“Am I a good person?” This is the great question facing all of us. We want to be good. We feel that if we do good deeds our lives will have meaning. We want to add up all of our good deeds and measure these against the sum of our bad deeds and hope that the scale comes out in favor of finding our lives good or justified.
This is not solely a religious phenomenon. Secularists and atheists consider themselves to be doing “God’s work” to convince the world that religion is nonsense and that has caused great evil and suffering. Why do they do this? Because they believe they are doing the right thing – doing a good thing. They want to do good and make the world a better place. They contend that if religion is eliminated war and suffering will be greatly diminished. (1) I don’t share their viewpoint, but I think it is interesting that their goal is directed towards doing good.
Even those who have unquestionably done great evil in their lives do not want the eulogy at their funeral to present them as bad people. They want others to focus on the good or show how bad acts are really good. Why when faced with death are we so keen to be told that we are good? Is it because we want to remember only the good things or is because we believe that whether you have lived a good life has an important bearing on what happens after death?
Often it is difficult for us to determine whether we are good. Fortunately, we have no difficulty in determining whether others are good. We never want to blame ourselves. We live in a culture of blame with an absence of self-evaluation. There is always a villain. We judge the other rather than ourselves. Governments and large corporations are vilified in our society. Nearly any theory of government or corporate malfeasance, no matter how outlandish, is given credence by some group if it resonates with their particular prejudices.
On the other hand, we like to think that our personal indiscretions are minor and don’t affect anyone else. If I cheat on my taxes I rationalize that there will still be enough money in the kitty or that most tax dollars are wasted or there are others who should pay more than me. If I slander a colleague to further the progress of my career, I can plead that she would have done it to me if I didn’t act first, or that my ascent at her expense would benefit my organization because I’m more talented. Moreover, I can argue that these actions greatly help me and if they hurt someone else the scope of the damage is limited.
But, if we turn the tables it is quite easy to see that these kinds of actions are wrong and harmful. If I find out that my neighbor is cheating on his taxes or that my colleague in the cubicle opposite has slandered me to our boss I will be incensed with a strong sense of injustice. These actions appear to be plain wrong when done by another to us.
So an objective outsider examining our thoughts and behaviors would not fail to find any selfish or bad actions on our part. But, we don’t see ourselves as bad. Most people would probably tell you they are not bad people – at least not as bad as some other people they know.
So when we claim to be good we are not claiming to be perfect but that we do more good things than bad things. And if we find that not to be true then there are others who have done worse things than we have.
What does all of this tell us? First, we care about being good. We want our actions to be considered good and we develop rationales to explain away actions that could be considered to be bad. Second, we implicitly accept that there is some standard of goodness to be met.
Why do we care if we are good? Why do we act as if there is some standard of good to be met?
We have a need to make things right – to do something good, because we want to prove we are good. But if we are honest we know we can’t do enough – we all make mistakes. But if it’s self-evident that nobody’s really good why do we need to reassure ourselves that we are good? The problem is that our desire to be good conflicts with our inner sense that we are not good. We know there is a standard we cannot meet. We know we were meant for better.
(1) See for example, Chapter Two “Religion Kills” in Christopher Hitchens, “God Is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything. (Twelve, New York 2007).