08 January 2009

On Goodness

A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon a universal definition for ‘good’. I didn’t intend to do that: it popped up while I was writing on another topic. The definition that came to me was the measure of how well we fare when compared to our ideals. This definition makes it both objective and relative, in that you can use the same standard to understand the word “good” when it is being applied to a variety of situations.

For instance, say I had an uncle who I described as a good mechanic. This means that this uncle of mine comes very close to meeting the standards of an ‘ideal’ mechanic (the ones I can think of, anyway): he is extremely knowledgeable about all automobile matters; he is deft with his hands and always strives to prevent accidents; he treats his customers fairly, and he is creative at figuring out what the problems are with a car when the customer has a problem. Good’s opposite, “bad”, is a measure of how poorly we fare when we compared to our ideals. The bad mechanic, then, would possess limited knowledge, would be clumsy, would cheat his customers, would do his work sloppily, and so on. This does not mean the mechanic is a bad person -- just a bad mechanic. (Of course, if he is cheating his customers, I would not wager that he is a good person.)

I can apply this approach to any matter, I believe, and it works. I use it to understand why people say the things they do. We can see the reason why people from different systems of thought frequently come into opposition: their definitions of "good" vary. The reality that "good" is dependent on individual perceptions is objectionable to many, who strive for Absolutes. This is a topic I've written on before -- but even if someone were to set up an absolute code, goodness would still be dependent on independent perceptions, because "absolute" laws have to be interpreted by individual people. A good example of this is one of the Jewish "Ten Commandments", "Thou Shalt Not Kill". What does that mean? Ask five different people and you will probably arrive at five different answers. That statement has given rise to pacifist interpretation, vegetarian interpretation, only-in-self-defense interpretation, if-there's-a-just-war interpretation and a well-if-god-tells-you-to-it's-OK interpretation. Even as something as basic as "thou shalt not kill" is subject to a wide amount of interpretation. How many more interpretations are there for more complex codes of behavior?

Interestingly, based on this approach, I can see how people can come into conflict with themselves. If they are judging themselves by two separate sets of ideals, those ideals might conflict. For example, let's take a soldier who holds himself to the idea that you shouldn't kill. Another ideal he has, though, is that one should serve his country -- so he joins the Army and is taught to kill. He goes to a place like Afghanistan, for instance, and has to shoot people who attack him. He's taking life: he's betraying his ideals. The result would be self-conflict, but because his ideals are subject to his purposes, he rewrites the rules to make murder not-murder: he makes it self-defense. But what if he has to attack someone on suspicion that they might attack him, like say a checkpoint? Then he has taken life without actually being attacked, or even knowing he was attacked. Self-conflict ensues unless he is able to rewrite the terms once more, to justify it to himself somehow. There are many other opportunities for self-conflict: a businessman who tries to provide for his family and create a good business without mistreating his employees or cheating his customers with shoddy equipment: a lawyer who provides defense to someone she knows is guilty: an idealistic preacher who tries to keep a couple together even though the man is beating the woman, a young woman who has an abortion because she knows she can't provide a good life for a potential infant, or because it would be born with severe birth defects, and so on. In each instance, one ideal is conflicting with another.

Also, using this approach, we can see how people can come into conflict with one another and each party think of themselves as "right": We can see conflict between multiple "rights", and this is a very uncomfortable idea to live with. Take the immigration issue, for instance: I don't see a battle between the unconsciously illegal immigrants and the hard-working people who are being shut out of their jobs. I see a tragic conflict of rights: the immigrants, in my view, have a right to feed their families -- and so do the people who they are accidentally displace. Look at the American War of Independence: from the British perspective, the colonists had cost the Realm money because of their aggressive settling of Indian territory, leading to the necessity of the British defending the colonies, and the subsequent expense of it. The colonists were expected (fairly, from their perspective) to help pay for the expenses of maintaining an army. And yet from the colonial perspective, I can understand why they would resent the sudden imposition of financial burden. I understand both sides: I can support neither over the other.

I began writing this to share my definition of goodness, but I see this train of thought is not yet ended. I believe the definition I propose -- goodness being how well we fare when measured against our ideals -- is quite workable, and shows the origin of conflicts. I want to write on how we can greatly mitigate self-conflict and interpersonal conflict, but that will have to wait for another time: it strikes me as an important enough issue to merit its own post.

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