The adage “one man’s meat is another man’s poison” is a good starting point when considering just what goodness actually is. For a number of definitions of good concern themselves with the agreeable feelings that come from enjoying something that we find pleasant: a good meal, for example, or meeting someone who is good looking and so on. In all such cases, it is solely personal preference that determines if something is good, or less than good. If good is purely personal, there would be nothing left to debate.
It is when we move into the area of virtue and morality types of good, that we are able to discard personal preferences and identify some underlying pattern. And this is the area I want to look at.
Even though standards of morality and ethics are invariably subjective, they contain common traits across individuals that allow us to discern how societies are able to come to a consensus on what conduct amounts to being virtuous, and what does not. Admittedly, differences in societies makes it impossible to have a single universal agreement on what amounts to virtuous conduct: the society of ancient Rome, say, was so different from modern San Francisco that the citizens of each have widely differing viewpoints on this topic.
I think the first and most obvious parameter in determining what meets a universal standard of a good act, is that it is not for oneself. No matter what good deed you do for yourself, it is self serving in one way or another, and all things that are self serving get eliminated from virtuous acts.
To such an extent, that if I do something that in all normal circumstances would count, if the motive for doing so is to gain some benefit for myself, then the self interest taints the act to the degree of taking away any virtuousness. It may be beneficial, it may be of immense aid to the recipient, but it is no longer the selfless act of charity that is at the heart of true good deeds.
Why should that be? Well, we have the evolutionary process that has given us a high degree of empathy, and a high degree of altruism. Tribes and packs with members who have these traits tend to survive longer than those that do not. Over time the stock increases its pool of high empathy and high altruism. Empathy and altruism are things that involves others, not our selves. It is these two traits that take self serving kindness out of the equation of what really counts.
To do unto others what you would want them to do unto you is known as the golden rule. This golden rule is not only present in every religion worthy of the name, it is the underlying behavior that strengthens all packs and tribes, of every color and kind. If religions had never become part of human life, the golden rule would have still been one of our driving forces. For we can see it in play in everything from aphids to elephants.
Society may temper our view of what may be included as a good deed, and religion tries to mold how we act and react to such deeds. But the deeds themselves are what makes us what we are.
For at the heart of every good deed is the recognition that another human being needs to be helped, and we are driven by a need to offer whatever help we are able to give.
Well – most of the time. A large number of us find the homeless to be a group of people who really ought to go to some other neighborhood, where we can avoid their eyes and not have to use the “they will use it on drugs” excuse when begged for loose change. They eat food that no one else wants? Animals! Run them out of town.
Sometimes doing the right thing is very hard. But it can be done, if you let your more base instincts take over. Even on the field of battle, soldiers have been known to give water to wounded enemies. Altruism does not always recognize uniforms.
So – here’s the deal. In the month of January, why do you not take on the challenge to do 26 random acts of kindness of a truly selfless nature? You might get some pleasant emotional feed back from doing so – and that is OK, pleasant emotion does not disqualify acts of random kindness. And the good citizens of Sandy Hook will not be directly aware of your acts, but if enough of us take part, they will feel the echo.