Tuesday, May 28, 2013

On Good vs Evil and Nice vs Mean

I've noticed something about people who describe themselves as "good" or "nice." This is, of course, a generalisation, but one that, in my experience, is very often true. What I've noticed is that when people call themselves good or nice, they are looking at the most devastating forms of evil and cruelty that they can comprehend, seeing an absence of that behaviour in themselves, and using that as evidence that they are, as they say, good or nice.

"I don't rape, torture or murder, so I'm a good person."

"I don't beat up women or say rude things all the time, so I'm a nice guy."

Before I became a Christian, I was the same. I was good and nice because of all the bad stuff I didn't do (and also in spite of the bad stuff I did do, which there was plenty of for me to ignore). But if that's how we define good or nice, then we aren't making a positive statement with that claim, we're making a negative statement. We aren't asserting anything that we are, we're only dismissing what we're not (or what we'd like to think we're not).

Let's be clear. Outside of morality, "good" implies positive function, not just the absence of dysfunction. When we use "good" as a moral stance, we elevate that above the amoral meaning of good, and so the moral definition of good becomes the positive presence of moral values and virtues, not just the absence of vices. Likewise, while "nice" doesn't carry as much power as good (and it isn't always nice to be good, nor is it always good to be nice), when we aren't applying the term to ourselves, nice generally means pleasant. A nice flavour is one that brings us pleasure, not just one that doesn't bring us disgust. In the same way, for someone's behaviour to be nice, they actually have to behave in such a way as to enhance the experiences of those around them, not simply avoid hurting people.

As it isn't said nearly often enough: the absence of a thousand vices does not account for a single virtue.

I see this all the time in people who describe themselves as good or nice. They judge themselves by the vices they don't have, rather than looking to virtues. Meanwhile, the people who are living out good morals and nice behaviours are the ones I never hear calling themselves good or nice.


  1. I find quite the opposite, I declare myself as not being a nice person, and others disagree.
    Bringing up my son is a classic example, I am not his friend, I am his Dad and a very harsh, strict one too. I make no effort to hide that his upbringing is harsh from him and even though he has just hit double figures he is already seeing the benefit of this strictness and intolerance. He sees others around treating other people and things with disrespect and breaking rules or laws and disapproves, declaring their parents should be dealing with that and he is glad not to be like them.
    By not being nice I am producing a good person, and often being one myself. I am harsher and stricter on myself than anyone else and forgive myself rarely.
    Religion wise I like the Egyptian idea of weighing the good and bad of your life to decide your worth, though I doubt I would agree on some of the definitions. Personally not sure which way I would go if this was done. I have my merits but am far from faultless and consider myself at my purest now. I am generally considerate, but ironically having a family has made me less so, the needs of my wife and son over-rides all others so occasions where I would help others are missed because I want time with them, where I wouldn't have cared before.
    Hurting the feelings of others is my worst failing, and although most of this hasn't been deliberate, that doesn't excuse it. I am not the person I describe here anymore but this was me for many years, and many were hurt by my lack of concern for others. I was unpopular as a youngster and suddenly became very popular, so much so that I easily became promiscuous and unfaithful with many knowing that I was but still going with me anyway. Many knew me by reputation, others didn't and found out the hard way that I belonged to no-one, some that knew my reputation still became attached and were hurt to find out their affections were not reciprocated. Injustice is all around us and I was hurt very rarely, which is exceptionally unfair considering my behaviour.
    I can look back and see the reasons for my misconduct and make excuses if I wanted to. Reality is we each have a choice and I personally do not feel I made the right ones on a lot of occasions. Flip side is without being who I was I wouldn't be who I am, and I like the current me. Those thinking leopard don't change their spots, please grow up and look around you. I am now a totally devoted, faithful husband and father with no desire to go back to the way I was.

