If you believe that good is a real and necessary part of the universe


Part of why I’m interested in this claim of Conor Friedersdorf’s that

Nick happens to be one of the best people I know. Even though I don’t have faith in the same things that he does, I see how his faith makes him a better person. I see how he makes the world a better place, and how his belief system drives him to do it. And whenever I think about Nick, I think to myself, you know, I disagree with the Catholic faith on a lot of particulars, but there must be nuggets of truth within it if it inspires people like Nick to be this good.

is because I want to figure out how he gets there. I want to see if we can find a persuasive chain of reasoning, or if he’s just describing a feeling or hunch or intuition or association that he hasn’t thought about carefully enough – a bit of fast thinking with no follow-up slow thinking.

Minow offered one such chain.

There is no doubt that a disproportionately large number of religious people dedicate their lives to good works without expectation of any material reward. I think that you are more likely to do that if an institution exists that will help manage it (the church) and if you believe that good is a real and necessary part of the universe, rather than just a philosophical position or a utilitarian benefit. And religion takes you there.

One problem with that is that Friedersdorf said the Catholic faith, not religion in general. I would love to know what he meant – which specifically Catholic nuggets he has in mind.

But put that aside for now. What about the claim that you’re more likely to devote your life to good works if you believe that good is a real and necessary part of the universe, rather than just a philosophical position or a utilitarian benefit? Is that right? Is it persuasive?

I’m not sure. It seems to me it makes just as much sense, or maybe more, the other way around. I don’t think that “good” (which is a human label or category or construct) is a real and necessary part of the universe; on the contrary. The reality on this planet at least is that terror and pain are part of daily life for most sentient animals, so it would make more sense to claim that “bad” is a real and necessary part of the universe. I don’t think that’s true either, but I would certainly say that suffering and agony are a necessary result of natural selection and that there’s nothing good about that fact.

So if we want to cause the world (we can’t do much about the universe, let’s face it) to have more good in it, we have to make it ourselves. Why wouldn’t that make us more likely to devote our lives to good works than a belief that good is already part of the fabric of everything?

Comments

  1. angharad says

    I think for me it comes down to this: there is really not a lot of difference between human beings. It is purely chance that I am in fortunate circumstances (albeit with a really dreadful head cold) and someone else is not. If they could just as easily be me, then I should help them.

  2. Dan L. says

    That argument occurred to me as well, though just to restate the argument I actually made in response to Minow’s comment:

    Belief in a metaphysical notion of “good” can’t be justified beyond merely having faith in it whereas belief in philosophical ethical principles can be justified by reference to more elementary premises which imply those principles.

    Another argument is that it shouldn’t actually matter. Whether you believe “good” is a metaphysical entity unto itself or whether you believe “good” is a subjective description of some physical state of affairs has no obvious bearing on whether you value what you consider “good” or what you should be willing to do to achieve it.

    I’d also like to restate my objection to that first sentence of Minow’s:

    There is no doubt that a disproportionately large number of religious people dedicate their lives to good works without expectation of any material reward.

    S/he’s playing on an ambiguous meaning of “material.” For someone who believes in heaven as the best of all possible rewards and believes good works should result in going to heaven, heaven is indeed a “material reward.” By definition heaven is a better reward than all the money in the world. In that case, we should consider someone doing good works for the sake of getting to heaven as having an expectation of a reward that is more valuable than all the money in the world.

    The problem is that the argument depends on “immaterial rewards” being less valuable than “material rewards” but in the case of religious belief in the doctrine of salvation “immaterial rewards” are actually more valuable than “material rewards” (infinitely so).

  3. Bjarte Foshaug says

    I don’t think that good is a real and necessary part of the universe either, but even if I did, why should the biblical God equip me with the moral sense that forces me to view him as the absolute antithesis of every moral value ever conceived? With a god like that, who needs the devil?

    Of course fundamentalists don’t have this problem since to them “good” is just another word for “whatever God happens to be/do/want”, whether it’s genocide, stoning, slavery, forcing anyone who disobeys him to eat their children, exterminating all life on earth, or torturing people for eternity for thoughtcrime. Of course that just changes the problem from whether or not God is “good” to whether or not being “good” is anything to strive for anyway. If Yahweh is your idea of “good”, why should anyone want to be “good”?

  4. says

    I would say that, when I was a Christian. the idea that “good is a real and necessary part of the universe” had a strong effect on my thinking. What’s not clear is that it had any commensurate effect on my behaviour (using my current atheist, moral non-realist, self as a comparison). I just *want* other humans to live long, happy lives the same as I want it for myself (even aside from consequentialist considerations about reciprocity), and I’m willing to do my small bit to help that happen. The metaphysics, in the end, turns out to be window dressing.

  5. says

    What about the claim that you’re more likely to devote your life to good works if you believe that good is a real and necessary part of the universe, rather than just a philosophical position or a utilitarian benefit? Is that right? Is it persuasive?

