What it Means to be Good…

Is there an absolute goodness or is it cultural?

In the late 50s, during my school days in South Africa, we were taught that what one culture thought was truth was not the same as what another culture thought was truth. So the concept of goodness was often dependent on the culture that one grew up in. This did not mean, however, that there was no such thing as truth. Anything that was factual was truth, but those facts had to be universal, supported by scientific measurement and observation. So, is there such a thing as goodness?”And if In thathere is, how does one define goodness, and does evil exist? More to the point, what is the purpose of goodness?

Is There Such a Thing as Goodness?

In order to answer that, it’s important to go back to where the concept of goodness developed. That would have been in the early days of mankind. Both the Hindu holy books and the Jewish Holy books give exact definitions of what it means to be good.

In India, for instance, there are many gods, and it is not inconceivable that disputes would have arisen as to which god had priority and some sort of antagonsm would have arisen dependent on which god one worshipped. So cultural genocide was prevented by saying that all gods were an expression of one single god. So there is a correlation between goodness and peace in the community.

Of course, it seems that from the beginning of mankind there has been inequality, and it was no different in India. In order to make this inequality ‘safe’ for those in power, it was deemed that those born in a particular caste were permitted more privileges, like education, powerful jobs, etc. This was said to be the result of the soul becoming more advanced, so those born into the more elevated castes were superior people, as they had reached the higher ranks of goodness. Those who were born into castes that remained poor could not move up in class because the fact that they were born into a very poor caste meant that they had not evolved into advanced human beings yet.

This belief meant that the safety of the powerful was preserved, and there was no revoluation against inequality. It served the purpose of keeping society peaceful. Once more, what was seen as goodness had the ultimate purpose of preserving the peace of the community.

In the original Abrahamic religion — Judaism — a prime directive was not to murder. If you think about that, there wouldn’t be a very peaceful community if members of the community went around murdering each other. In the early days of humankind, individuals were much more dependent on the community for their survival than they are today. So it was essential for there to be rules that prevented the breakdown of societal cohesian. In this sense, not murdering one’s next door neighbors made perfect sense as an example of goodness. And, of course, once more goodness is related to the well-being and sruvival of the group.

There are also rules that make no sense to us in our modern world. Yet religious people live by them because that is what their religion sees as goodness. Examples would be the Jewish ‘commandments’ of not mixing wool with linen (flax) or wearing tallit (prayer shawl).

It’s crazy to our modern minds to think that there is anything sinful about mixing wool with linen, or anything benevolent about wearing a particular piece of fabric that has knotted tassels attached,

One explanation for not mixing two different items — given by Rabbi Aaron Halevi in the the Sefer HaChinuch— is “because it destroys the spiritual fabric of the universe and it can be explained as follows: Each and every thing on earth, except for man, has its own spiritual force that influences it. When some of these earthly items are mixed together, they cause their spiritual counterparts to become entangled. Once entangled, they cannot perform their tasks as originally designed, thusly destroying the spiritual fabric of the universe.” That’s from Sefer HaChinuch — The Book of Mitzvah Education #62 — by Rabbi Aaron Halevi.

Of course, when examined more closedly there could have been other explanations. Perhaps mixing the two fibers required more work and so only the very rich and powerful were permitted that sort of extravagance, or perhaps they didn’t have the technology to put them together, and when the items was washed, one part shrank and the other part didn’t. We don’t know why those rules were made.

We don’t know why these rules were made in Judaism anymore than we know why many seemingly nonsensical rules were made in many different religions.

Consider animal (and, sometimes, human sacrifice) to the gods. In Greece, these were considered to be gifts to their many gods, and the reason these gifts were given to the gods, was that there was a quid pro quo status in existence. If you gave something to the god, they would give you something in return. If you wanted calm seas for your journey, you sacrificed a lovely, high quality animal to Poseidon, and in return, he would make the seas calm. Of course, calm seas when you were sailing was a very good thing. So it made perfect sense to ‘pay’ the god with a ‘gift,’ so that you could sail on the seas without losing your ship in a storm.

