Wednesday, August 6, 2008

"Basically Good"


The phrase "people are basically good" stimulates a bunch of different thoughts in my mind as I try to make sense of it.

What does it mean to be "basically good"? Is good our default? Do we naturally have a tendency to do good rather than evil? If so, then what causes us to do evil? Does the influence of society cause us to do evil? If so, why is society influencing us to do evil, when society is made up of people who are basically good? Additionally, if we are basically good, why can't we resist the evil influences around us?

If we are good and society is influencing us to do evil, do we get all the credit for doing a good and society gets the blame when we do evil? That feels a little convenient. How do we know it's not the other way around? Someone had to teach us to do good, after all. Are we, in the end, just a complex series of reactions to stimulation? If so, then how can anyone be called good or evil? How can any action be called good or evil?

Of course, before we can enter into meaningful discussion about any of this, we have to figure out how to address another part of the equation: "Good."

What does it mean to be good? How do we know when something is good and something is evil? Does the majority determine what good is? For awhile, in some southern states of the U.S., the majority thought it was good to use kidnapped human slave labor. Does that mean it was good?

Do we all just decide individually and somehow we're all right? What about the hijackers on 9/11? They probably thought that what they were doing was good. Who are we to be critical of their beliefs? How can we be so sure that what they were doing wasn't good? Maybe they would have said, "I'm sorry, everyone on the plane today. But I simply must follow my heart and do what it tells me to."

So maybe there are some bad apples in the bunch, who just spent too much time around "society" and were ultimately influenced to become evil. (And let's remember that we haven't defined "evil" yet, either.)

Okay, for the sake of discussion, let's assume that serving others before ourselves is considered "good". Giving priority to others instead of pleasing ourselves first is a good quality. A standard we should all aspire to if we want to do "good".

Now let's ask the question: "Why don't we serve others more than ourselves?" Why is self-sacrifice so highly regarded if we are all basically good and have tendencies toward this trait? If we are all basically good, self-sacrifice should be common and mundane. It shouldn't make the "human interest" segment of the six o'clock news. We shouldn't need to aspire to it. We should just be confused when someone does not behave according to this trait.

But every day we serve ourselves. We don't sell all of our toys and give the money to help feed starving children. We don't offer to cancel our movie or gaming plans so that our husbands or wives can relax while we watch the kids. We don't take our friend out to lunch or a movie because we want to buy that comic book or video game on Wednesday. We don't hand the remote to the person next to us and say, "Here. You pick something to watch."

Don't get me wrong. Of course we've been known to do these things. But are all of them the default for all of us? I might be good at taking friends to lunch. But I wanna watch my show. Is it rare for me to cancel my movie plans so that I can clean the house for my wife, long before she even asks me to? If our natural tendency is to be good, why is it so difficult to consistantly think about pleasing others before pleasing ourselves?

So maybe we aren't "basically good". (A term I still haven't been able to define.) Maybe we're basically... evil? Not basically murderers, cheaters, rapists, physical abusers and thieves. If those are the only activities classified as evil, then maybe we are all "basically good". But we can probably agree that selfishness is not good. Does that make it... neutral? At this point, someone might say, "It's just being human." But that feels a little like avoiding the "E" word. (Another one we haven't clearly defined yet.)

So while it sounds good and feels nice to say that we are all basically good, it's really a nonsense statement until we define good and evil. Once we've done that we can movie forward.

But I still wouldn't put money on "Basically Good."

-Paeter Frandsen

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