What is Good and How to Do It?

I’m in a philosophical mood today so for those readers who might have some aversion for abstract thought please click your way out of here before it’s too late.

As I grew older my view of Good and Evil has evolved quite a lot. At first it was flat simple black and white: Good is what God says it is; what He says is Evil, must indeed be so. As you go along the way you stumble upon bumps, huge bumps in the presumably bumpless road that God has built for you and that was supposed to lead you to heaven’s door. Discrepancies in the Godly system of Good and Evil spark an internal argument between the theist and the atheist in you. Things reach a tipping point at which both the theist and the atheist reach an agreement. An agnostic truce that lasts long enough for you to start using the one thing that religion and tradition allied themselves together to prevent you from using, in the words of Poirot, your little grey cells, before you realize one morning that the atheist has killed the theist in you and that there is little for certainty in your world anymore and a whole life of doubt ahead of you instead. Enjoy. You’re Godless so whenever you think you do good you presumably don’t do it in hope for redemption. Doing good I’m sure involves a fundamentally selfish impulse though. Doing good makes you feel better. It’s chemistry at its purest form. But then you keep asking yourself what is good and how you are supposed to do it. At which point you start being interested in political and economic theories.

I’ve asked myself these questions for a long time now and by doing, went from one end of the spectrum to the other in search for answers. I consider myself a progressive, at the left of the politics of many of my friends but still I have some excruciating pending questions.

Is there any such a thing as a benevolent capitalist?

Is greed ultimately good?

Are there any credible and viable alternatives?

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19 thoughts on “What is Good and How to Do It?

  1. I love this. I was feeling rather introspective tonight too and started writing something very similar that I decided not to publish (before I read yours; it’s just too personal)…so in any case, I’m glad you had your say. I’m feeling a bit more inspired thanks to it.

  2. Well, first of all, I know a number of believers who would argue that religion doesn’t tell us to shut down our gray cells at all, but much the contrary — in Islam at least, God gave us our brains for a reason, and coming to a rational understanding of the universe and how it works is a support for religion, for the truly faithful. I think they would say that it is not religion at all, but ignorance — religion misunderstood, and turned into dogma — that shuts down the mind.

    Even Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason didn’t reject religion entirely — he was a Deist, as I understand it, which means belief in the presence of a divine intelligence guiding the universe, and an ideal of abstract justice — though he certainly did argue against the enslavement of the mind to any particular religious ideology unsupported by reason.

    As someone raised an atheist I’ve had something of the opposite experience of you, I’ve come to appreciate the concept of God as a reminder that we aren’t nearly as important as our egos like to make us think we are — that there are principles we are all subject to, and that one of those is our connectedness to all other things, all of which are “sacred” and deserving of our utmost respect. Since we are all God’s children, no person has inherent rights higher than any other, and thus, a rational religious spirit can be a useful check against both the predations of greed run amok, and the divine rights of kings.

  3. Marcel, no disrespect intended here; in matters of faith I am pretty much chacon son gout. But why do we need religion to arrive at any of the principles above? And doesn’t religion just as often lead to the proposition that all animals are equal but some (the faithful) are more equal than others?

  4. I agree, Bill. I too was raised an atheist but am coming to the same conclusions on my own. I don’t think belief in God is required to see that humans are created equal.

  5. I’m not saying we need religion to feel connected to what is outside us, or to act morally. I’m just saying that this is one of the perspectives religion offers to those who are interested — and that it’s possible to be religious and rational at the same time.

    I think all idologies give a feeling of superiority to those convinced of their truth. So the problem in my view isn’t religious dogma, but dogma per se — and the tendency of far too many humans to prefer certainty over the ambiguity of an open mind.

  6. Jill,

    You’re damn right. At least for me it’s never easy to write personal thoughts, cause somehow you don’t want to look pretentious or self-centered while you keep asking yourself what added value can this possibly have to offer. Besides the fact that it is a tricky exercise and you basically strip yourself naked. But sometimes the urge to sharing your intimate thoughts is just overwhelming.

    Bill,

    Wow! Thank you for your instructive answer. I can’t wait to go comment on your good blog.

    eatbees,

    I just want to make it clear that I’m not accusing religion here but rather describing my own experience of it, -my own journey with it. Some people can contain within themselves irrational thought and be successful in preventing it from invading the rational part in them. I just can’t do it. Faith is a notion that I can’t grasp, so is the notion of Deity. I respect people who can live and prosper with it. I guess that at the basis of it I’m one of those who distrust systems, to borrow Bill’s reference to Voltaire. I’m sure you’d agree since you reject dogmas yourself.