    The claim that “good is a real and necessary part of the universe” is so vague it’s in the “not even wrong” category. What does it even mean when it’s applied to a non-material thing like a concept of “good?” If one sentient creature in the Universe has an idea of “good” in his/her/its/their mind, does that mean “good” is “part” of the Universe? And how does Minnow define “necessary?”

    I think Minnow is arguing from a form of essentialism, where “good” is some sort of palpable thing or essence that can infuse all or part of the Universe.

  6. busterggi says

    “without expectation of any material reward”

    No, they expect a better than material reward – not doing good for free despite what they say.

  7. Al Dente says

    Many of us try to make the world a better place for ourselves and others. We are social animals, shaped by evolution to live in packs. We follow certain rules, placed by nature or nurture or both, which allow us to live in society. These rules include: Don’t kill others unnecessarily; support your own and others’ children; share resources to the extent you’re comfortable with. There are outliers who don’t follow these rules and we often label these people “sociopaths,” i.e. people who violate social norms or indulge in anti-social behavior.

    To be good is to act in socially acceptable ways. However it can be argued that good as such is an artificial standard. Certain behaviors can be “good” in one society and “bad” in another. Most of Western society would agree that cannibalism is bad behavior. However in The Virus That Ate Cannibals Carol Eron described the Fore tribe in New Guinea who held funeral feasts where the deceased was the main course. The Fore held having grandma as an entrée was honoring her and letting her support the tribe even after her death. Likewise many cultures accepted feud killing as good behavior. In the 16th Century in the Anglo-Scottish border marches there were multi-generational feuds. The Maxwell-Johnstone feud was particularly bloody. It was brought to an end in 1608 when the king brought Lord Maxwell and Sir James Johnstone together to effect a reconciliation. Precautions were taken to ensure a friendly meeting and during it Maxwell shot Johnstone twice in the back. Maxwell was later executed, which did actually end the feud.

    So when good is sometimes a matter of controversy, it becomes difficult to assign causes for good behavior. As with Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography, I can’t give a hard and fast definition of good but I know it when I see it. Since good can be decided by individual or societal preference, the causes of good become nebulous.

  8. says

    There is no doubt that a disproportionately large number of religious people dedicate their lives to good works without expectation of any material reward.

    I would argue that people who do good works do receive a reward. It’s not “material” in a physical sense, but doing good things results in one feeling better about oneself and one’s part in society. That’s certainly a factor for me: even though I know that helping people is the right thing to do, I also appreciate the fact that I feel good for doing it. That’s surely also true of religious people, so I think it’s somewhat disingenuous for anyone to claim that they do good things without any expectation of reward.

    Moreover, people do good things even when there is the distinct possibility of the opposite of material reward–such as physical pain, loss, etc. Even non-religious people. It strikes me that praising religion (or worse yet, any one specific religion) as a primary source driving people to do good works is at best oversimplifying a nuanced set of human behaviors, and at worst, just wrong.

  9. Gordon Willis says

    Well, religion may or may not “take you there”, but I think it depends on who you are. We have recently learnt that Catholic hospitals are alarmingly dangerous places to go, for some people, because there are strings attached to the good that believers believe they are doing which can militate against doing any good at all. The problem with having an ulterior motive is that it blinds one to the real needs. In fact, a believer can be so damn sure that they know the “real” needs already that they don’t really pay proper attention.

    So it can work two ways, and the religious people who do most good are probably the ones who just get on and assume that God will sort out the theology when he gets round to it. I think that for these people, compassion comes first, and although they may feel inspired by their religion, I doubt if religion itself produces compassion — in fact, I see no reason at all to suppose it, and some reason to think that a disposition to arrogance and intolerance is as likely to be confirmed by religion as a disposition towards caring and cherishing. So it depends on who you are in the first place, and there is no particular reason to assume that religious people who devote themselves to what they think of as “good works” are in fact doing good rather than harm. One should also bear in mind that now that religions have less power over our lives, and many nonbelievers are finding that they can speak out, there is an increasing number of nonreligious organisations dedicated to good causes, sometimes in the teeth of religious opposition. I see no reason why this trend should not continue.

    We haven’t said anything about how people in their everyday lives are capable of spontaneous acts of great kindness with little or no thought for themselves. These happen all the time, and they can come from anywhere, regardless of background or belief. This says a lot about our nature, and I think that it is the reason why there is so much talk about compassion in religion in the first place.

  10. Gordon Willis says

    and there is no particular reason to assume that religious people who devote themselves to what they think of as “good works” are in fact doing good rather than harm.

    Careless of me. That ought to be “no general reason…”

  11. says

    “There is no doubt that a disproportionately large number of religious people dedicate their lives to good works without expectation of any material reward.”

