Is it good to be good?
The obvious answer would seem to be “yes.” It is good to be good.
Think again. Is it good to be good or better to be smart? You would probably say good and smart!
Let us look at this issue a little more seriously. If it is so obvious that it is good to be good, or good and smart for that matter, how come, objectively speaking, goodness is so rare? How come we find it more inside us than outside of ourselves? How come the newspapers don’t have much of goodness to report and instead scream a different kind of headline every morning and ruin our day? How come we need to curse somebody all the time for something or the other? OK there are exceptions to prove the rule, but let’s leave out the exceptions for now.
One thing is certain. Being good is an ideal cherished by most people. Even some of the worst of criminals acknowledge this after a period of soul searching when remorse sets in and clears their vision. Of course there will always be a few who will say that they do not believe in being good, for reasons of their own, but they are a fringe minority. We will ignore these exceptions for the time being and focus on what the vast majority of common people like you and me think and believe.
What is “good”?
We need to be on the same page, so let us just be clear about what we mean when we say “good.” No, we don’t need to rush and list down all those attributes that make a person good, because it will not serve any purpose! For, there cannot be a universal definition that would be acceptable to everybody. For a terrorist outfit, a person willing to blow himself up will be "good", whereas for most people, he would be anything but good. OK, that may be an extreme example, but I am sure we can see the difference when it comes to a teetotaler’s view of somebody who enjoys his drink, or a devout believer’s view of a proclaimed atheist.
We all have our own view of “good” and will classify people according to that private yardstick. We ourselves will obviously come out well in any such evaluation and even if there are some glitches to be acknowledged here and there, we will have valid reasons for the deviation.
Therefore the central problem is that my definition will not agree with yours. The same problem as one man’s meat being another man’s poison. Actually, it may not be as hopeless a situation, if we are not so serious about it and instead discuss this issue in a general sort of way. Because then we can identify some sort of values that most people accept, like honesty in words, integrity in dealings, willingness to share and so on. Or we can say that being good would be to try to be like a child - since children are universally accepted to be “good”. With this kind of general understanding, we will have a working definition of “good” which can help us examine whether it is good to be good.
Problems with being good.
Let us first examine the problems with being good. I could think of a few and without any pretense of this being an exhaustive list, I welcome any additions that you may have in mind:
1. Smart vs good. Let’s say we have a situation where a person loses out to somebody who is cleverer and willing to cut corners. Let’s say the loser is also acknowledged to be a good man. What will our position be? “Oh, he is good but he should be smart – he cannot be naïve”. I see this quite often. Especially if you have a setup where morality has yielded pride of place to expediency, rampant corruption rules the roost and cutting corners is seen as being brilliant, then the good guy will lose before he begins and be told later to be smart like the others, thus throwing him into an inner conflict.
2. The end justifies the means. This is referred to as being effective, result oriented, dynamic and stuff like that. The fellow who wants to be good will pay equal or more attention to the means and find himself to be the loser.
3. Good means weak. Quite often you will find that the person who tries to be good is actually vulnerable. This is because the world knows the rules that he will play by and so it is easy to find the chinks. The person who has no such compelling need to be good has greater flexibility and more number of options in his arsenal. The others cannot take him for granted.
4. Never ending duels. Your trying to be good will naturally get you into friction with others who don’t care about it. Even if you manage to convert or subdue the person, you will come across another, and yet another, until life starts looking like a worthless and endless story of serial duels.
Why to be good?
Having seen the problems that we may encounter by being good, we need to think of the advantages and possible reasons for being good.
In absolute terms, this is pretty knotted up and unraveling isn’t easy unless we come onto a common platform by identifying what is best for us as a species and then decide on what being a good person means. But for now as a practical solution, we can think of making use of our working definition.
There can be many reasons why one should be good. It may be a religious reason – involving faith – which cannot and need not be subjected to logical scrutiny. Or it may be part of the effort to live up to the high standards of one’s family or to make oneself acceptable in society. Sometimes it is a personal decision to be a good person and do good things so as to feel good. Or it could be because, as William Pen said, “I expect to pass through life but once.If therefore, there be any kindness I can show, or any good thing I can do to any fellow being, let me do it now, and not defer or neglect it, as I shall not pass this way again”. There could be other reasons too but these are some of the common reasons. The important thing is that the reason for trying to be good should withstand the negativity created by all the problems that one may encounter in the process of trying to be good. The deeper the reason, the stronger the conviction, and the easier it is to face the problems.
How to be good?
First of all, we should realize that if the social, political, and governance systems created by us support our being good (in the way we understand the word) then it is pretty simple. All we need to do is try and adhere to our concept of good and be willing to pay the price if required. If our concept does not match the prevalent value systems, then it can be an arduous exercise and one should brace up for a rigorous pursuit of one’s goals.
The American Theologian, Tryon Edwards said that “to be good, we must do good; and by doing good we take a sure means of being good, as the use and exercise of the muscles increase their power.” So try and do good in various ways. It need not be big and it need not cost anything. Look around in your world for opportunities and you are sure to find a big heap of opportunities awaiting you.
It would be useful to have friends of your kind who share the same values so that you can share your joy and disappointments along the journey. If you can involve your family, then nothing like it.
Finally when you are trying to be good or doing good, it may help to not keep looking constantly for the payoffs. Being good and doing good is essentially nourishment for the spirit and when you look at it like that you will not be disheartened if the expected payoffs don’t come in.
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