Posted by Bambi Francisco
There is a book titled “Is She The One?” I never read it, but I told someone who was curious about the book’s content that I could sum it up in two words: “Know yourself.”
In like vein, I think knowing “good” requires an ontological understanding of oneself. Knowing who we are, and the meaning of our existence, gives us purpose, reason and a sense of being from which we make decisions on how to be (or behave). Behaving is just following the rules. The essence of good is much more.
Before I begin, I want to make clear – as Ezra and Bart have – that the God camp isn’t saying the god-less cannot be good. God does not stand between humans and loathsome behavior. Some of the kindest people I know are atheists, or agnostics. The question is: could there be good at all if God didn’t exist?
I’ll try to explain why God is the best source of good, rather than humanity’s ability to genetically evolve as well as construct our own values of right and wrong.
Here are my postulates:
1) Nature: We are born with an understanding of a basic good (protecting our kind) and evil (selfishness). But the essence of good is not biological in nature (to the dismay of the god-less), and it is what separates us from animals.
2) Nurture: True goodness comes from humility, which comes from knowing there is something greater than ourselves, namely God. We are a product of our environment and learn through families, movies, books, etc. God (incarnate through Jesus Christ) is the quintessential example of humility.
Let me start with a definition of good: one less descriptive, rather more normative. In other words, good that transcends time and geography – in many ways, a good we share with other animals. There are few of those, especially agreed upon by all, though one seems plausible: it is goodness that drives each of us to protect ourselves and our tribe.
It is not good that emerges from cultural and social norms, such as believing it’s good for women to cover themselves from head to toe to show chastity, or that same-sex marriage is good, or that it’s good not to separate black, brown, and white people; or that eating non-caged eggs is good.
It is an innate good, such as choosing to be with someone who makes you feel safe, that is evident as early as three months (60 Minutes report “Babies help unlock origins of morality”).
But this notion of protection and self-preservation isn’t the entirety of goodness. Animals protect their own. If good was only to protect our tribe, we’d be driven by self-interest, which could lead to cutting lines, cheating on taxes, to slavery and horrific acts of genocide.
There must be something else that counters self-interest, or selfishness (also found evident by three months old (60 Minutes report)). Call it what you will: a selfish gene or a sinful nature. It exists.
Evolutionary biologists would hold up their long-held tenet that there is a genotype allowing humankind to show altruism and sacrifice, particularly toward their own kind. This altruism – jumping on a grenade to protect our fellow soldiers or offering our life for our child’s – also known as “kin selection” is what allows society to bind together. Many biologists would argue that this altruism is driven by selfish motives: the innate drive to pass on genes.
Another view brings group selection back into vogue. In a book titled “The Social Conquest of Earth,” by biologist Edward O. Wilson, Wilson postulates that an altruistic gene comes from environmental pressures” that began “selecting for traits that increasingly drew group members into cooperative relationships.” Selfish individuals may beat altruistic ones, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish people.
Unfortunately, for the god-less team, both views remain challenged, with the first having a paucity of evidence supporting it.
And, altruism based on selfish motives leads to the destruction of civilization. If we are designed to favor our own kind, then what are our chances of attaining global harmony? Ironically enough, human self-interest may be so sophisticated and deceitful that it could create faux relationships to attain harmony, though only temporary and fleeting. Think about how nations have aligned themselves in cooperation or competition over the last 50 years. Think about how the Predator was our enemy, until the aliens came along. There will always be an enemy.
With regards to the latter, this “group” think only explains what is good for each group, but not the collective whole. If one group violates another, it may be seen as good or bad by either side. At best, both sides eventually agree (temporarily). At worse, it’s tribal protectionism that leads to genocide. Those who say good is just a form that exists independently as an action that’s neither right or wrong until human’s label it as such, to them the question is: Do you feel injustice when you hear of such atrocities like the Bosnian War (‘92-‘95), or Rwanda (’94).
