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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Necessary Distinctions II: Being Better Vs. Being Good

Running Towards The Goal
You're doing it wrong (Running Towards The Goal - Erland Sibuea)
Don't let the pure be the enemy of the good.
- Any asshole with an agenda
You can only be a better (or worse) person in relation to something else.

Being good, however, is only on its own terms. Indeed, a "good" person is often considered to be quite "bad" to his/her contemporaries.

Goodness, or Truth, has no relationship with anything. It stands alone, timeless and enduring, unmoved and unafflicted by the considerations of the day.

Since existence itself involves being trapped within the amber of time, even very smart people who have resolved this question can forget the distinction between "better" and "good" from time to time.

The undeniably brilliant Ian Welsh stepped into it a bit this week with The Moral Calculus of the Woolwich Murder:
So, a man killed a soldier in Woolwich London by hacking his head off.

That’s bad.

But on the scale of bad, immoral things, it ranks very low.

The murderer took the time to kill someone in the military. He did not target civilians.

This makes him superior, morally, to the Boston bombers...
Now I understand what Ian was getting at here, and within the context of that understanding, I am somewhat in agreement with him. Lest a larger point about morality be lost however, I responded:
Placing my objection on record.

I respect that you make a legitimate point overall, Ian, and I’ll concede (some) that it needs to be made.

But I’ll not concede that morality is on such a sliding scale, because that is a slippery slope, indeed (yes, I generally dislike slippery-slope arguments.) Murder wrong. The stridency of using “superior” in this context cries out for my objection...
I hope it's not necessary to point out that these are truncated excerpts of the beginning of a conversation, and Ian's post at least deserves more attention. I am pleased that a conversation was provoked and, aside from a few with hopelessly entrenched opinions and prejudices, some value was achieved. I have, for the most part, bowed out of the conversation and decided to explore the fundamental problem over here at my place.

Especially since I don't think that Ian Welsh was attempting to discuss absolute morality in the first place - that's really my itch (though I am always concerned with, and often detect, the confusion between the relative and the absolute.)

That said - certainly the subject touched a nerve, as Ian was moved to post in uncharacteristically rapid succession some posts that are, in my personal assessment, rather defensive. Wonderful, and they all deserve a look, along with the threads of each:
Wanting To Be A Better Person

"Wanting to be a better person" sounds pretty good. The desire to be a good person is often expressed in such a way. The construct, however, of making an achievement out of being a good person has ramifications that need serious attention.

Being a good person, and becoming a good person, are two entirely different things. Different enough that it can be said that one has no actual relationship with the other. This can be difficult to grasp, and it is not just a matter of syntax and semantics - understanding the difference goes to the very heart of what it means to be "good."

If one is interested in such things. For many of us, "becoming better" is a vocation that will fill the entirety of our life. I can increase my intelligence, my strength, my fitness, my relationship with my neighbors, my family. I can become more productive, I can be a help to my community rather than a burden, I can reduce my impact on the environment, I can build a better mousetrap. These are all fine and admirable pursuits, on a sliding scale of more-or-less, depending on who the observer is and what that observer's agenda may be, but they have absolutely nothing to do with being a good person.

A Good Person...?

What is a "good person?" Ah, there's a rub. One of the problems with a question like that is the minute you work up a definition, then you have at the same time defined a yardstick against which "goodness" can be measured. And yardsticks change according to the verities of time and fashion. We are trying to avoid such vulgarity when we speak of a "good person."

At this point, we must either conclude with the cynical and nihilistic opinion that all is relative and exit the conversation, or concede that there is indeed a mysterious and unmeasurable aspect to morality (as you may have noticed, nothing particularly original is being said here) that is not well-served by an evolutionary approach to it.

In that, one cannot move from somewhat good, to better, and to better, and to good.

In that, a man who bloodies himself upon the body of a soldier has not incrementally achieved a closer proximity to the hem of God* than if he had taken his grievance out upon an "innocent civilian."

True goodness is - full stop! - only in one place, in an immovable center that permeates any peripheries that the imagination creates in evoking a "center" at all.

It is not subject to the vagaries of circumstance or of time, though it will be treated differently depending on those vagaries. One may be lauded or one may be crucified depending on those vagaries, but there is no judgment that can be placed upon it.

Some things are "better" than others, but such things should not be confused with being "good." And while I do not mean to reflexively disparage the effort to be better, to make a better world, I would be remiss if I did not point out that a life dedicated solely to such concerns is a life wasted.

Oh, yes... what is a good person? There is no "good person." There is only Good. One either defers to that fact, or one doesn't.


*God is, of course, always a metaphor.

1 comment:

  1. Michael,
    Hi. I like your thoughts on this ‘good’ subject.

    This is off topic but here is a gift for you:
    I don’t know why but when I watched Jake I thought you would enjoy him too.


I welcome all reactions and points of view, so comments here are not moderated. Cheerfully "colorful" language is great. I'll even tolerate some ad hominem directed against me... each other, not so much. Racist or excessively abusive comments (or spam) will be deleted at my discretion.