    I don't know if I would consider myself a good person, I give of myself and help others were I feel I can. My wife and son are shown love and compassion, I wasn't so found this difficult, but it has been worthwhile. But there are definitely times I am intolerant or over critical which can impact others in a negative manner.
    Personally I hate these generalisations anyway. I got brought up by someone who would declare she wasn't perfect but never accept the detail and work to correct it. She has become what I consider the worst type of born again Christian.
    Many religions have parts I like and loath, there is one in Christianity that I really hate, the forgiveness clause. I have done many things wrong in my life and if I want to be forgiven the person I have wronged would need to do so along with myself, deferring this to a deity or one of their representatives to my mind is a cop out. I have spoken to a few vicars who have seen my viewpoint but obviously still preach the word as given to them, as they should.
    There are many really good Christians out there as with every other group, but I know that without absolution it would not be as popular, to my mind this is the worst reason to seek a faith, and those doing so are automatically not good people. Personal opinion from someone not even prepared to say if he is one or not.

    1. I think we're on the same page here more than not. My theory is that if you recognise your faults as faults, rather than justifying them, and you value whatever it is you define as good, then you will both pursue that definition of good and try to do something about your bad behaviours and attitudes. If you do that, then you're aware of how bad you are (or have been) and have a pretty good idea of how bad you can be, which dispels the idea that "I am good." That, in turn, might go together my observation that people are either claiming to be good or actually doing good, but generally don't spend a lot of time doing both.

      If I recall correctly, the Egyptian belief is that if your guilt is greater than a bird's feather, you're not going to have a very good afterlife. If that's the case, I'd be screwed.

      On Christianity, I don't think a person can become a Christian without recognising that there's something not good about them. My reasoning is that if you don't consider yourself to be in a position to have offended God and need his forgiveness, then you're not in a position to see a need for Christ's death and resurrection. I hear what you're saying, and from what I can tell Jesus doesn't entirely disagree. I can't remember specific passages or exact quotes, but I recall him telling someone that if he's harmed another, first seek that person's forgiveness, then bring your sacrifices to the temple. I think there's a lot of biblical support for a Christian seeking to amend their wrongs in this world if at all possible; I can't think of any biblical support for not attempting to mend one's wrongs. I think it comes back to love God above all else AND your neighbour as you love yourself; not one or the other or neither.

    2. There are a number of theories about Christ. We know there was a Jesus the Nazrene crucified for offences agains the Jewish Sects so those declaring he never existed need to read more history. His early life is debatable and this is where the story gets interesting.
      One of my favourite theories is that his grandfather was high level Buddhist, and the period where he is unaccounted for was a time when he was called to study and take his grandfather's place. In his heart he was still a Jew so returned and wanted to have the Jews follow their faith in the same all consuming manner as the Buddhists who had taught him. This one also comes along with a bit that might offend many Christians but has grounding in truth.
      People were often declared dead when they were either unconscious, comatose or not expected to survive in historic times, it is not like today when they will be declared dead after defib etc. has failed. Jesus was not the first to have arisen from the dead, it wasn't everyday, but also not unheared of or even that uncommon. There were treatments that stoppped infection and allowed the body to heal rather than die.
      Jesus was a healer, and he would have taught his craft to some of his followers and they could have treated him. He also wasn't stupid so wouldn't have returned to the people who had wanted to kill him.
      Dates and times are difficult to match up as calendars aren't wonderful in early times, but there is a story of a buddhist healer who came to save many people later in life and became much revered and respected. He is buried and his tomb is sacred. This could possibly be the body of Jesus Christ, we will never know and I hope we are never given permission to excavate it to find out, somethings are best not known, makes us think more.

      My son wanted to be a Christian because he felt it was a path to being a good person, he saw no fault with himself at that time, being so young, but wanted to remain pure. I taught him roughly the same as Jesus says in your passage, earn forgiveness from the person you have wronged first then ask forgiveness from God with a clear heart.