Were the Hutu groups that carried out the massive killings of 500,000 Tutsi right or good because the Tutsi tried to kill them? Was it self-defense, hence good, at least in their eyes? I think we can agree that human rights were violated. Sure. We have to know more. But even if the Hutu group was disenfranchised and threatened, and saw their kind killed, would you feel it was OK for them to blindly kill any Tutsi? Is that ever good? Most of you would think not.
If so, do you feel this way because society has come to a level of civility and appreciation of human dignity that marks such acts as horrific and wrong? And then if you also agree to that statement, how have we come to agree? In a world of subjectivity, how can we ever agree? How do we ever unite?
Now it doesn’t mean we’ll never reach universal harmony, it just would suggest the evolution of our genes will not get us there.
There is something far more than natural selection at work. The human brain is not just a “linearly scaled-up monkey brain” which will continue to evolve from whence we came, suggesting that chimpanzees will one day reach an enlightened or abstract understanding as ours.
Much as I liked Planet of the Apes, I hesitate to believe that these anthropoid mammals will ever be nominated to the Supreme Court or win a Medal of Honor. Even Frans de Waal, a famous ethologist who provides extensive biological research that would support the evolutionist cause, would say that what “sets human morality apart is a move towards universal standards, combined with an elaborate system of justification, monitoring and punishment… We scientists are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work… But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.”
There is something that separates humans from animals. There is a different type of altruism that comes, as Jason touched on, from our sense of being.
Ezra talks about a Great Other. Bart refers to a standard bearer, a reference point, something other that helps humanity decipher good from bad. Immanuel Kant has the concept called categorical imperative. They all are pretty much in alignment. There is more than, as Socrates would put it, “the sun-lit world of the senses to be good.”
As you can imagine, being in awe of a “Great Other” – a mountain peak, the depths and the rage of the ocean, or a god – is a great driver of humility.
The earth, however, doesn’t call us to worship or love it first. If it did, there would be very different interpretations of what the earth wants. And, that would lead to relativism, which is flawed because it denies any truth to any position. There is no one speaking for the earth. As far as I know the Lorax doesn’t exist.
But God commands our attention. There’s no mincing words or meaning when it comes to the commandments: Thou shall have no other Gods before me. It’s unequivocal. It’s absolute.
This means, we love Him before we love anyone else including ourselves, our spouses and our children. This sense of worship of something “other than” takes our mind away from the “me.” This authority over us reminds us that we have a duty and a purpose, not of our own. When we have this ontological view of our life, we are wired with a motivation that is beyond compare.
Good is defined through the prism of humility, which is often counter to many other worldviews.
For those who don’t believe in a “Great Other” or a god, ask yourself what drives you to be good?
Many people look to the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do to you.” Or maybe they look to self-improvement books that encourage them to “learn to love themselves” because loving yourself first leads to happiness. And, as it were, happy people generally do good things. I also like this one: “Start telling yourself that you are kind.”
But all of these exercises are ultimately self-serving. And, being self-serving may serve you well, but never everyone.
Where then do we learn about humility? When we realize the world is not full of equals and we’re not as fast, or rich, or beautiful or smarter than some? Our parents? Fairytales? Gandhi? Mother Teresa? All of the above?
I would argue that one of the quintessential examples of humility and one that resonates throughout the secular world and has been a prime influencer on how we view servitude, humility and goodness is the agent of God himself, who Christians would say, rides a donkey and wears rags. If you don’t believe how the world changed after that story weaved itself into our lives, just look at the time of Augustine and the pagan world and see how morality was shaped thereafter.
Even the staunchest of atheists cannot hide under a rock and avoid having heard or been influenced by stories, such as the Good Samaritan.
Whether we choose to believe it or not, we’ve been touched by this message. There is a message. Someone is peaking to us, whether we choose to hear it or not. There are two goods. Good for me. Good for we. Good for me makes me no better than an animal. Good for we requires something much greater than I.
Leave a comment and/or proceed to post #8: Minimalist in my belief system