Once more, goodness is associated with survival and safety.

So if we take goodness to be those actions that ensure our safety and well-being, both individually and collectively, then, yes, there is such a thing as goodness.

So if we take goodness to be those actions that ensure our safety and well-being, both individually and collectively, then, yes, there is such a thing as goodness.

How Does One Define Goodness? And Does Evil Exist?

Who can argue that some actions have better outcomes than others? In our conflict-laden world, inequality is driving massive anger and resentment. Is this not why equality is considered the better option? Or is it? Is the real anger against a lack of fair distribution rather than unequal distribution?

When nations make laws, they have safe, peaceful, and prosperous outcomes in mind. They want a community that works towards prosperity, if not for all, then at least for those who control the purse-and-power strings. They consider this good.

Even without an exact definition, people automatically equate goodness with safe, fair, and prosperous outcomes. The systems that provide this are thought be good systems. For most of the past century, capitalism has been thought to provide this. Now, with the World Bank declaring China to be the first (and only) nation in the world to have eradicated poverty, perhaps, there is the need to rethink what goodness is. In rethinking goodness, perhaps it is time to more accurately define evil.

If goodness is the provision of safe, peaceful, and prosperous outcomes for all people, then could it be argued that evil is the opposite?

Recently freedom of speech has been responsible for both fake news and insurrection at the Capitol. An increasing number of journalists have been murdered for exposing truth — in the factual sense of the word. Truth, then, are considered by some to be necessary to be buried.

Intelligence agencies do not want the truth of their actions to be revealed, because that could expose both illegal and unethical actions. It could also endanger the countries that they serve.

In all of this, what is good, and what is evil? Which actions ultimately lead to safety, peace, and prosperity for all people and for all nations? Each question that is asked leads to another question. For instance, what might be considered good for one nation (massive profit) might be considered far less optimal for another nation where people consistently live in poverty as the exchange rate lowers the value of their goods (Africa). Then the question needs to be asked if it’s possible for the world to be safe, peaceful, and prosperous if some nations are struggling to survive and its people are in terrible despair.

Can good only be defined as the outcomes to individuals? Or can good be seen as the collective good of a community. The way goodness was defined in the earlier days of mankind indicates that individual good was seen as a process to create collective good.

What is the Purpose of Goodness?

The purpose of goodness, regardless of what each religion and philosophy expects its adherents to do, is to ensure optimal functionality for the community — however large that community is.

Why then, has goodness been linked to religion and gods throughout mankind’s existence?

If you’ve noticed, there are many people in the world that don’t like other people’s rules. They are not concerned about the safety and well-being of others. Right now, that is perfectly played out in the number of people (internationally, but especially so in western countries) who refuse to wear masks because it inconveniences them.

For example, if people plan to marry partners they don’t appear to like very much, their claim that “we’ve been together a long time” may not come across as a convincing argument for a wedding. But what if that same person says that “God has brought this other person into my life”? That reason may be more readily accepted if the public hearing these words is already open to religious ideas. Source.

Essentially, the only way to convince some people is to tell them there is a god who is going to send them to hell, make them barren, remove their wealth, and pour every other misfortune that can be conceived upon them. Quite apart from humanity wanting answers to certain questions (why did that happen?), leaders used religion to control those who would not cooperate with the community. The safety and well-being of the community was essential to its survival.

I’m pretty convinced that is how religion was born.

My conclusion in all of this is that goodness (or benevolence) is a survival mechanism, and it can normally be figured out whether actions will have a positive or negative outcome. It just takes a willingness to accept that without the well-being of the community, the individual will not survive in the longer term.

Global citizen. Author. Thinker. Polymath. Climate change. Progressive. Loves photography, beauty, dancing, and believes benevolence is a survival mechanism.

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