weover.me: Post #4: The Great Other

26 Jan

Posted by Ezra Roizen

By way of background, you can read my thoughts on faith here.

It’s important to note that this question is not asking if in order to be GOOD a person must believe in GOD. Instead, it’s asking if God is a PREREQUISITE for Good.

I say He isn’t.

That said, I do think it’s fascinating that, as we stated in our introductory post: “despite our constitutional separation of Church and State, the official motto of the United States is “In God We Trust.”  In Zorach v. Clauson (1952), the Supreme Court also held that the nation’s “institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

Our nation’s institutions presuppose a Supreme Being!   To me that’s mind blowing.  We’ve constructed our nation-on, and put our trust-in, an entity which no one can actually prove exists.


I attribute this to the fundamental need for what I’ll call a “Great Other” – that good behavior requires a focal point – a shared belief in something.   The reason Town Halls are often the tallest building around is because they are a symbol of society – a reminder to be good, because of the Great Other.  Why else would we have flag poles?

It could be said that communism made society the Great Other, but that was a circular reference and eventually the system imploded.  The Great Other must be other than we – it must be something different on which we can all focus.

It’s funny how many movies have the basic Independence Day theme of a divided world one day being attacked by aliens, then all of a sudden all of humanity unites because we realize that even with all of our differences, we’re better off uniting joining forces against the common foe.   We unite because of a Great Other.

In parallel, I think Good is a progression.  It can be optimized and perfected.

So the important question to me is “what factors increase the amount of good?”  How do we create an environment which promotes good behavior and demotes bad?  In an excellent TED talk on the morality of animals Frans de Waal defines the “Pilars of Morality” to be what he calls Reciprocity (with a subtext of Fairness) and Empathy (with a subtext of Compassion).

Fairness and Compassion seem like good pillars to me.  How do we promote fairness and compassion?

Well, the biggest challenge is that human brains are pretty limited.  We forget stuff all the time, and need constant reminders to do the right things – and consider all priorities at once.  This is why Great Other is so valuable.  Most of us want to be good, but our brains can only fit so much in, so we sort of forget to be good when other factors take up our processing capacity.

So a Great Other is a constant index.  It’s why people ask the question “What would Jesus do?”  The Great Other keeps us honest.  Its simplicity is its beauty.

But is God the optimal Great Other?  Is God the best mechanism for increasing good behavior?

I think not.

God without religion is vacant, and pretty much every religion I know is both comprehensive and exclusive.  Jesus said “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”  That’s pretty inflexible.  It means the only way to God is through Jesus.  What’s troubling is that on the cross Jesus also said: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  This leads me to believe that the Father and the Son may not always be on the same page.  Yet my only way to the Father is through the Son.

Given its exclusivity religion actually increases relativism in the name of absolutism, that is unless everyone all of a sudden joins the same religion – and given the idiosyncrasies of each I don’t see that happening, without, well, some (new) divine intervention.

Positing religion as the primary Great Other poses many challenges.  In the same way positing a nation has challenges as it’s also exclusive.  It’d be great if the Oakland A’s could be the global Great Other, but not everyone could get to the games, not even me if they move to San Jose.

What (or whom) is the Great Other to which we could all subscribe?

I propose the Earth as our global Great Other.  It’s something on which we can all focus, for which we can all be grateful, and over which we can all argue.  Good will be in the context of our Planet, and Planet-willing, when we occupy new planets, we’ll add them to our pantheon.

Would there be more or less Good if Earth was our Great Other?  Globally thanked, perfected, and celebrated.

I say yes!

I say God is not a prerequisite for good.  He may exist, but He’s not required.

But I do like the idea of a common Great Other –mOther Earth.

Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #4: You Cannot spell G-O-O-D without G-O-D



4 Responses to “weover.me: Post #4: The Great Other”

  1. ronroizen9 January 27, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

    The essay has some rhythm to it and good flow. But it is mostly a scattershot enterprise and supposition as arguments go. “In God We Trust” may be the U.S.’s official motto but God is mentioned nowhere in our cardinal document, the U.S. Constitution. Town halls may be tall buildings, but financial buildings are much taller these days. We may need a “Great Other,” but we may also not. Who knows whether secular people are on the whole more or less virtuous, law-abiding, or good than people with a theistic commitment? Oddly enough, Christian religion may undermine virtue too. For example, the Catholic commitment to Original Sin harbors an enduring belief in the fundamental sinfulness of man. It’s been argued too that people who premise their commitment to virtue on their aspiration to go to Heaven or avoid Eternal Damnation in you-know-where are actually missing the point of virtue altogether – i.e., that it is good for good’s sake alone. Hence, and in the end, I come away pretty unconvinced by the “Great Other” argument. But I enjoyed the screed. Thanks, Idaho

    • ezra roizen January 27, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

      Interesting that you say “Town halls may be tall buildings, but financial buildings are much taller these days.” I’d say that’s telling of the evolving battle for the supremacy of our optimal global Great Other. Church spires gave way to town halls, which in turn gave way to financial skyscrapers. The attack on the twin towers, and the ongoing global reply, being part of this struggle.

      Whereas I agree the determination of a single, global, Great Other *might* require more thought that this single blog, I do think you run the risk of being simultaneously naively optimistic that people will be consistently good solely for good’s sake – and cavalier in how you shrug off the role of Great Others in our world! But thanks for the comment – keep them coming!!!

  2. Demian March 2, 2013 at 10:48 am #

    “But I must at the very beginning lay down this principle—friendship can only exist between good men. I do not, however, press this too closely, like the philosophers who push their definitions to a superfluous accuracy. They have truth on their side, perhaps, but it is of no practical advantage. Those, I mean, who say that no one but the “wise” is “good.” Granted, by all means. But the “wisdom” they mean is one to which no mortal ever yet attained. We must concern ourselves with the facts of everyday life as we find it—not imaginary and ideal perfections. Even Gaius Fannius, Manius Curius, and Tiberius Coruncanius, whom our ancestors decided to be “wise,” I could never declare to be so according to their standard. Let them, then, keep this word “wisdom” to themselves. Everybody is irritated by it; no one understands what it means. Let them but grant that the men I mentioned were “good.” No, they won’t do that either. No one but the “wise” can be allowed that title, say they. Well, then, let us dismiss them and manage as best we may with our own poor mother wit, as the phrase is.

    “We mean then by the “good” those whose actions and lives leave no question as to their honour, purity, equity, and liberality; who are free from greed, lust, and violence; and who have the courage of their convictions. The men I have just named may serve as examples. Such men as these being generally accounted “good,” let us agree to call them so, on the ground that to the best of human ability they follow nature as the most perfect guide to a good life.”

    Excerpt From: Marcus Tullius Cicero. “Treatises on Friendship and Old Age.” iBooks.
    This material may be protected by copyright.

  3. Demian March 2, 2013 at 10:52 am #

    Continuing in next paragraph:

    “Now this truth seems clear to me, that nature has so formed us that a certain tie unites us all, but that this tie becomes stronger from proximity. So it is that fellow-citizens are preferred in our affections to foreigners, relations to strangers; for in their case Nature herself has caused a kind of friendship to exist, though it is one which lacks some of the elements of permanence. Friendship excels relationship in this, that whereas you may eliminate affection from relationship, you cannot do so from friendship. Without it relationship still exists in name, friendship does not. You may best understand this friendship by considering that, whereas the merely natural ties uniting the human race are indefinite, this one is so concentrated, and confined to so narrow a sphere, that affection is ever shared by two persons only or at most by a few.”

    Excerpt From: Marcus Tullius Cicero. “Treatises on Friendship and Old Age.” iBooks.
    This material may be protected by copyright.

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