July 2012

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Be Good: Getting rid of interferences

By Carmine Gorga

“Be good, for goodness sake” admonishes a splendid Christmas carol. But that is not good enough. The confusion on moral issues is so deep and wide that simple admonitions are not good enough. In order to try to bring some clarity to the field, I will touch upon two issues. First, what does the injunction to be good mean? Second, how can we be good? The first issue is addressed here; the second in a next essay.

What does it mean to be good?

To be good is a consequence of exercising all the virtues. The virtuous man or woman is a good person. It is really that simple.

Yet, complications arise at every step of the way. What are the virtues? Adam Smith succeeded in reducing them to one: prudence, which dovetailed with his predilection for economic affairs and his penchant for reducing the entire economic problem to saving and not squandering one’s inherited fortune. He was, after all, the tutor of sons of rich landowners.

Others, like Benjamin Franklin (sorry to say, since he is one of the few heroes I still have), erred on the other side: He elongated the list of virtues to such an extent that only mish-mash is left.

We have not simply inherited a basic confusion about the classification of the virtues; we have lodged the confusion in very high places. Theologians and practitioners at every level of this discipline have found it easier to live with the dichotomy between God the Good and God the Just than to resolve it.

Who dares blame the various branches of philosophy and sociology for sporting a supercilious attitude toward the virtues—and for imbedding this attitude deeply into our daily life? “Who are you to talk about the virtues?” “I am Number One; therefore, I know it all; and no one dare tell me anything, especially anything about morality. My ethics are at least as good as yours, if not better. And do not tell me of absolute truths: There is no such thing. Only people who want to boss other people around believe in absolute truths. Did not Einstein tell us that everything is relative?”

To unpack this widespread attitude would take more than a few pages. But let us go as far as we can, taking up the last misconception first. Einstein was the master of relativity, not moral relativism. The two have nothing in common with each other.

Individualism of the “I am Number One syndrome” is the bane of our age. It is an unfounded assumption: We all live in a social context. And the social context requires that moral issues be clearly understood before they can be effectively practiced.

The elephant in the room is the assertion that there are no absolute truths, and we shall leave this well enough alone.

The fear that people who assert absolute truths tend to boss people around is a misconstruction of the social and historical reality: Absolute truths, once established and practiced, serve the interests of the many, because they put constraint upon the few.

Some implications of the separation of goodness from the virtues

Since these are too many and too complex considerations to be pursued, it is far easier to live in the state of confusion engendered by the separation of goodness from the virtues.

Yet, we have to be aware of the dangers lurking in our cultural condition. In its key function, this confusion leads us to believe that to exercise any of the virtues is a presumptuous act. It is commonly repeated that only people who are self-righteous believe they are virtuous; and since to be virtuous is an impossibility given the natural state of the human condition as self-conceited and sinful, we are all fallen people. Hence, the righteous person is soon accused of being a hypocrite.

Given this cultural overhang, who dares to pursue the virtues any longer?

To separate goodness from the virtues is the easy way out; but that does not solve any of the difficulties with which we are faced. Let us start again. Let us start from rock bottom.

The absoluteness of the virtuous action

The virtuous action is absolute. One action cannot be more virtuous than another virtuous action; one cannot be more virtuous than another person. Indeed, the virtuous man or woman does not invite comparisons; the virtuous person does not feel inferior to another person who might feel more virtuous. This is the bedrock on which we can attempt to reconstruct the value of the virtues. Here follow some of the basics.

Why goodness has to be guided by the virtues

The good person is insecure and always tries to do better. This is the classic case in which the better is the enemy of the good. The virtuous person knows that he cannot do better than he is doing; that he normally does the best he can.

The good person’s sense of self is shattered if he discovers or is discovered doing a less than honorable act; if he believes in the doctrine of incorrigibility of sin—as Father Merton magisterially demonstrated about this practice by the Nazis—he is liable to fall victim to malevolent people who will try to divert his actions to their advantage. The virtuous person shakes the sand off his sandals and proceeds along his way; he is ready to learn from his mistakes.

