Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be good.
There’s no particular impetus for this, but I’ve stumbled upon a few things that I think might be of interest to people, and help explain some of the things that I believe could make the world a better place.
Goodness is difficult to define, but it’s easy to define evil: doing intentional harm.
Goodness, then, as the opposite of evil, can be loosely defined as doing intentional benefit.
I’m not some epic sage for the ages (or at least I don’t have pretenses of being one), but that’s a sufficient starting point to move onto my next idea.
We live in a day and age where power is feared. Power corrupts, we are told, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
However, there are very few people who give up power to pursue goodness. There are some, admittedly, who like Tolstoy give up everything and go after a state of renewed innocence, but the ascetic route doesn’t work for most people.
I personally don’t even think it’s necessarily good: there are noble ideas behind it, but it’s disastrous in execution.
If we look at the story of Genesis, there’s a moment in creation where humans are little more than God’s perfect creations; made in His image, but not capable of defying Him.
It is the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that grants this decision making quality, and it is quite often described as having the potential for both good and evil.
This is a key point not just of the transformation of humanity in a practical sense (since evil now exists in the world, where it had not before), but also a metaphysical transformation.
Before the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was tasted, humans had only one job: to exist in companionship with God. It was innocence in its most perfect form.
Being powerless, especially by choice, is akin to this state of innocence. Orthodox Christian beliefs indicate that this state of innocence will happen after God returns to purify and save the world, and many utopian thinkers have drawn on a notion that they can achieve this sanctification of humanity on earth (this is not unique to Christianity; similar tenets exist in Eastern religions and in a variety of philosophies).
The problem lies in the fact that evil (defined, for reference, as intentionally caused harm) is a very real presence in the world. We can see its results, certainly, all around us; the decay and entropy of the world push people toward it, and the consequences both of action and inaction can be dramatic. Increasingly we have moved toward social schemes and political machines that attempt to remove the symptoms of evil from our world.
If you’re an optimist or a (little-r) romantic, you might preach that the power of good will always triumph over evil. If you’re a utopian, you might try to remove evil as a force entirely. More dangerously, you might try to hide the outcomes of evil without doing anything to confront it.
I must confess that I am not an optimist. Evil is real, and it often “wins” from certain perspectives. The horrors of the 20th century, and the incredible displays of evil it contained, show that even though we might see some momentary waves of goodness, we’ll never fully eradicate evil, and we’re very prone to forgetting what it matters.
But I’m also not a utopian, and I don’t like hiding evil. There are millions–maybe even billions–of bodies that ought not to be buried. We move on, planning and scheming, trying to forget that humanity is capable of error.
However, we’re also capable of good, and I believe power is the only way to achieve goodness.
I don’t mean any one sort of power.
Power and Restraint
The pursuit of power has proven tragic more often than not, and people trying to be good without fully realizing what it means to be good can wind up committing evil acts and denying their nature, engaging in self-deception and becoming corrupt. This is especially likely when people focus on one type of power over all others (e.g. “I need to be President so I can fix X”) or view power as a zero-sum game and feel they need to take it from others. Making decisions for others on a large-scale is a great example of something that can cause “good” in the world, but also lead to a lot of damage in the long run, either because the decisions were faulty or the mechanisms of gaining power will later be abused (or, worse yet, both!).
Pursuing power must follow, not precede a pursuit of wisdom and discernment. Power must be checked by understanding, a realization that good intentions alone are not enough to protect from evil (and, for that matter, avoid doing actions that lead to or enable evil), and those who pursue power must take every care to ensure that their methods of doing so do not constitute evil themselves.
For instance, violence never leads to power without bringing evil. I am not trying to argue for pacifism, however: there may be times when those with power need to use force to stave off evil.
However, let us consider for a moment the implications of this. If I were to use force (and force and violence are intrinsically linked) to become the only provider of electricity because I provide clean power, and my opponents provide power that is dirty, I’m gaining my power through corrupt, evil means.
I place upon myself the responsibility for all of the consequences of my actions. If I am unable to supply enough power, people may die. This doesn’t even necessarily consider the people who lose things because of the force that I exert upon them (or convince someone else to exert upon them). Perhaps they recognize that their actions could be damaging the world, but they are doing everything in their power to redress these concerns, or have done a thorough analysis and found that the damage is not in excess of the benefits.
On the other hand, those who prepare themselves ahead of time and bring power into their possession through means that do not impose on others through independence, self-reliance, cooperation, and voluntary exchange have prepared themselves to be free to use their power in ways that directly confront evil.
