Goodness is and has been a topic widely talked about for a long time. However, it seems to me that the majority of the modern population are either unclear on what it means to be good or think it is an outdated and/or uninteresting topic. I believe this issue is not only the savior to our current collapse of moral foundations but it also the pillar that survives the crumbling of those foundations. To begin to talk about the age old topic of goodness, however, we have define what goodness means and we have to refute the claim of moral relativism that states that being good is a subjective opinion based off of cultural values. In other words, I will argue that there are objective values and that science can determine what these are. In addition I want to argue on why being good is important and will do so after defining what being good really means.
We are all thrown into this life having no clue what is happening and it becomes up to us to figure out not only the important questions to be asking but also to try to find some kind of answer to these questions. Everyone finds different ways to pursue this but whatever path we may take or have taken they all center around one thing: lessening suffering for yourself and/or others by some means. We are all posed this problem when we come into this world: We experience suffering and we are trying to lessen it. As we get older and upon the personal discovery of empathy we have two choices: extend these efforts to others by means of compassion or we can block out the suffering of others and ignore it. When we choose to block it out, however, often times this leads to an increase in our own suffering because we are constantly around others and working together is a better method than all individuals working alone. People are often reluctant or not as motivated to help people who don’t seem to be trying to help anyone else. On the same front people are also less likely to want to be around people who only seem concerned with their own well being. These two facts about our nature give us an insight into how we may start to relieve suffering: work together in the best interests of everyone.
This statement is not only a directive to take in life but the fundamental moral value and the core of what it means to be good. While there may be a lot of people who don’t seem to be living by this there are also a lot of people who are. It is arguable that one of the main points of religious and spiritual traditions throughout history is just this: to organize and to work together to relieve the suffering of the world. Unfortunately as the world developed in a less connected way than we currently exist many of these traditions expanded and matured separate from the knowledge of other traditions existing. By the time these differing religions and spiritual traditions came into contact with each other they were so evolved on so many nuanced specifics that a clash was inevitable as, rightly so, everyone was concerned with the fundamental issue but, unjustly so, each thought they were completely correct about theirs. As we know this caused some of the greatest conflicts humans have ever participated in. How ironic that traditions focused on lessening suffering are now causing it in fights over the wording of the same fundamental values.
Fast forward to the modern day and we are still seeing this type of thing continue. People can generally agree that we should be attempting to lessen suffering in the world but there is a scarce agreement of how that should be done. In today’s environment not only are religions and other spiritual traditions taking place in these arguments but our governments and politicians are doing the same. Some may argue that the reason this occurs is because differing cultures value different things as suffering however I starkly disagree that this is what is important in this discussion. Not only can science tell us about what is important when it comes to suffering but the consistencies that play out across religious and spiritual traditions show that some kind of objective strand runs throughout all of humanity when it comes to the topic of suffering and the lack thereof. With these combined piles of evidence it becomes clear that while different cultures and even the spiritual traditions themselves value different methods of attempting to make life better there are inherently some methods and ways of viewing things that are better and more effective. In other words: the arguments of moral relativism are completely irrelevant in pretty much any conversation other than the anthropological study of cultures.
Now that we’ve established that being good is something that is objective let’s pause for a second and look at this phrase “to be good”. There seems to be a view that I think is extremely toxic that pervades a great deal of how we assess others that ignores the nature of what being good means. The view I’m referencing is the view of good and evil people. To be good is something that comes from a subjective, individual experience and manifests itself in the objective shared reality through actions and speech and how we make our livelihood. In other words it’s what we DO that decides if we are being good. Therefore someone could, in theory, cause terrible things for the first 50 years of their life yet one day could start causing good things to happen. At that point we couldn’t look at their current actions and say they’re a bad or evil person because of the things they’ve previously done or are doing but instead it would be more appropriate to say they’ve done bad actions and now they are doing good ones.
Now that we know what being good means let’s look a little more closely at why it’s important. There is a strong strain of nihilistic philosophy running through the current culture stating that nothing matters in the end so there is no reason to do one thing over the other. This view, while maybe partially true, still leaves us questioning what exactly to do. Because we as humans do suffer and that matters to us, even if it’s just our individual suffering, and we are compelled to relieve it because suffering is just inherently bad. This simple, easily observable fact of our experience shows us that while nothing may matter in the end there are things that will matter as long as sentient beings exist and therefore there are reasons to choose certain paths of action over others.
We all care about our own suffering and we have the ability to realize that others’ suffering matters as well. This empowers us as a species to excel and achieve great things in terms of human well-being. If we blatantly ignore these obvious facts or perpetuate philosophies like moral relativism and nihilism as a whole truth that decides how we should act we will continue a free-fall in a confused society and will not make the progress we have the potential to. The possibilities we as a species hold are spectacular but it is still up to us to hold ourselves and others to these realities that enable us to lessen the suffering of ourselves and all sentient beings.