      Religious debates with me in them confuse the heck out of people. I am aetheist and accept this is a belief in the same way as anyone following a religion should. I have no cast iron proof that there is no God but believe deeply in my mind that there is none. This confuses the staunch aethists who feel everyone should be like them that I would beon their side, not even close. So much so in fact I have declared a few times that if enough people believe in the same God that to some degree makes him real, even if only to them.

      Good and evil are very often a point of view too. I was brought up to believe that standing by while others suffer is evil and intervention has to happen. I have done that and found myself defending someone truly evil in a way I didn't know at the time.
      I was taught that people selling drugs are evil and got a wake up call when spotting what I thought was a dealer acting shifty and being told to follow him. The shifty guy was not the dealer but the customer, the dealer was doing less than a supermarket selling alcohol, he just sat there, no advertising or seeking attention, selling what others desired. The drugs trade however has a lot of evil done in it, interesting to have so many wanting peace as they get stoned without considering how much violence their habit creates.
      Evil could be killing the planet, like I am typing this on a machine gobbling up electricity and consuming resources the world cannot spare.
      Good could be givingmoney to help the impoverished in Africa, unless you consider that by doing so you are enabling the warloard running the country where the aid has been sent to spend more on arms to suppress or kill his people.
      Not an easy one when you start digging.

  2. This is a cool blog post!
    I don't want to steal readers or maliciously redirect traffic -- I'd just like to spread some related (or supplemental) information by pointing people to my blog, if any readers here want to finally get the POINT of Jesus/Christianity (and hear what it actually says about morality).

    1. What Christianity says about morality, interesting.
      What we can definately pinpoint today is in the new testament. A book written by disciples of Christ many years after his death. This was then editted based on what the falling Roman empire wanted the followers to believe and worship.
      To my mind what we can prove about Christian ideals of morality and what Christ himself would have wanted are likely very different things.
      Example for any to think about. The term church if most were asked means building to worship God in. The church in the eyes of Christ based on a number of independant sources was a gathering of people worshipping God, the building was not only irrelevant but totally unecessary. The reason for the switch, God needs to be seen as powerful and the early Christians were seen as a potential threat, the building is a symbol of power and containment is a good system of control. The fact that churches were buildings was later used to ensure taxes were paid by making attendance compulsory and collecting taxes there, so far from the ideals of the man being worshipped it is unreal.

      Morality is difficult, especially when trying to live by ideals that were for a world two millenia past. The basics are easy but details get confusing. If you don't see why you haven't read very well.

      The best Christians I have known accept they have no real idea if they are living as Christ would have wanted or not because we have no written words from him. The one gospel presented that was believed to be his was deemed a fake and we are not even allowed to see what it said. This could be deemed a conspiracy or it could be for real, after all the man himself will have been a tad busy to sit down and write a whole gospel, who would he have given it to and when.
      I would like to see what it said because even if it was a fake it was a fake from the correct time and would have been written by a fan of Christ himself who liked his ideals and wanted to spread them.

    2. There's something a little unsettling (not from my Christian perspective but from a debating perspective) about pointing out that it was written "many years after his death." I'm not sure if this is your intention or if it's just what I'm reading into it after observing or being part of too many arguments over religion, but I'm getting the implication here that the NT sources being written after his death ("many years after," in fact) is a point of discrediting. Of course, most of the content of the NT is thought to be written 20-40 years after his death, with some of the books put into the 60-year-mark. Obviously, even 1 degree of separation is enough room for inaccuracies to arise (unintentionally or deliberately), but in the context of classical historical literature (in which it's often been centuries before the first known resource was written, and even more centuries before the first known copies of that resource are found), this is relatively minor. Not flawless, admittedly.

