rank these as good or bad, altruism would belong in the good category. What I asked is: Is it always good to be altruistic? I think there are some limits to that. I did critique the notion of altruistic self-sacrifice. I think those kinds of arguments are possible about any of the qualities we recognize as being good. There’s no form of goodness that’s good in every situation. Sometimes you’re in a situation where there are conflicting moral demands. To be loyal to somebody and to  act justly don’t  always lead in the same direction for example.

What role does religion play in determining right and wrong?

For religious people, the authoritative doctrines of their religion tell them what’s right and wrong, but that sounds more cut and dried then it actually is in practice. A doctrine like “Love Thine Enemies” requires interpretation. That’s what ministers do every Sunday. They take a piece of scripture and say how it applies in daily life, and they don’t always agree with each other.

Usually they don’t.  Some religious leaders say that goodness only comes from God. Do you agree?

There are people who believe that atheists can’t be good. There are also people who believe that people who go to church can’t be bad. I don’t think the evidence supports either of those points of view.

When we talk about goodness or good and evil, there are three different kinds of questions people often ask. One is: How do we know the difference between good and bad. People who have religious faith get the answer to that question more readily maybe. The second issue is: What motivates people to be good. Why be good if it’s to your advantage not to be? If you’re talking about the Christian tradition, then part of the answer is that you will be rewarded or punished in the afterlife. The third question is:  Why am I obliged to be good? An atheist can know the difference between right and wrong, but not necessarily feel it as an obligation on their conscience. Whereas religious people say “I’m obligated to do the right thing; it’s my duty to God.” I think religious people and atheists are in different places with  respect to these questions. But I think there are secular answers to these questions that have been satisfying to many people.

One of the questions that came up when we were working on “Naming Evil, Judging Evil” was: Does evil come from God? This has been a very troubling question theologically for a long time. If everything comes from God and God is good, then why is there unjust suffering in the world?

One of the things that interested me about you and your work is that you’re studying goodness and you’re also a political scientist. How do politics and ethics come together? Is it possible to be moral and be political?

It struck me that we have these polar opposite views of politics and ethics. On the one hand, we see politics as a way to do good in the world, and we admire people who go into public service. At the same time , while people may go into public service for good reasons, the means of  getting things done in politics are seen as being dirty or necessarily corrupt.

I thought about the different reasons people think that. One notion is that politics is a game about winning and losing, and  people believe  that nice guys finish last. People think that if there are other people out there who are willing to play dirty, you have to play dirty or you’re not going to get anywhere.

I have a colleague who is studying the ethics of adversarial institutions like sports, elections, and business, where the aim is to win. My colleague has found that it’s not true that there are no ethical rules in such instances. There’s such a thing as being a good sport, ways that you don’t treat the other team. I think that can be true of electoral politics as well, that we have some sense of fair play. When people get alarmed about the polarization that has happened since the last presidential election, part of what they’re alarmed about is that those rules of fair play are breaking down. There still can be ethical ways to play the game.

I wrote a book on hypocrisy and politics called Hypocrisy and Integrity : Machiavelli, Rousseau, and the Ethics of Politics. One of the main ideas in the book is that we talk about politics as relationships of power, but politics is also about relationships of dependence. For a politician to be successful, he or she has to get other people’s cooperation.  The politician is dependent on others for the success of his projects.  But those other people don’t have exactly the same interests or ideas  that he or she does.  Getting their cooperation is not like getting your friends to help you out, for example

How do you treat people you depend on who are not exactly your friends, and not your enemies either? Part of my argument in the book was that you can be honest with enemies, you can be honest with friends, but when you’re on the middle ground of needing to secure people’s cooperation, and they’re not friends or enemies, you’re less likely to be honest.

For example, I’m thinking about a school redistricting meeting I attended where everybody was arguing that his or her redistricting plan was better. But the real reason the people in the room were arguing is because they thought Plan A was better for their children, or Plan B was better for their kids. What people said was that Plan A is cheaper because there’s less busing, or that Plan B was better for another reason. All that is true, but they were not the real reasons. It’s important that these kinds of hypocrisies happen or you wouldn’t be able to get any kind of resolution or cooperation No one is going to reach an agreement if each person just says,” I like this plan because it’s good for my child” – even if that’s the truth..

It is important that there are ethical standards for politicians, and that we hold them to those standards, but your standards can’t be too pure. Your standards can’t be too high. Politicians have to make choices among the lesser of two evils, and that has to be acceptable to us.

I’m remembering back to when I first came to Kansas and covered the Legislature as a newspaper reporter. I was surprised by many things. One of them was the fact that people had to compromise and that I found out that many of the people, the legislators, who I completely disagreed with on policy were not evil people. 

Do you want to talk about your personal concept of goodness, or about your personal concept of what makes a good life or a moral life?

I can tell you some of the things I value. I think it’s really important to be a little humble about these things. To be open to experiences, like you were talking about (in the Legislature), open to the kinds of experiences that make you sit up  and say, Oh, what was I taking for granted? What was I not thinking about?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to think of morality and ethical behavior in terms of small everyday practices instead of the big questions like,  “Would I be brave enough to resist the Nazis?.” Letting people know they are appreciated when they do something for you is important. Things that make our collective lives more pleasant are important.

Fortunately, most of us will not have to answer the big questions like would I be brave enough to resist a tyrant, but we confront  smaller things all the time. Being able to apologize is something I value tremendously in other people, and something I value in myself. It’s surprising how hard it is for people to do that and how much difference it makes.

What can we as a society do to foster morality?

That’s a question about how culture changes. On the one hand, the culture is constantly changing in terms of values. At the same time, it’s very difficult to think about how you would consciously bring that about.

Ruth, thanks so much for your time. It’s been an interesting conversation. I’m looking forward to reading your book.

Thank you. I’ve enjoyed talking to you.

This entry was posted in good vs. evil, Interviews, Practicing Goodness and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ruth Grant Asks “What Does a Good Life Look Like?”

  1. Linda Herzberg says:

    Ruth Grant brings up some important ideas. I like where she talks about being honest with friends and enemies but not with people who are not friends or enemies but with whom you have to find a compromise. I had never thought of that.

    However, on their book, it sounds like they took an easier road than what you are looking at.

  2. dianesilver says:

    Thanks for the comment, Linda. Interesting angle on the road taken by the book. Is it easier not to force a bunch of people to come to one conclusion? All I need to do is force myself to come to a conclusion, which of course, is hard enough in itself.

  3. Pingback: My First Theory of Goodness | In Search of Goodness

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