Posted by: LucidMystery | November 18, 2008

For Goodness’ Sake

Well, this was kind of interesting. I just came across an AOL news article (link for it is below) that said the American Humanist Association is going to be running ads in D.C. this Christmas that will say “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

At first, I was pretty indignant, borderline offended. I would have thought that Washington D.C., of all places, was supposed to a model of tolerance and equality. And notice, I’m not speaking from just a Christian perspective. The ad will not capitalize the “g” in god, therefore it isn’t just referring to my God, but any god. So Muslims, Hindus, Jews, etc, should all be just as irritated as I am.

But on second thought, am I irritated? An ad like that should, in any intellectual mind, spark thought. So it could turn out to be kind of interesting, actually.

Be good for goodness’ sake. Ok. Whose “good” are we talking about here, Mother Teresa’s or Hitler’s? So what is good? How do we know what “good” is? To an extent, most people tend to end with at least some common ground as to what “good” is. For example, murder. Never met a person who thought flat out murder was ok. In the case of war, well, there it gets sticky, but certainly no one likes the idea of killing an innocent person. How about rape? That’s almost universally hated, especially when children are victims. Here again, though, we have gray areas such as the case in countries where girls are married when they are 10 or 11 years old, and there have also been countries who punish the woman when she is raped (I think I just vomited a little in my mouth at the thought of a human being who would enforce that kind of law.) What about stealing? Even the Spartans, brutal as they were demanded that you at least didn’t get caught as you thieved. What about more abstract ideas like broken promises and treason? We feel hurt, angry, betrayed in such situations. Why?

Why are we angry when we hear of someone killing a helpless old man? Why do we flare with rage at the low life who would dare sexually abuse a little girl? How do we know that’s wrong? Is it instinctive? Is it learned? Is there a universal goodness and a universal evil? To go back to that D.C. ad, how can we be good for goodness’ sake? How do we know what good is? Is “good” merely an abstract pattern of behavior based on environmental cues that drives us to react in a certain way in a certain situation in order to overall benefit society or the survival of our species? Is it just something that parents pass on to kids?

Well, there we get another problem with an idea of being good. Nazis told their children it was good to hate Jews. Did that make it right? Did that make the Holocaust any easier for the rest of the world to swallow? I should think not since the events that took place there were so gruesome that some people even to this day cannot accept that humankind could ever stoop so low. But to Hitler, that was being “good.” So clearly, we cannot say that the passing on of values from parent to child makes something “good” or “evil.” (See more on the parents-to-kids idea below.)

Another argument (against the more evolutionary psychology reasoning) is that not everything that we consider “good” would be considered evolutionarily beneficial. I’m not trying to sound barbaric here, but if you’re going to adhere to a philosophy, you need to think it through. Let’s look at murder again. Of course, we can argue why murder wouldn’t be conducive to the survival of the species if you’re killing off your own, but then again we can argue the opposite. In the animal world, when two animals fight, the weaker one loses, and usually is killed. So by outlawing survival of the fittest (the strongest one survives and the unlucky one who ticked him off…well lets just say he won’t use up any of your resources any more), our concept of “good” is evolutionarily (and thus instinctively) counter-intuitive. If good and bad were evolutionary, we should want to allow murder.

Another issue…ok, I’m going to step out on a limb here with this example, please don’t pour hot coals on my head. I’m going to assume that the American Humanist Association would encourage tolerance of homosexuality as good, wouldn’t you think? But that also is counter-evolutionary because it is encouraging gender roles that don’t allow for reproduction. Even in animals where homosexual behaviors have been noted (ie, in those crazy hypersexual bonobos who will mate with anything that moves…well, actually, it doesn’t have to move either), those behaviors are never in monogomaous situations*. Don’t kill the messenger here, I’m just making the point that our ideas of good versus bad could not have been determined from evolutionary psychology.