      My understanding is that in the 1st Century, the Roman empire didn't want anyone following Jesus, and it wasn't until the 3rd-4th Century that Rome became Christianised (and at the same time Romanised Christianity). At this point, there were many, many, many Christian texts available. IIRC, the requirements for any of those texts to make it into the NT were:

      1) Had to be written either by an immediate follower of Christ (first-generation Christian), or one of their immediate followers (second-generation Christian).
      2) Needed apostolic authority (ie written by an apostle or referenced by an apostle).
      3) Needed to be internally consistent (ie you couldn't have one gospel that teaches the Trinity, one that teaches that Jesus is God's son but not God's Son, one that teaches that he's a prophet but not a deity, one that teaches that he's an influential teacher but not divine, etc).

      The last point makes it very clear what biases were being used to determine what was established as canon vs heresy. It should go without saying that the goal of the NT authors and of those who declared them to be canon was to present Jesus as the eternal Son of God in human flesh to deal with the problems of humanity in relation to God; not to provide fuel for any number of debates or positions on who Jesus is. The combination of requirements for a text to become part of the canon definitely narrow things down to a very specific time line, set of authors and ideologies. But it also narrows it down to a group of authors who either knew Jesus very well (or were continuing the tradition of those who did) and were in a position to talk about him with reasonable accuracy, or to a collective group of liars who had no qualms with misrepresenting the man. That may be a false dichotomy, but I don't see a lot of room for alternative explanations.

    3. Moving along, you make a good point about the meaning of church. I seem to recall Jesus saying something along the lines of: "When two or more of you meet together in my name, there I will be" (or something like that). I was pretty quick on the uptake that church is a community, not a location, and that's been my go-to definition for a while. From what I can tell, not a lot of good has come -- for faithful Christianity or the broader population -- from institutionalising Christianity as a state religion and enforcing it. I think it waters down Christianity if everyone's a Christian just because the state says so, and it results in those who wouldn't formally be Christians if they had a say in the matter feeling oppressed by it, for starters. I could go on, but I'm having trouble articulating further points on that matter. If I were to go on, the key point I'd want to get at is that Christian theology teaches that it's about a relationship with God first and foremost, with ethical implications being a result of that relationship, rather than earning God's favour through ethics. The point there being that there may be Christian values and ethics that are beneficial for society as a whole, but for us to enforce those ethics on society won't make society right with God.

    4. Sorry Ryan I have been used to quick snapshots of people declaring they have the true answer to what Christian morality really means with such certainty as your other guest and in all honesty have found they have never considered the concept that they may be wrong.
      One of the strengths of your faith is you have a great deal of knowledge and accept the difference between this and answers.
      I have also had a few too many people who feel that being Christian or for that matter belonging to any other faith makes them better people than I am. Ironic then that when my son was attending a church and taking us along for transportation and supervision we were noted as the people most likely to help out and support others, and I would say that was a good church too.
      The desrciption of where the gospels originate is not to discredit them but make people think about the range of potential inaccuracies that are going to be in them. Life and time changes your recollection of events and even opinions. Thing I thought were fine and acceptable years ago I have done total U turns on later in life. The police have even noticed that if you leave witnesses alone after a crime the least reliable parts of the statements are those they all totally agree on because the mind remembers the conversations about the events better than events themselves.
      The information we have in the bible is as accurate as we are likely to get, but the various type of inaccuracies and even contradictions have given theologians lots of fun for centuries. My interest in Christianity and most religions is from the point of historic reference, and studying history makes me very critical on any documentation or indeed any evidence at all. If I saw a photo of a dripping knife and person fallng away from it I would first think murder as with most then ask what is dripping from the knife, is the person falling dead or just tripping over etc. Basically I make snap judgements because I am human and then assess them because I want to be awkward.
      In summary I have never and will never hate or even dislike religion, it does great things around the world everyday. What I do hate is people assuming they have the answers without looking past one book or others based on that one book, or worse yet small parts of one book. Christians are not alone in this, a fact responsible for mass ignorance and conflict the world over.

      The concept of church meaning community is definately a point too many miss. I figured you would be smart enough to have picked up on it. Definately my favourite part of Christianity, the concept that the very act of you and I conversing about the faith makes us a church even if I am not worshipping and I love that. I would like to know what Jesus himself really was like and how he lived, and I have put in a reasonable amount of time trying to find out, ironically the faith that has grown around him is the thing that makes it so difficult, as with many great people in history.

