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HOW TO BE GOOD
I once read a novel called “How To Be Good” [for my review click here]. It was a great title but, of course, the book says little obvious about being good.
So - what does it mean “to be good”? I'm going to be bold enough to venture a definition. I offer this formulation:
To be good means to do the right thing for the right reasonOf course, this begs two fundamental questions:
- What is the right thing?
- What is the right reason?
WHAT IS THE RIGHT THING?
There are at least four answers to the first question: What is the right thing?
- It is what we are told in a religious text. This might be the Bible (Christianity), the Koran (Islam), the Torah (Judaism) or the Guru Granth Sahib (Sikhism). The main problem with such sources is that they were written a very long time ago in a very different cultural context. For instance, the Old Testament condones slavery, but clearly this is morally wrong. It is simply not possible to conduct one's moral behaviour on the basis of taking literally the various injunctions in such a text. Religious individuals believe that such words are divinely inspired (but there is no convincing evidence that there is such a divinity) and that one can interpret the injunctions to take account of modern circumstances (but this begs the questions of which instructions one can interpret and how one can be reliable in one's interpretation). Nevertheless there is much good in all such 'holy' texts and they may provide rough guidance on goodness or morality
- It is what we are told by a religious leader. Instead of relying on a religious text, one might look for guidance to a religious figure such as a priest, rabbi, imam or guru. The Catholic Church even endows the Pope with infallibility in the very precise circumstances of him speaking ex cathedra. Looking to a religious leader for moral guidance can overcome the problem of a sacred text being of a different time and a different culture since a local religious leader is clearly of our time and our culture. The problem is that simply relying on the instruction of someone else - however learned and sincere - runs the risk of being misled. In international wars, the religious figures of nations in conflict frequently judge their own nation to be fighting a 'just' war. If a religious figure insists that the stoning to death of adulteress or the suicide bombing of a religious congregation is moral, can we really accept that this is the case?
- It is what we are told by an authority figure. Such a figure may be a political or community leader or may be a parent or teacher. People we respect may be a helpful guide to what is right and we will want to weigh their advice carefully. However, public figures who offer advice on moral issues often have their own agenda and private figures can sometimes let us down. Ultimately should we not take personal responsibility for determining what is right and what is wrong?
- It is what we determine through our own reason and thought. This approach avoids the problems of relying on a religious text or on a religious or authority figure, but it puts a central onus on each individual to make a judgement in all the circumstances of the case. How can we know what is right in any particular case? There is no simple or infallible answer to this question, but I would suggest that we can use four 'tests'.
TESTS FOR MORALITY
I would offer these four 'tests' for determining what is right or moral.
A few points about these 'tests':
- The hurt test. It is morally wrong to act in a manner which causes unnecessary or unjustifiable hurt to another individual.
- The hurt may be physical such as striking or beating or, in the ultimate, murder. Note that this includes hitting a child.
- The hurt may be psychological such as lying, rudeness, bullying, intimidation or discrimination. Note that one can hurt someone without them knowing (at least at the time) for instance by slandering them to others or having sex with their partner.
- The hurt may be material such as damage or theft of goods or possessions. Note that this applies to organisations and societies too – since ultimately organisations and societies are only collections of people – so not paying a fare or falsifying an expense claim or not not paying taxes are all immoral acts.
- The help test. It is morally good to act in a manner which is helpful or supportive of another individual.
- As in the case of hurt, the help may be physical whether taking them to a hospital appointment or just helping with heavy luggage. One of the noblest moral acts is the donation of blood or an organ where the recipient of the physical gift does not even know the donor.
- As in the case of hurt, the help may be psychological such as telling the truth or complimenting, advising or supporting someone. Again it is possible to help someone in this way without even knowing the person being helped such as writing an advice column or creating a cultural work to be enjoyed by others.
- As in the case of hurt, the help may be material such as donating unneeded items or money to a charity or someone in need or simply tipping someone generously.
- The 'not want' test. It is morally wrong to act in a manner towards someone that we would not want towards ourselves. Knowing what such actions are may not always be obvious and might need a little thought and some empathy. For example, being 'put down' or undermined personally or professionally is not something we would want for ourself and it is not something we should inflict on others.
- The 'want' test. It is morally good to act in a manner towards someone that we would want towards ourselves. Again some thought and empathy may be required. When we are 'down', we would like this to be recognised by a partner or colleague and for some sensitivity and sympathy to be shown, so we should do the same to others – even to strangers.
As something of an oversimplification, determining the right thing from a religious text, a religious leader or an authority figure tends to lead to a 'rules-based' system of morality where it is tempting (but mistaken) to view more rules as equating to more morality. For instance, in Orthodox Judaism, there is an incredible 613 Commandments and the rigid following of a version of each of these effectively cuts off adherents from the surrounding society.
- In a sense, these 'tests' are my reformulation of what is sometimes known as 'the Golden Rule' or 'the ethic of reciprocity' [for more information click here].
- These 'tests' seem obvious and yet, if they are so obvious, why do we fail so often to apply them?
- The various 'tests' don't stand separate from one another: the help and hurt tests and the 'not want' and 'want' tests are two sides of the same respective coins, while there is a lot of overlap between the help and 'want' and the hurt and 'not want' tests.
- Life is not always that simple and often one cannot apply the tests too rigidly. For instance, it might be morally right to tell a lie to spare someone unnecessary hurt or to show 'tough love ' to a child or an addict or, in extreme, to kill in self defence. In all circumstances, we have to look for the greater good – while avoiding the temptation of justifying the means for the ends. Being good is not simple or easy. We fail; we try again; we try harder.
By contrast, determining the right thing from our own reason and thought tends to lead to a 'principles-based' system of morality which may not be so clear or obvious but is more flexible and relevant and ultimately more responsible.
WHAT IS THE RIGHT REASON?
There are at least four answers to the second question: What is the right reason for doing good?
- It is commanded or instructed. For religious people, doing good is often seen as obeying God's commandments or the holy figure's instructions. In other circumstances, people do the right thing because they are told to do so by a parent or leader. This may lead to moral actions but arguably doing good because we are told to do so is not leading a life as moral as it could and should be.
- It will avoid punishment. In this world, doing good may avoid imprisonment, fines, or admonishment. If one is religious, doing good may avoid temporary (Purgatory) or everlasting (Hell) punishment in an after life. But, besides the fact that there is no credible evidence of an after life still less of a hell, fear is not a good reason for doing good.
- It will achieve reward. In this world, doing good may attract respect or even praise (especially if the actions are very visible). Again, if one is religious, doing good may be thought to earn one everlasting happiness in some kind of heaven (in both Judaism and Islam, there is even the notion of seven levels of heaven). Again I would argue that, besides the fact that there is no credible evidence of an after life still less of a heaven, reward is not the most honourable reason for doing good.
- It is good for its own sake. Instead of doing good because we are commanded or instructed to do so or because we fear punishment or seek reward, why don't we act morally because it is simply the right thing to do? Arguably this is the most moral course of action.
Underlying this brief essay is a plea for us all to strive to be good which means attempting always to do the right thing for the right reason.
For many people around the world, morality is seen as intrinsically bound up with religion, but I have sought to argue that one can have morality without religion and indeed that arguably morality without religion is more moral.
Ultimately, however, we each have to make our own choice as to whether or not to endeavour to lead a good life and, if so, how we determine what is the right thing to do and what is the right reason for doing it. These are themselves moral choices.
Last modified on 18 April 2009
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