We can find plenty of goodness in the world. Human patience, generosity, forgiveness, and tolerance abound. It’s just as well. How else could we hope to tackle crime, moderate the effects of tyranny, lessen terrorism, and decrease warfare? Bad things if left to themselves will go their own ‘unsweet way’ and cause immense hardship, pain and suffering.
Just as humanity does humane things, it does inhumane things as well. People may do good things. People also cause social evil. Our main hope is that more of us behave a lot better. Act with more consideration than thoughtlessness; more compassion than indifference; and more love than hate. But how optimistic can we be? This may depend on where goodness itself comes from. Is it inherent in human beings or does it originate from beyond us all?
Here are five different ways of thinking about this question. Take your pick as to which is more convincing.
Scientific perspective on goodness
The atheist evolutionist finds no difficulty in accounting for pain, hatred and evil. These are woven into the fabric of evolutionary theory. His problem is: where did love, altruism and good originate? It is theorised that goodness is nothing more than a natural instinct. One that protects oneself and one’s near relatives for the sake of survival.
Humanistic perspective on goodness
We all have a strong sense of living from ourselves. This attitude is perhaps not surprising. Each of us is aware of being a separate self-contained individual; one with a mind and body of one’s own quite apart from other people and all else in nature.
So we see ourselves as the origin of our thinking and willing. These are my feelings, my thoughts and my desires. In other words our good feelings do have a source. They come from us. They are our own.
The result is the humanist belief that human beings are basically good. Why else, it is asked, do we hate injustice so much? And why else are we so deeply moved by beauty and so touched by acts of kindness?
“I believe in the innate goodness of most people in this world, and yet I’m a damaged soul like many other people and have my own demons and things I struggle with.” (James Gunn, filmmaker and actor)
Critics, of humanism, ask if we are basically good, why is dishonesty, infidelity, greed, envy, laziness, cruelty, often found in human affairs?
An alternative view arises from those who experience a sense of awe and wonder at the vastness and oneness of the universe. In its order and design they sense and infinite power of goodness beyond their own limited self. Such experiences seem to come to people from outside of themselves; ecstatic states tinged with feeling in harmony with nature and being connected to all life.
“Once, in the outback with a group of friends, I had a powerful sensation of the earth as a living, breathing being, with myself connected to it as a smaller being. This feeling of aliveness extended to the galaxies above, and to the night sky teeming with points of starry light. This changed my perspective on everything.” (student essay reported by David Tacey)
Abraham Maslow, an atheist psychologist, studied such transcendent experiences and commented that those experiencing these are more likely to feel that life in general is worthwhile, even if it is usually drab, pedestrian, or painful, since beauty, excitement, honesty, play, goodness, truth and meaningfulness have been demonstrated to exist.
According to writer Ken Wilber there is a higher transpersonal state of consciousness in which the sense of unity with the natural world is not lost or denied. Rather, it is supplemented by a sense of connectedness to the invisible, spiritual, formless aspect of the cosmos. He suggests that this experience of the Spirit that pervades the cosmos is interpreted in specific cultural contexts: Jews refer to it by the name of Yahweh, Christians by the name of Christ, Hindus by the name of Krishna or Shiva, etc. However, all these share an awareness of an invisible Spirit that is present throughout the universe and in some sense transcends the material universe.
“People worshipping goodness and love and kindness and truth are worshipping the same God.” (Anne Lamott, novelist & essayist)
Vision of a spiritual sun
If there is no source of goodness beyond human beings then it follows that humanity deserves all the credit for what good we achieve in bringing about happiness. This idea of human merit sounds egoistic. It runs counter to spiritual humility and contrasts with a religious orientation.
“There is none good but God.” (Matthew 19:17)
We can picture the Divine as a sun with great heat and light; its rays flowing into our hearts and minds; there kindling the warmth of human love and shining the light of human wisdom. And so without this inspiration we have no goodness of our own.
My own conclusion
Even if God is the source of all that is good, that would not be enough. This is because there is still a lot of bad stuff around in the world. Part of the answer is my own personal choice; whether or not to allow goodness to flow into my mind. Just focusing on the bad in politics and society, our outlook becomes a bit warped.
To find peace and happiness, it is necessary to look outside of yourself, not to be egocentric, but to have open-heartedness, to try to be helpful. To get on with those who annoy me, I need to remain mindful of the possibility that everybody, like me, is a work in progress.
“Try to see the good in others. When you’re tempted to judge someone, make an effort to see their goodness. Your willingness to look for the best in people will subconsciously bring it forth.” (Marianne Williamson, inspirational speaker)
As a clinical psychologist, Stephen Russell-Lacy has specialised in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy, working for many years with adults suffering distress and disturbance.
He edits Spiritual Questions a free eZine that explores links between spiritual philosophy and the comments and questions of spiritual seekers. You can share your views and find out more about making sense of life.
His eBook Heart, Head and Hands draws links between the psycho-spiritual teachings of the eighteenth century spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg and current ideas in therapy and psychology.