Goodness by itself invites comparisons. We thus, being somehow unaware, accept the self-deceit of goodness. We cannot tolerate being surpassed in anything, so we believe that we are always better than someone else.

The chain of these insecurities intertwined with self-conceits constitutes the slippery slope of goodness that inveigles us in a worrisome trend, a race to the bottom. The evidence of this race—involving, not the entire world, but most of the activities that are reported in the media and some literature—is so clearly part of our daily life that we tend to accept it as an inevitability and avert our eyes from it. Crimes become more and more heinous; description of these crimes is less and less inhibited; visualization of these crimes becomes more and more evident; sensationalism is rampant;cruelty and embarrassment are lionized; mediocrity is exalted in our culture.

And these are petty crimes that yet hold our attention and capture our imagination. Real serious crimes, crimes that affect the lives of billions of people, are taking place in the field of economics and finance. Thanks to the confusing status of mainstream economic theory, they are barely understood and discussed. Mostly they are taken like natural disasters, caused by impersonal laws of supply and demand, rather than consequences of purposeful human action.

Civilians mangled in warfare and forced mass migrations are just happenings; destruction of Indigenous People’s life is taken for granted; genocides are barely talked about.

The issue of the deceits of goodness is topped off by the dumbing down of the political discourse. This race from reality is a result of two vicious circles: the control of the political process by the media, and the control of the media and academia by economic libertines.

Why has this race to the bottom happened during the last four to five hundred years of history? Some time ago it hit me as a ton of bricks the realization that, deep inside, we not only believe we are good, but even believe we are better than others. Hence the push to the bottom, so, no matter how bad we are, we all believe we remain just a bit above every one else.

The disconnect between goodness and the virtues

There are serious, not clearly understood, consequences of the disconnect between goodness and the virtues. Goodness alone is not enough. Goodness unguided by the virtues easily leads us astray.

Starkly stated, the two conditions are not symmetric: to be virtuous is to be good; but to be good is not necessarily to be virtuous. The self-conceit of goodness is such that some of the most heinous crimes have been undertaken under the mistaken assumption that they were “good”. Did not French, German, and Russian revolutionaries assume that it was good to eradicate religiosity from the world? Did not Communist fanatics the world over justify the slaughter of millions in the vain hope of eradicating poverty from the face of the earth? Is not the genocide of any race pursued in the name of eventually reaching the purity of some false ideal? Are not some of the most dangerous scientific experiments pursued in the light of fabulous mirages at the end of a dark tunnel?

From the tragic to the everyday banality there is a small gap; but how many fall into it! The gap is opened by a cracked culture. The “good” person can easily fall prey to sharpies and in turn pursue unjust actions as well as advocate unjust policies. The world today is ruled by little else. It should be sufficient to mention each and any policy of forced redistribution of wealth. All good men and women advocate policies of redistribution of wealth—provided it is not their wealth—or much of their wealth—that is called to be redistributed.

The injustices of this prescription are so numerous that they can be clarified only by pointing out that the person who calls for redistribution of wealth plays God. The policy falls apart upon innumerable practical decisions: from whom to redistribute, to whom, how much, how often. The issues multiply as one investigates them. The proof of the pudding is that the policy of redistribution is never satisfactorily applied.

The biggest shortcoming of this policy is that it lulls the good person into self-satisfaction for his good advocacy and shifts the attention from the real problem, the problem of just distribution of wealth as it is being created.

This is an issue that I plan to investigate in an upcoming essay.

Mr. Gorga would like to acknowledge the invaluable editorial assistance received from Peter J. Bearse and David S. Wise.

Carmine Gorga, a former Fulbright Scholar, is president of The Somist Institute, a research organization in Gloucester, Mass. Through The Economic Process, To My Polis, and numerous other publications in economic theory and policy, he has transformed economics from a linear to a relational discipline. Dr. Gorga blogs at www.a-new-economic-atlas.com and www.modern-moral-meditations.blogspot.com.