Saturday, 16 April 2016

"Being Good" is weirdly difficult

Angel and Devil on Shoulder by Hamera

Generally, I think, we're all trying to do the best we can and navigate complex social webs to try to do the most reasonable, decent thing at any point in time. That can get tough sometimes and it's something that requires constant thought and care and even after all of that there are times when I screw up and end up doing or saying something dumb or hurtful. That's just life, and I'm not complaining, but in contrast to the complexities of daily life I sometimes feel a little talked-down-to by the tone of religions that are like "Be Good!" and that's the end of it.

So here's my problem, and here's what I'm trying to figure out...

Being Good is mostly described as a set of virtuous actions

Take the 'The Sermon on the Mount' (Matthew Chapter 5, specifically) for example. It's actually one of the better examples I've found of real deep, meaningful commentary that you can really get into. It's full of actual, tangible directives that you can then sit and meaningfully discuss and weigh out and bounce ideas against to see what sticks.

There's a bunch of directives toward the end about 'If someone hits you, turn the other cheek', and 'Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you...' that I'm having specific trouble with, in that they paint a certain image of "Goodness" that revolves around certain actions. But the actions themselves are meaningless on their own because depending on your intention they could have vastly different impacts; they could even be weaponized into some passive-aggressive tactic in skilled-enough hands. For example if someone hits you and then you turn the other cheek but with enough of a glare in your eye the attacker might very well realize that you've now marked him for a lifelong grudge... it might've been kinder (to both of you) to just hit him back in that moment and be done with the whole thing instead of it turning into a blood feud.

Obviously that previous bit is a contrived example but what I mean is that the injunction to "Be Good" is troublesome in the way that "Be Modest" or "Be Humble" is troublesome. In the sense that as soon as you say "I'm a humble person." out loud, you are by definition not humble. Similarly, trying to be good is already self-defeating in the sense that it's a sort of a pretense... and this becomes troublesome because (to bring it back to a religious context) you're told to actually be good or it's pointless, God isn't particularly of the "Fake it till you make it" self-help mentality.

So it might seem that "Being Good" is an impossible task but there's plenty of benefits to being a good person, which mainly revolve around the fact that...

People generally like Nice people.

Clearly you'd be a fool to not be a good person if you could. Good people are generally more loved and respected, and being nice to a person who's being an asshole to you might actually be a disarming move that gets them to leave you alone. Or at the very least it might draw allies to your side against this other person who's specifically casting himself as the villain. At a larger level, companies as well are now finding that doing the right thing is more profitable.

But again, the contradiction stares you right back in the face: people who do nice things because it's beneficial are called psychopaths and shunned and that's seen as the worst possible kind of manipulation. Similarly if companies do something nice but that seems like a PR stunt it can backfire terribly. It seems we recognize that there's a high value in genuineness and put a high premium on it but we have no idea how to be genuinely good. In other words...

We need to try to be good, but not try too much... I guess? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

So think about walking for a moment... infact, think about how much you don't need to think about walking. When you need to go somewhere, you just move your legs and walk there; that's how amazing we are at it. And hence it'd be ridiculous to think overmuch about proper walking technique, it's one of the few things we're really physically built for as humans. (Unless you have a physical issue that needs treatment or surgery, but I mean generally speaking). 

I want to be as good at Being Good as I am at walking, basically... that would be a sort of "Natural Goodness" and that would be genuine and nice and I wouldn't have to worry that maybe my motivations were possibly suspect and that I was possibly deluding even myself.

But in the meantime all I can do is try... to... not try to be good? Lol lemme know if you figure this one out. (-.-)'


  1. This article reminds me of a conversation in Fargo TV series : when Molly says to his father "you are a good man" , and he replies " I don't know about that, but I would like to think I have good intentions ". So when you wrote " I wouldn't have to worry ....", it's sort of same thing. In simple terms I believe "Being Good" is not having a crisis of conscience & your intentions are good irrespective of what the actions results in.
    But I don't subscribe to your view of "Natural Goodness ", goodness can be learnt & practiced like any other human actions. In fact that's what distinguishes us from other living beings - our conscience & ability to manage it. So saying you should be "naturally good" else it doesn't matter is somehow against the whole concept of Humans as higher species..
    On the other hand whether you do good to feel good or without anything in return is a matter of perception. Why shouldn't I feel good when I do good just like I feel bad when I do bad?

    Bottom line: Socrates famously said " unexamined life is not worth living" , so saying goodness should come naturally or it doesn't matter is living animalistic life��

    1. I don't think that's exactly what I was saying that we should be 'naturally good' or else it doesn't matter. Let me explain.

      Yes as humans we have the ability to self-reflect and change our behaviours. But at the same time, we're also finite beings with limited attention and limited energy. Hence we have a limited number of 'decision credits' available per day that we have to use sparingly.

      The thing is that if we were to consciously try to be good all the time, we'll get mentally exhausted. What I'm suggesting would be a worthy goal is to try and change our habits so that our natural instinct is to do the right thing. That way being good (whatever that means to you) will become as natural and effortless as something like walking.

      I chose walking as a metaphor because it was also an activity that we once sucked at and over time and with practice it's now a thing we do unconsciously. That's what I mean by striving to achieve natural goodness.