  7. 1) We should give the religion its right place in the Moroccan society. It has an important impact on beliefs and behaviors, but it does not define Moroccan identities. Good and Evil behaviors are somehow an emerged social agreement. They emerge from religious beliefs, but also from social interactions, experience, from people’s history, from foreigner’s influence, from internet, TV, books ..

    It’s not just about God. It’s mainly Man.

    Conservatives (politicians or ulemas or whatever..) use the religion/beliefs to keep a status quo : people are struggling to evolve, new ideas cannot emerge and free enterprise is doomed, e.g human action.

    2) It’s been an eternal conflict. Majorities, having achieved something and having evolved to some state, try to reduce minorities’ freedom. Throughout history, minorities have been the source of every important step in human civilizations.

    3) This brings us to Education.
    Almost all Morrocans who have been to school followed somehow the same school syllabus.
    Schools in Morocco are not about enabling kids to use their “grey cells”, to enhance their creativity, to question, to doubt. It’s just about facts.
    – Islam is good, other religions are bad.
    – Morocco has been since the Romans the greatest country in the region.
    – “This” is good, “That” is baaad.
    Since the syllabus is nation wide, Moroccans grow in a bubble, and it’s a shock when they face other ideas or other people with different beliefs.
    They are then challenged and question their education and beliefs, they may even reject everything they’ve learned. Or, they become bigots. (I am exaggerating 🙂 )

    4) This brings me now to Friedman. He’s not the greatest human-being, but he is advocating something really important : Freedom. Freedom, so free enterprise, e.g. human action, can be at its fullest potential. Freedom as a “negative” law or natural law, e.g. “do no harm” .

    It’s not about socialist or capitalistic ideologies: Both ideologies want a better society for Man to live in.
    It’s about freedom, freedom under the rule of law, freedom where everybody has equal rights.
    Socialism did not work because politicians wanted to control everything to make the society better. Capitalism is struggling now because some of its advocates want the economic freedom but not the consequences of the political ones.

    5) What is the missing link ?
    In a free society, Education is not exclusive to a majority (State, Beliefs or a social group .. ). Ideas and beliefs can be challenged and questioned.
    People get to “choose” in a wide range of “menus of Good vs Evil” what suits them best.

    6) So can there be a benevolent capitalist ? I don’t know why you are asking this question. But, I’d say “who cares ?” . And yes there are 🙂 !

  8. Capitalism and benevolence are complete opposites and, as for me, I believe religion, or at least the institution behind it, is also the opposite of benevolence, truth or even the respect for live and for the free thinking.

    Capitalism is the ideology of greed, of acumulation, of disparities. And the religious institutions are much happy in living within this regime…

    As for “religion” itself, I believe it’s quite the same, a supremacist ideology where even if you discuss, you allways know that you’re right. Faith is no object to discussion or to arguments, it’s a supreme truth and for me that’s a huge problem to accept.

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  10. Ayoub,

    I’m not sure religion does not, as you put it, define Moroccan identity. The Moroccan society is conservative and Islam is quite pervasive as you know in almost every aspect of daily life. I’m not saying this is bad but considering the matter at hand, ultimately religion does play a fundamental role in the way Moroccans consider matters of Good and Evil. Again, I’m not saying that having religion as the major guidance to one’s journey in life stifles reason completely or that it necessarily leads to backwardness. In my case I had trouble marrying both irrational and rational thought, to the point that it becomes clear to me that I will have to choose between one of both. But if it works for others, then good for them. To be honest I wish religion was not that prevalent in matters of public debate and political life in Morocco where I do believe it is a hindrance more than anything else.

    I think you’re right, education as it is conducted in Morocco does not cultivate critical thinking let alone awareness about one’s freedom to choose between political ideologies, and even less, the ability to question matters of religion, Good and Evil. It is merely a process of indoctrination as you say and it has obviously more to do with the autocratic nature of the Moroccan regime more than anything else.

    I like your idea of “menus for Good and Evil”. It’s a funny image 🙂

    Why am I asking the question about the plausibility of benevolent capital? I guess because I wonder whether capitalism can be untrusted in ultimately repairing the damage it causes. Whether there is any basis for not letting governments intervene too much and construct improbable models of welfare that appear to be unsustainable everywhere (look at the La Sécurité Sociale in France).

  11. Raphael,

    I’m very happy you stopped by. It’s been a while since last time we were singing Bohemian Rhapsody remember? 😉

    Organised religions have in their DNA the potential to do harm but let’s recognize also that for the crushing majority of believers on this earth it is a matter of doing Good; mainly. Billions of believers can not be all deemed deluded as I’m sure you’d agree. Perfectly secular ideologies (Stalinism for e.g.) are as potentially dangerous as can be the most religious fanatics.

