“If good men were only better, would the wicked be so bad?”

– John White Chadwick

The problem with the concept of ‘goodness’ is that it defies easy understanding and application. Is the pilot in war who shoots down a record number of enemy aircraft, a ‘good’ person? Does he display the quality of ‘goodness’? As distinct from the same pilot who regularly visits his injured comrades in the military hospital? Later, as an aged and decorated war veteran, do his accomplishments still trump his being an abusive father in civilian life? And there are numerous other examples that show role-contradictions , e.g., criminals who in prison, start a glee club; a prostitute who works to feed and house her children, or, priests who sexually abuse young boys.

Of course, these are exceptions to the rule that the majority of people are law-abiding, respectable, responsible or morally adept, and not usually inconsistent about their personal ‘code’ of ethics. We expect our friends and neighbours to be ‘good’ in their public and private lives. And if they are ‘gracious’ (kind-hearted, amiable, considerate, polite, charitable, beneficent, etc.) then that’s a plus. 

So if my Thesaurus tells me that ‘goodness’ is a virtue, that it contains values such as probity, honesty, nobility, uprightness and righteousness, then an individual that only demonstrates goodness and graciousness should indeed be a model citizen. But of course no such person exists. We are human beings with fallibilities. We are flawed. We drive through stop signs, speed, allow noxious weeds to grow in our gardens, leave an insufficient tip for the waitress, cheat on tests, don’t pay our taxes on time, steal items from the office, skinny-dip at night at the cottage, feed our kids junk food, and spread rumours. We are not perfect. And we kill in the name of a higher power or cause, perhaps therefore making us heroes in the eyes of many, and murderers in the eyes of many.

Apparently, all we can do is to strive to be good and gracious. Common sense tells us that that behaviour has species-survival value. Altruism (being self-sacrificing, unselfish,humanitarian) is as aspect of goodness, and as such benefits all. Unfortunately, as Marc Hauser notes in Moral Minds, “Being nice entails a personal cost, and herein lies the paradox”. (p.359) Human psychology and genetics have demonstrated unquestionably that “there will always be an egoist looking out for number one”, a truism that modifies all good and gracious behaviour, and sinks ‘pure’ altruism below the depths of hope for constant sustainability. At the extreme, we are left with not only good and gracious people, but also with societies in which “infanticide, siblicide, and even suicide are all options, supported by none other than Mother Nature”. (p.361)

I am reminded and uplifted by Desiderata, which states, among other things, “Be yourself. Especially do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.” Goodness and graciousness are intuitively direct descendents of love (fondness, warmth, intimacy, passion, affection, care, etc.). I am of the opinion that were the media to resist mostly showing the darkest sides of human nature in news and movies, and lean more towards showing more goodness and graciousness, the human condition may improve. But this is just a wish. The greater hope is that love, goodness and graciousness will guide our thought and feeling processes against tendencies towards deceit, self-deception, trickery and violence – and leave us with unfettered bliss and prosperity.

This is a tall order. I think I will now go and hug my wife.

Hauser, M.D. (2006) Moral Minds: How Nature Designed Our Universal Sense of Right and Wrong. HarperCollins: New York