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Can you be good or bad if there’s just you?

This week, a very simple starting point that can lead off in many directions. It’s this question:
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If you lived completely alone on an island, would there still be a difference between being good and being bad?
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Or, more abstractly:
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Can you be good or bad if there’s just you?
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You might have to “guard the dilemma” here against practical solutions in order to get to the philosophy. Let’s assume the island is a liveable sort of place, with plentiful freshwater and food, so that you can stay alive on the island for an indefinite length of time. You are not interested in rescue schemes, or how they got there. It is a thought experiment that aims to bring to the surface questions about the nature, scope and origin of moral ideas.
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The first response might be that you could be kind or cruel to any animals on the island. Do animals matter morally? What about fish? What about shellfish? Do arguments for vegetarianism still apply if you are in a natural state and have no alternatives? To go deeper into this scenario, you might say, “What if there were no animals on the island either? Is it possible for you to be good or bad then?” Does the natural environment have a value of its own, so that how you use it is morally important even if no sentient creature is affected?
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A Society of One
At the heart of the matter are questions of whether or not good and evil are about how we relate to one another, and only make sense in a society. In a way, the thought experiment is a reversal of the way moral thinking normally moves, from self to others. In Christianity, there is the instruction to love your neighbour as you love yourself; utilitarian philosophy moves from thinking about your future self (prudence) to thinking about others and their interests.
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In thinking about how morality works in a society of one, you are starting with moral concepts and seeing if they still work when applied to oneself. Can you be kind to yourself? What would count as selfishness in a world of one person?
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Who Defines Good and Bad?
There are also questions about how right and wrong would be defined in a society of one. Would they be whatever you said they were? Do such notions make any sense outside of a society? There are echoes here of famous solitary figures from philosophy and religion, from Wittgenstein’s private language argument to Ibn Sina’s Floating Man, Job in the Old Testament alone on the dung heap, for whom God’s law still stands in his misery and isolation, and of course Adam (and later Eve) at the start of Genesis.
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It’s Character Building!
You might look at solitary living as being the ultimate test of character. In Castaway (a favourite film of mine) the deserted island protagonist struggles with despair, and then replaces that with resignation to his fate and later with hope, displaying resourcefulness and resilience along the way. There are both secular and religious ways of talking about character that may still function in a world of one – habits of mind, virtue and sinfulness.
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Best wishes,
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Jason

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