I realized today that my concept of goodness may be radically different from yours. I knew this intellectually, but I’ve never spelled it out, so I thought I would write something up. I’m talking about Good with a capital gee, as in Good and Evil. They are not words I use often, but both are profoundly important for theology and ethics.
For me, goodness is not an abstract concept. It is not a matter of scorekeeping or side taking or moral command. Good things are worthy of my attention, love, and respect. In Kant’s words, they are ends and not means. They have value and purposes that should be appreciated before I interact with them at all, much less use them for some purpose of my own.
I care if things are Good. I’m not particularly interested in whether they are Evil or Neutral. Something Evil would be worthy of hiding, hating, and harming. Something Neutral would be unworthy of either attention or blindness, love or hate, respect or disrespect. Something Neutral can just be ignored.
I think Good things are Good because God made them so. Nonetheless, my words are not intended to be about God. I do not see Goodness as a theoretical or abstractly theological category of existence. It is that, of course, but primarily it is a statement about my own behavior. I should attend to these things. I should love these things. I should respect these things. My ethical and metaphysical philosophy flow from this commitment as much as they support it. It’s bedrock. In other words, I recognize the Good. I do not label it.
What is Good?
It seems both obvious and simple that some things are Evil, just plain bad, or at least neutral. What about suffering, Ebola, Hitler? And yet, I cannot accept the consequences of such a position.
I am, at heart, a scientist. I think all things worthy of my attention. Not only to I think I will benefit from knowing them better; I think you will as well. Nor, if I am honest, do I believe in dispassionate attention. Knowledge comes hard and we will not put in the effort to produce knowledge only for the sake of knowledge. We hope that the things we study will reward us by being interesting and delightful. If we study them only for what they can do for us, we will miss out on most of their beauty. We will even miss out on most of what they can do for us.
I am at heart, a Christian. I believe that God is love and, therefore, love is the best possible relationship I may have with any thing. Nor can I have any healthy relationship except it be founded on love (Luke 14, Mt 6:24, I Cor 13). To name something Evil or even Neutral is to label it ignorable or even avoidable. How can I love at all unless I label that which I do not know as worthy of knowing, loving, and caring for? If love came easily this would not be a problem, but love takes work as well. We must push ourselves to love more and more fully.
I could make the philosophical argument. Ontologically, all things must be Good, or God becomes a god, a tyrant or a pretender. All things must be Good, or God becomes either ineffective or unwilling to make things better. Instead I want to make the practical and personal argument. All things must be Good or we will fail to know and love all things. We will ignore them. And, when we ignore them, we will end up harming them and ourselves in the process. When we pursue our own interest, in ignorance of theirs, we hurt them. And the world is a poorer place for it.
All things are Good and curiosity is my creed, for without curiosity, there can be no love and love is the highest good. This does not mean that bad things do not happen. It only means that the world is filled with Good things and Good people and that those people are motivated by Good desires. They are, however, confused by how to achieve Good ends. They seek the lesser good in place of the greater – perhaps self over family, or wealth over God, or autonomy over compassion. Each is a good desire. It is right to value self, family, wealth, autonomy, compassion, and God, but daily we make choices between them. We must ask how Good our goodness is. We must also recognize that others are seeking goods as well.
All people are worthy of attention, love, and respect. When people “wish” to harm one another – as they often do – it comes from a desire to help themselves or someone close to them. And that desire is a good thing. It is just not the only thing. Knowing the Good, and not just a good, means realizing goods must be balanced against one another. The desire to harm is necessarily a failure of understanding or imagination in pursuing the Good, which embraces all goods (in balance). We must constantly seek a greater knowledge that does not negate our own desires, but puts them in the context of others.
I aspire to a curiosity and love that embraces all people (and eventually all things). This is not an abstract philosophical idea. Nor is it a vague statement about what I am expected to do. It is a concrete personal hope that my own behavior can reveal that harmony between all things in heaven and on earth.