Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Good and Nice

In my ENG 111 sections this week, we discussed religion, values, and philosophy.  My main intention was to get students to think about and express their concepts of goodness in more detailed, positive, and concrete ways.

Talk of God dominated the first half of this morning's discussion, with one student, an intelligent and informed Catholic, respectfully questioning my atheism, which, I was quick to point out, is based on decades of belief followed by desperate attempts to believe (on the presumption that belief is necessary) and which was not at all a sudden or momentous conversion, only a gradual realization that I already had stopped believing and, frankly, lost any sense of a need for belief.  I respect religion, mainly because I remember what it's like to be religious, though now, frankly, it is difficult for me to admire religion, "respect" being for me a courteous deference, rather than a delighted or awed delight (i.e. "admiration").

Rather than let the class devolve into a seminar in my philosophy of life, I asked the students to distinguish "being good" from "being nice."  Almost all of them said they detected a difference in meaning between the two.  Only one student felt that niceness was superior to goodness, on the basis that, as he explained it, niceness is sincere and goodness may be hypocritical.  The rest felt that goodness is superior to niceness, as I feel, as well.

Nice is the state of being pleasant and inoffensive, not at all a bad thing in itself, but good is the state of seeking some positive end, a stance that requires character and usually a certain element of risk, which has the potential (a great potential) of being unpleasant and offensive to others.  A "nice" person may, in fact, avoid doing "good" on the basis that goodness may cause rifts or misunderstanding.  In my opinion, being nice usually entails some level of self-serving, a form of etiquette that deliberately deflects criticism or the possibility of disapproval.  Of course, one can temper goodness with niceness, in an effort to do what is right in a way that minimizes offense to others, but personally I value being good much more than being nice.

President Obama is nice, whereas I had hopes that he would be good.  I have adjusted my hopes that he would be the best President of my lifetime to a conviction that he is undoubtedly the nicest President, somewhat to his discredit.

Most students defined goodness as putting others' needs ahead of one's own.  Different ones expressed pretty much the same idea in a variety of ways.  I have no problem with the definition per se, though I pointed out that defining goodness as "selflessness," as a couple of them put it, could be problematic to a Christian value system, since God, who is widely believed to be "good," is anything but selfless, demanding worship, obedience, unconditional surrender, and sacrifice (though, admittedly, these may not exactly be needs).  In fact, according to many pastors' interpretation of the Genesis story, the creation of man is solely due to God's desire to be worshipped.  "Fear and trembling" is how he prefers humans to respond to a sense of his presence.  This is hardly selflessness.

And speaking of Genesis, what about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that Adam and Eve reportedly were forbidden to eat the fruit of?  Assuming the "knowledge of good" is meant literally and assuming that the primeval humans "knew" God, are we then to conclude that God is not really good?  that he is in fact beyond good and evil?  that in his holiness, we humans are incapable of even grasping God's morality, much less judging it?  The Book of Job, of course, raises the same question.  Is it possible that being holy is not just quantitatively but also qualitatively different than being good?  An intriguing concept, more so for me, I suspect, than for eighteen year olds.

In his arbitrariness, unaccountability to anyone or to any principle, and self-proclaimed role as sovereign "decider," perhaps George W. Bush has been our holiest President, no doubt greatly to his discredit ... to speak, sentimentally, from a democratic perspective.

And does the story of Eden suggest, as the poets Milton and Blake suspected, that knowledge of good is impossible without the knowledge of evil?  or that, after the Fall of Man, knowledge of good is acquirable only through the knowledge of evil?

Then is it possible that the Christian God is not only not nice (a universal deluge and a request of one's follower to sacrifice the life of his favorite son are hardly nice), but also not even good?  So then, could the ancient Greeks have been absolutely correct in developing a purely civic and secular morality in the absence of a divine morality?

Christians, of course, have no qualms about observing that Zeus and other pagan deities were immoral; but re-read Genesis and the Book of Job and most of the theological explanations about the necessity of God's sacrificing his "only begotten Son" to satisfy his own sense of justice, and tell me how morality plays into the Judeo-Christian God's behavior.

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