    As for capitalism, I’m not sure it’s as clear cut. If you mean by it free market let’s not deny the fact that it has brought some benefit and security for large populations; mainly in the West I agree but aren’t we here benefiting from the same capitalist greed that led Gates, Jobs and others to push the boundaries of creativity and free enterprise? I’m just asking.

    OK, now, for the sake of stimulating our little gray cells, I suggest we pause and listen to the GV performance again:
    http://bit.ly/9pErgi

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  13. @eatbees: “So the problem in my view isn’t religious dogma, but dogma per se”

    Religion IS dogmatic! The only non-dogmatic stance one can take with regards to religion is agnosticism.

  14. Salaam Hiham,

    The Good and the Evil. Younger, I could have describe it the way you did firstly. “Good is what God says it is; what He says is Evil, must indeed be so.” What God says and then what parents say about the Good and the Evil. Today, I’m 22 years old, not even old yet, but life and its hardships changed their significations to me. It seems unavoidable to live many painful things related or not to the Evil to understand the Good and then establish our own definition of the Good.
    There is another saying which become more important to me than what I quoted from your post. It says “Behind any Good, there can be an Evil and behind any Evil there can be a Good”. It helps consider the Good and the Evil with hope. When you’re hopeful, you can accept an Evil to get a Good. It’s a kind of deal with yourself, but if only you hope…

    You’re right to start with both of those notions to talk about religion. Actually, the Good and the Evil are the roots of any religion when we consider a classical religion. I mean a God or many gods and adorators. Adorators do the Good to please God and avoid the Evil to not be punished. That’s what is called a religion. What if you accept to do or bear an Evil to do a Good? You still want to please God but you won’t please your religion which can have a strong framework like the prayers, what is legal, what it is not…

    The Good you’re expecting is certain because you’ve faith, because there’s hope. What if you’re hopeless? I guess it’s here now that I’m joining the fight between the theist and the atheist. Your hope and your faith are tangled. If you destroy one of them, the other dies too. Hopeless, the definitions of the Good and the Evil, which were clear are now blurred, considering the framework you used to live with. That framework doesn’t work anymore, it broke when you lost faith. The only way to keep going on in life is to think. Thoughts show up like “The framework, religion, is broken. Religion came from God. So God is broken?” Then the atheist win.
    “The religion is dead. God is perfect and can’t die. Religion came from God. So the religion wasn’t perfect.” So we can help it become perfect or take what’s good in it and build a more perfect way of life. Then the theist win and God is still alive.
    All our prejudices, experiences, build our own way of life: keep doing the Good because it’s bringing back pleasant effects. So defining the Good with its feedbacks…
    I chose to be hopeful 🙂
    This is an inexhaustible subject, I can go on for hours…

    Thanks for sharing ya Hisham, like others said it’s very personal.

    Ama

  15. Farouk, that’s a dogmatic thing to say, and you even expressed it dogmatically — without any qualifiers, just a very blunt, “this is the way things are” kind of statement.

    This is silly. I’m an agnostic myself, in the sense that I really could care less whether I believe in God or not, because it amounts to the same thing — the world is full of mystery, including our own presence here; what we know is vastly exceeded by what we don’t know; we are connected to everything and are responsible for the effects of our actions. Religion attempts to organize these intutitions into a system, but then so do philosophy, science and art.

    I will always defend the idea that one can be religious without being dogmatic. For some people it’s just a sincere feeling, something they “know” because it feels right to them. If that helps them to be better people, more charitable and less judgmental (yes it CAN happen) — I’m all for it.

  16. @Ama D.

    Thank you dear for stopping by and don’t make this your last visit.

    I want to make it clear that I wasn’t judging religion here. I recognize the positive role organized religions and all forms of spirituality are playing in all societies. I was basically reflecting on a personal and intimate journey with moral and ethical questions. And my experience is that one should always take a step back whenever confronted with those questions, and try to part from one’s own certainties and biases. I realize that ultimately, morality is not exclusive to religion, that atheism is not synonymous of hopelessness or Evil at all, and that religion is not always or necessarily a factor for Good. There is intolerance from both sides: some atheists (especially post 9/11) have become as fundamentalist and bigoted as their religious counterparts, and having witnessed that bigotry really firsthand on a sister website (Talk Morocco), I felt the urge to write something about that and put this in perspective mainly for personal psychotherapeutic reasons, if you see what I mean.

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