So, the other day, I wrote a little bit about humanism, what humanism means to me, blah blah blah, whatever, if you want to read it go right ahead. Anyway, through the course of it I made several references to “good” – now, the idea of good has had tens, if not hundreds, of perceptions over the years and I won’t even begin to cover them all, even if I was capable of thinking about them all.
Anyway, I thought I’d take the opportunity to talk a little bit about good, the different perceptions of good that I’m aware of, and try and see if any of you have any different understanding of good then I do – for this post, I’m mainly going to chat a bit about societal good and personal good; seems like a good starting point to me!
Good In Society
Obviously, the major, modern definition of good is an attitude which focuses on a few different things which, here in human society, we have decided are laudable actions, attributes, et cetera. The idea of “good” and, inversely, “evil” are some of the most volatile ideologies ever to appear in the human mind, similar to the idea of “us” and “them”.
The modern “good” is widely regarded as being a lack of selfishness, self-centeredness or narcissism. This is an extremely common idea and has much to do with the preachings, if not the practice, of religions like Christianity, Judaism and other. However, due to the major impact that these religions have had on our societies, they are also societal beliefs.
In fact, there are even links that could be quite easily drawn between the religious idea of good and the socialist idea of good – what is good for the whole, at the expense of selfish desire. The greater good is a phrase that easily springs to mind – the sacrifice of your own wellbeing for the sake of others’.
Good, ideally, is often regarded as benevolence, altruism or selflessness. Good, in fact, has been regarded as the expense of the self in favour of a greater cause, which is typically achieved via empathy – one of the major characteristics of good.
The Saint In Society
Dedication to an idea which we would consider good, or that any human we would attribute the description of good would consider as good – such as equality, liberty, freedom, et cetera – is often regarded as a saintly quality. It is easy to think of famous figures like Martin Luther King, or Gandhi, as “good” figures, as they dedicated themselves so fully to their causes.
It is worth pointing out that the “saint” in the definition that I use it has no links to religion, but rather to personal or societal presentation. The societal saint is a figure which shows exceptional degrees of compassion and empathy, often at the cost of their own well-being or their own ambitions.
However, there are issues with this definition – if someone wants to be seen as a good person, or their ambition is the same as their cause, if their actions can offer any direct or indirect benefit to them, then could they ever really be called good? The idea of a saint is, in a way, impossible, but there are those who will still clamour to fight on behalf of modern “saints” and attempt to raise them as ideals.
The Fluidity Of Goodness
There is the idea that goodness is fluid, and that it can be educated into someone or the inverse of good, “bad”, can be taught, terrified or starved out of someone. This is the major idea behind a great deal of the modern educational system, particularly in religious schools (if I had to sit through one more ridiculous Catholic “Values For Living” lesson, I think I’d burn that goddamn college down), the idea of the law (another completely made up thing used to keep people on the side of “good” or, at least, societal good) and the idea of prison.
The Impossibility Of Societal Goodness
So, here’s the thing, societal goodness is technically impossible. It requires selflessness, sure, but thanks to the levels of education and influence that modern culture has provided with regards to good, we tend to feel a little thrill when we do something good. The only way we could possibly engage with something approaching the idea of the “good” is to gain no personal satisfaction from it, along with no other form of benefit.
When we undertake a good action, it mustn’t affect our lives in anyway, we mustn’t remember it, and we mustn’t use it to tell ourselves or to engender anyone else to think of us as good people, for that is then applying a benefit to ourselves and making our good “societal” act ultimately selfish.
This is also why it is impossible to be good if you’re part of religion which believes there will be some reward for living a good life. No spiritual, religious or mystic person is, by our very definition of a societal good, a good person.
Personal Goodness – Is Selfishness Good?
Now, personal goodness can be hard to nail down because, in a way, you could say that the term actually refers to the personal understanding of goodness rather any other uniform ideology, but it’s just the term I’m using here.
Essentially, this school of thought focuses on the idea that, as a personal definition, whatever is good for you is, uniformly, good. As you’ll only ever really be able to see the universe through your own eyes, anything which makes your life better is good for your personal universe, and by good I mean it benefits you in some way.
Under these circumstances, selfishness can be good, just as selflessness can be good. The major issue is that goodness is, essentially, a relative term. I remember hearing an analogy once, which said that fire is good and bad – good when it warms your, bad when it destroys your home. In the same way, water is bad as it can slake your thirst or drown you.
As it is entirely relative, no matter what people with dogmatic beliefs of good and evil may want you to believe, there is no definitive good, there is no real evil – there just is, and we’ve all got to live with it.