Or is our concept of good and evil an evolutionary behavioral response to limit chaos, and thus allow us to advance further than any other organism? This argument is the most reasonable so far, yet is still has its flaws. As I mentioned before, in the animal world, the weakest individual will not survive. Yet in our society, it is almost universally accepted as “good” to protect the weak. The disabled, the poor, the elderly–we all look at it as our responsibility to help them. In fact, most eugenics programs are met with horror (except by the sneaky little runts who found them) because we find it wrong to hurt those who are least capable of defending themselves. One would think that an organized societal pruning would be just what Darwin ordered, yet any decent person should (rightfully so!) cry injustice.

I mentioned earlier that I would return to the idea of right and wrong being something parents pass on to their kids. I rationalized that just because it is passed on from generation to generation, it might not be this so-called “good.” But does the concept of a right and wrong only exist because it is passed on? In other words, if your parents never told you it was wrong to make fun of people who are different from yourself, then you wouldn’t know it was wrong, right? So does that mean it isn’t wrong? C.S. Lewis made an interesting argument in his book Mere Christianity  (an excellent philiosphy read, if you’re interested.) He likened the idea of right and wrong to mathematical principles. If you were alone, on an island, and you had never heard of the multiplication tables, would that make them any less real? Just because you didn’t know them wouldn’t make 4×4 equal to anything but 16. Could it be like that with good and bad? Are they universally real no matter what your upbringing? All religions in the world have had a something of an equivalent to good and evil. They have had varying degrees of tolerance and punishment for what they considered to be “sin,” but the idea still remains that it is somehow been integrated into all humankind that there is a good and there is a bad. Even if those ideas shift (for example, until the 1920’s, it was “wrong” for an American girl to wear a dress that showed her legs), we still hold on to an idea that it is good for clothes to be modest even if our idea of modesty changes (though I’m sure no matter what century, someone will always find men in Speedos to be the nastiest thing ever. Unless you’re French. Or Michael Phelps. He can get away with those low-riders, but no one else.)

This argument of universal good and bad, I suppose, is beating around another bush–is there universal truth? If there is a universal good (which there must be, if the American Humanist Association is telling us to be good), then there must be a universal truth. So what is it? A month or so ago, I went to a conference that talked a TON about post-modernism and the fluid concept of a truth that is true in all situations. In the end, though, no matter how much they may babble, no matter how you roll the dice, there is at least one universal truth in existence (though I personally think there are many.) That one truth is: There is at least one universal truth. I kid you not, that statement has to be true, no matter what. Even if that statement is the only universal truth. Do you see it? If you say “There is no universal truth” then you have just disproved your own statement, because that in itself must be the universal truth. And if you say “There might be a universal truth” then there obviously is one since that has to be true. So if there is a universal truth, why can there not be a universal good and bad? Humans certainly act as though the two exist. (Take Stacey and Clinton, for example, they can show you fabulous clothes that are universally good…and then some that are just plain bad. And btw, I totally did just bring them into a major philosophical discussion. Booyeah.)

Ahh, finally, now we come to it. If there is a universal right and wrong, good and bad, then who set them up to begin with? Was there one crazy-influential person far back in history who said “let this be good!” and it became good? Of course, as I mentioned earlier, some of our ideas of what is good and what is bad have shifted since early history. Society is dynamic and thus our principles have a bit of fluidity. But still, even in the earliest cultures, there is a prescribed good and a prescribed bad. We all have this idea, which means we know there is something bigger than ourselves to have established a good and an evil. Is that a god? I think it would have to be. It would have to be Something or Someone bigger than all of us. So, in essence, the American Humanist Association has it a little jumbled when they say “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” Without a god, there is no good and no bad. So if you want to be good, you have to believe in a god.

Brave soul if you read this whole thing! Counting my supplementary material below, the total word count is 1848. No one ever accused me of being concise.



*I am aware of the children’s book about the “gay” penguins. However, that is in a captive situation (where exceptions are common) and the two have never attempted any reproductive acts. It is somewhat unusual, but not unheard of, for males to attempt to raise orphaned offspring anywhere in the animal kingdom. Since neither of these males were interested in the one or two females presented to them (and yes, penguins are very picky with their mates), the only logical way for them to attempt to raise an abandones offspring would be together. Most species of penguins require two parents. If there isn’t another female around, well it was lucky for the juvenile that the males present happened to be exceptions to the rule.

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