Take, for instance, someone who uses a firearm to stop a mass shooter. It would be nothing short of an argument for society-scale suicide to say that their actions are evil. They are using threatened (if the shooter surrenders) or real violence to put an end to evil actions occurring around them.
The Christian faith teaches that the “meek shall inherit the earth”, and we hear that a lot when people talk about using force and power. After all, power reflects ambition and ambition can be a path to evil. This falls apart when one considers that in Greek, the word that is often translated as “meek” (πραεῖς [praeis]) refers to the notion of power under restraint.
Naturally, something can be said for imposing restraints on those who lack them, but this needs to be done with utmost care and caution. It must be a process of reaching a conclusion that unfitness has been demonstrated, not a lack of demonstrated fitness, as the restraint needed to responsibly exercise power is often an internal quality and not easily assessed by outsiders.
The absolute destruction of a person’s power (self-inflicted via ascetic lifestyle or not) is the destruction of any sort of meaningful self, and the destruction of praeis in the individual’s life. I believe strongly that everyone has value, and that people should not be restricted from earning power unless they demonstrate a clear intent to use it for evil. This is a consequence of the belief that freedom is required for any action to be “good”.
Consider the following scenario:
A child refuses to share with friends. The parent, mortified, forces his child to share. Ultimately, whatever should be shared is shared, but only by coercion and the child is embittered.
Nobody will argue that the child forced to share has done a great moral act. The force used may not be particularly harmful. In some cases, it could show that power is a means to get people to do what you want and encourage that behavior down the road, but I think the more likely lesson is that people use power to enforce behavioral norms.
However, this event doesn’t reflect an end of evil. There is no evil being done by the child. Not wanting to share is not intentionally harming others; there are times we deliberately do not share that have a benefit on society and the world (toothbrushes being a puerile example, and spouses being a more complex one).
Even if sharing wouldn’t cause any harm, however, the child is not brought to commit the good act of sharing to benefit others, or even to the awareness that selfishness can become (emphasis on can become, not necessarily is) a catalyst to evil acts.
It is restraint when seeking power, and restraint in using power, that enables goodness.
Generosity: When Power can be Good
I mentioned earlier that our definition of goodness as causing deliberate benefit is too simple to be useful.
Self-interest generally gets in the way of goodness. This is why the wanton pursuit of power, especially when it is taken away from other people. Restraint involves knowing when it is acceptable to use power for self-interest (which is not inherently good), and when to use it to actively pursue good.
When power is used to acquire more power, it is the generosity and restraint of the individual acquiring the power that determines whether the outcome will turn out for good and for evil.
Generosity is not the only time power can be used for good. We want people who have demonstrated virtues to have the power at their disposal to protect us from evil (and to use our own power for the same purpose), and we wish to see power used to instill virtues and eradicate vices and the situations that cause people to commit evil out of necessity.
Generosity, however, is the act of giving power to promote power in those who need help. I’m a believer in the power of charity, the ability of an individual to invest in someone else for the sake of that person’s betterment. Hugo’s Les Miserables is a great example of the ways that this can play out.
Generosity is not blind giving, however. It is actually possible to create evil in this manner. There are many places where it is not economical to create goods and provide services because they are so heavily subsidized (as many third-world farmers can attest), simply because people who think that they are helping continue to send shipments of “free” goods and “charitable” services without any concern for the effect that has on development.
If so-called generosity impedes others gaining the power they need to achieve goodness, it’s nothing more than bondage. When executed competently, it’s little more than using force to fight against evil–a noble goal, but not one that is inherently good–and with incompetent execution is ignorant or, in some cases, malicious because it denies dignity and power to others. It is not a coincidence that the best charities stress training and equipping their beneficiaries, and may be selective in who they help, and that despite many government’s massive efforts to help people, which are often entirely well-intended, they rarely are considered a force for good in the world (try this at home: ask someone what the top five forces for good in the world are).
Generosity involves not just using power to help others, but making good decisions in how to do so. Virtue is learned by example, and generosity is a virtue.
Power and the Choice of Goodness
Power is a force for good when that power is used to deliberately benefit others. Removing power removes the ability of people to be generous.
More importantly, however, it ignores the reality of evil and goodness at its core. The complete abolition of power would lead to the entropy of the world taking over, and the monopolization of power in the hands of a trusted few is little better.
Instead, power linked to consciousness–knowing what a person is able to do and what good is–provides our only path to a better world, and is, perhaps, even a moral responsibility. Not only must an individual build their own power, but they should seek to empower others, not based on conditions but as a general course of action.