Obvious good

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On the one hand, we have religion, and religious frameworks that are morally certain about what is obviously right in any situation. On the other hand, real life. In the context of life as we live it from one moment to the next, from a current local, to a historical global perspective, the right thing to do at any given moment is anything but obvious.

Today, it is obviously good to support the freedom of all mankind. The very thought of slavery produces a feeling of disgust and revulsion. Not so very long ago, it was obviously good to hold men and women as slaves, who were too weak to maintain their freedom by force. So, which is true? Which is right? Which is obviously good? History, it seems, has no moral certainty about anything.

If we only focus on the religious side of the equation, we find that the way isn’t any clearer. Members of the same family, separated by a few generations, who practice the same religion, are on opposite ends of the spectrum of what is obviously good. The fundamentalist in the 1800s has no doubt that both the letter and spirit of God’s will is for slavery to exist as an institution. The progenitor, a few generations removed, could not be more certain that slavery is an obvious evil, and that freedom is the obvious good. Both rely on their knowledge of God, the bible, and the natural law.

Hitler was not the only one who thought his actions against the Jews were obviously good. The people of Germany were fairly convinced that it was the right thing, as well. They had no trouble sleeping at night because of the atrocities. The leadership of the Catholic Church also had undisturbed dreams over the torture and extermination of the pesky Jews. America also had no problem turning a blind eye to what was going on. At the very least, we did not find the morality of the situation very obvious. It was an internal matter, and not our problem.

Speaking of the Church, at one point in our history,, it was obvious that certain types of infidels should be put to the sword. It was obvious that eccentric men and women should be labeled warlocks and witches, and as a result, burned at the stake. Obvious! To those who had a hand in writing the Jewish scriptures, it was obvious that disobedient children should be stoned to death, alongside adulterers, fortune tellers, homosexuals, and countless others. To the Psalmist, it was obvious that the babies of the enemies should be taken by the ankles, swung about, and smashed into rocks with their heads. All, obvious good!

No religious person considered sane, believes any of those things are good things. Neither do they believe those things were ever good things. For all people, at all times, were those things obviously bad. The irony is that both groups claim to worship a god who has made his opinions of good and evil, well, obvious.

God’s moral law is supposed to be obvious. We may have trouble carrying it out due to our sinful nature. But we should never have trouble knowing what it is. Yet, it seems that throughout the better part of the bible, God’s actions, and those of his representatives were not obviously right or good. Our prayers reveal the disconnect we have with our religion and life.

In the bible, we read about a god who had no interest in cultivating peace between all the warring factions. He had no problem taking sides. Yet our prayers, today, are peppered with requests for world peace. We tend to think of world peace as an obvious good for someone with the power to achieve it. God didn’t. The same is true for disease. While the modern religious person prays for a cure for AIDS and cancer, the one who could have brought such cures about, never considered doing so a good thing, as he didn’t cure a single disease. To be clear, Bill & Malinda Gates have eradicated more diseases than God and all his men.

The challenge is even greater. According to the bible, the one who has an opportunity to do good yet does not do it, has sinned by omission. That places even more pressure on the individual to know what good is, especially the obvious good. If I see a beggar on the street, is it a good thing for me to give him the pocket change he asks for, give him considerably more money than he asks for, or give him no money at all? I don’t know. I’ve done all three, and more. Yet I have no idea which act is good, if any. I simply made it up as I went along.

In the above example, goodness was based on my mood at the time. It was never based on what Jesus would do. I do not recall any examples of him and his disciples giving money to beggars. Does that mean that it is not good to do so? I don’t know. My point is that there is nothing obvious about good. The right thing to do is a complete mystery. Religion is no help. To understand why, we need to break down the problem even further.

Three types of good

Based, solely, on my own experience, I can talk about three types of good: There is personal good, tribal good, and social good. All three are distinct, and often work at cross purposes. In practice, the highest level of good is of the personal variety. “Looking out for #1” is not just a figure of speech, but a fact of life. Very seldom do we intentionally act contrary to our own self-interests. If things are good for us, then for the most part, the world is a pretty good place to be. The first way we determine if a thing is good is by deciding whether it is beneficial, or detrimental to us.

Tribal good extends to whatever in-group we happen to be considering. Is it good for my family, my community, my state, my country, my race, my political party, my tribe. If we see a beggar with whom we have no affiliation, we are highly unlikely to extend aid to the point of inconveniencing ourselves. If, however, that beggar happens to be our son or daughter, we will be more inclined to clear our schedule, open our homes, and invest considerable, financial resources to solve the problem.

Social good is far more abstract. It is most likely to get our rhetorical backing, but least likely to inspire us to act. It is the activist who speaks out for the ethical treatment of animals, while caked with makeup rendered from some animal’s remains. It is the tree-hugger who prefers a wooden, baseball bat. It is the one who preaches that we should be kind to beggars, while devoting no rooms in their own house for sheltering strangers. It is what is most good for society, but is often least good for ourselves.

Slavery was not an issue of good versus evil, but of good versus good. It was social good versus personal good, with a bit of tribal good thrown in. For people who owned plantations, slavery seemed like a pretty good idea. Even if they didn’t like the institution, it was in the best interest of tribal good. Those plantations supported several generations of families, and were the backbone of the economy of an entire region. Slavery was most definitely in the best interests of personal and tribal good.

However, there was social good with which to contend. People who’s livelihood and communities were not dependent on slave labor, had the freedom to consider a more abstract kind of good. They could be social activists, acting on behalf of the good of others. They had no plantations to lose. It might be said that future, Northern, robber barons stood to benefit from the influx of strong-backed, cheap labor. That is not to take away from those who sacrificed much for the cause. It is only to acknowledge that it is much easier to join a social cause when it does not violate our personal good. It was not plantation owners fighting to free the slaves.

In some ways, social good is the most dangerous of them all. It is the kind of good that fuels wars. We did it for their own good. Such excuses have justified all kinds of atrocities and abuses. Parents beat children for their own good. Husbands beat wives for their own good. Settlers attack and subdue the native Americans for their own good. Popes order conversion by sword for the infidel’s own good. Drug addicts are criminalized and punished for their own good. This was once done for everyone who drank adult beverages. That failed because personal good outweighed social good. Social good run amuck, is indistinguishable from evil.

And there lies the rub. The same can be said for personal good and tribal good. But there is still more nuance. I am the arbiter of personal good. My tribal leader determines tribal good. But no one can define social good with any certainty. When we disagree on tribal good, we elect a new leader, When unsure about personal good, we flip a coin. But where there is disagreement on social good, we go to war, or at the very least, experience social unrest.

I will leave this post on a cliff-hanger: One person is bullied and taken advantage of by a hundred. The one cries out for help. A thousand take notice. After diplomacy breaks down, the thousand frees the one, by subjugating the hundred. Ten thousand are offended. After diplomacy breaks down, the ten thousand decide to annihilate the thousand. Here’s the question: was it right to do the good of aiding the one? It was a good thing, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? Wasn’t it? I’ll write the second part to the post when I can answer that question.

David Johnson

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