      When looking at ethics most faiths have many of the basic rules in common. This fact is why the fundamental laws in many countries are so similar, the earliest of them will have been based on the rules of the religion followed. As you say the irony of this is that by enforcing them trhough law they have removed themselves from religion and enforcement by God as the ultimate power. Personally I am glad for most of the laws we have and even many of the modern forms of punishment, although I know many are not affective as often as they should be. The threat of prison, being removed from my family, is far more terrifying to me than the concept of eternal damnation.

    5. I'm about to head off and do some churching in about 7 minutes time, so I'll be brief, but I will say that it is unfortunate how many people think that being part of x religion = being good and not being a part of that religion = being bad. Admittedly, once upon a time I made the same assumptions about myself and others; now, while I'm not into Eastern forms of spirituality, I think the yin and yang imagery is a better description of all people -- everyone has some good in them and everyone has some bad in them.

      This topic also brings up the old (false) argument that if you're not a [insert religion here] you can't have morals. It amazes me when adults use that rationale. I think the belief or disbelief in a god or gods or spirits has a big role in influencing a person's morals, and possibly an even bigger role in how someone justifies or comes to their moral positions, but to say that you can't have morals without believing in God is demonstrably false.

  3. If you had never made any incorrect assumptions based on your faith I would be worried about you. It would mean you had never reflected enough to realise that the assumption was wrong, and make me wonder why I have such a high opinion of your intelligence.
    Yin and yang symbol is brilliant, showing that there is a little of heaven on earth and a little of earth in heaven.
    I used to think those needing religion to tell them how to be decent people obviously weren't to start with. Harsh and totally wrong, but the people I saw using God's name the most growing up where military or churches who seemed set preparing their flock for such service, and there were a lot of blessings for people going out to kill. One parson I spoke to was from a different area struggled and would only ask for God to return them home safe, but he knew this would mean them killing others to be sure they came back.
    I struggled to see how an establishment that would allow let alone condone one group of Christian followers to go out to kill another, especially knowing the same was happening on the other side and both were seeking praise from the same God.
    Later I saw a lot more Christians and followers of other faiths and found that far from being isolated for loathing this I was welcomed and they hated it as much as I did, seeing it as an insult to their faith and belief. My eyes were opened a lot by this and I found many that already had the morals before the faith, so the religion hadn't given them guidlines just strength to follow the path they already had.

    Moral highground is a dangerous place to be, high horses hurt more to fall from. Morals are deeply personal and change over time.
    An example of something I have done many times which can seem good or bad dependant on viewpoint. A lot of my time was spent travelling to observe nature, while doing so I have encountered animals suffering in traps, with disease, like miximitosis, poisons etc. Without exception I made assessments and if I felt their suffering was too much killed them. This means I ended suffering for animals who would have died anyway but more slowly and horribly than how I did it, but I will undoubtedly have got some wrong and ended the lives of animals who could have recovered if a predator didn't catch them first. I am not a vet and animals in that situation aren't easy to contain so I made the decisions without full knowledge and am as likely to have released animals that will have been too badly hurt to survive as to have killed those which did, equally as horrible.
    What some may consider bizzare is that I think with more regret about the animals I have killed or let go from traps etc. than about those I have deliberately sought out and killed to eat. I see killing something to provide me with food as morally unquestionable while doing so to an animal I will then leave for fear of contamination as potentially wrong. The act is the same but the moral standpoint is different.
    I am not universally right because others will disagree, but I am living to my own moral code. I have a great deal of time for people who have a code and stick to it, whether that is from religion or life in general. The times I look back on with the most regret are times when I didn't stick to my own code.


For reasons that are beyond me, I like to hear what people think, so please leave a comment and let's work together to trick random passers-by into thinking this blog is actually popular.