    And there is no doubt that a disproportionately large number of non-religious people dedicate their lives to good works without expectation of any material reward. Time and again, studies have indicated that altruism is an intrinsic part of primate behavior and that primates will willingly offer assistance to others in their group without expectation of reward. Once we humans accept the idea of “we are one family” — a doctrine that is intrinsic to many religions as well as the humanistic worldview held by many atheists — it becomes almost instinctive to do good for one another. It is a group survival tactic that has evolved over millions of years, and it has no need for mysticism or mumbo-jumbo to explain it.

  12. says

    @8: I would argue that people who do good works do receive a reward…..[including entire paragraph]

    I’ve thought this for a number of years. Many (though not all) “altruistic” acts bring the reward of self-approbation, the flip side of which is the negative re-inforcement of shame for not rendering aid (religious persons externalize this as God’s approval or disapproval), or enhanced social reputation (though Jesus deprecated this mode). Even life-risking sacrifice can be motivated by the prospective shame of being accused (self-accused, if the ethic has been sufficiently internalized, eg. by military training) of cowardice.

  13. Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion says

    I disagree with the idea that if you believe good exists and is a necessary part of the universe in a religious context, you will be compelled to do good. In fact, I see it as potentially inspiring exactly the opposite.

    Religious beliefs* tend to take concepts and try to form them into “things”. Love becomes a thing – god is love. Evil becomes a thing, the devil. Faith becomes the thing you must do all the time, sin and martyrdom and all those words becomes much more than their original concepts, they become monolithic constructs that have both meaning and grand, mysterious purpose. The issue is that imbuing a word with such gravitas puts it above lay people, it’s more important and mysterious and holy (or unholy) – bigger – than them.”Good” is a word that’s taken on this grandeur, and it’s become a personification rather than a concept. There’s this “good” that exists and continues to work on its own and can’t be influenced by humans because it’s “bigger” than us. People don’t have to do good – good will simply manifest itself through people if necessary. It’s a passive attitude, not an active fostering of the urge to do good deeds.

    Secondly, if you’re being threatened with a big stick – hell – for not doing good, there’s technically an incentive to do it, but catholic doctrine contradicts itself on this concept in so many ways it’s easy enough to justify pretty much any behaviour within a catholic framework as “good”. Killing someone could be justified very easily by any of the OT passages in leviticus that decree death as a punishment. Considering what atrocities the bible promotes as godly laws, the concept that god is good can mean… well, just about anything. considering that the research shows that direct correlation occurs between a person’s own beliefs and what they believe to be their deity’s beliefs, religion serves predominantly as a personal belief-justifying tool. It imbues a person’s own thoughts with an infinite importance, so that person may technically (within the varyingly nebulous boundaries of their particular flavour of religion) do pretty much anything and call it good.

    Not exactly a recipe for success. For someone to do Good (the real-life concept, not religiously personified) from a religious prspective, they must already have a personal concept of good that meshes well with the general concept of good. In other words, they’ll do it independent of their religion, sometimes in stark contrast to it. Most religious people will say their religion inspires them to do good, whether that is true or not depends entirely on that person’s personal beliefs, often shaped by that very religion into something totally distinct from reality.

    *Going for christian concepts here since the topic is catholic belief.

  14. jenBPhillips says

    Something really cool happened tonight, and is remotely connected enough to this thread to share it here without being woefully off-topic:

    My 7th grader’s Language Arts/Social Studies teacher just called me for a 5 minute parent-teacher conference, by phone. He gave me a lot of ‘your kid is great, kind, thoughtful, smart, getting straight A’s, love having him in class’ AND then followed that up by telling me that, during class discussions of world religion, he really appreciated how open my kid was about being a non-believer, that having that perspective present in the class was really enriching the teaching and learning experiences. First time he’s every had a student who was comfortable being ‘out’ as an atheist, I guess. It makes a mama proud to know my kid’s out there presenting all the wonderfulness that can still occur in the total absence of religious upbringing.

  15. ajb47 says

    I don’t buy into the proposition that good is a real and necessary part of the universe. The universe doesn’t care about us. The low amount of places in the universe that humans can actually live shows that. The universe has no good or evil, things just are. I take the Green Man as an exemplar here. Or some versions of a personification of Death — Death happens — it isn’t good or evil[1].

    Which leaves it to us (those who can) to take care of the rest of us (those who can’t). That is where the”good” in the universe come from. My thoughts on the subject of “good” in the universe is that you should leave the universe better than you found it.

    [1] – Not talking about the act that causes the death. The concept I am trying to refer to is that death happens to all of us.

  16. sailor1031 says

    Isn’t it perfectly apparent by now that the universe really doesn’t give a fuck? Talk about yer supreme indifference…..

  17. John Morales says

    [pedantry]

    sailor1031 @17, your meaning is clear and your contention not something I’d care to dispute, but I think your phrasing is problematic because it doesn’t exclude the possibility that it could give a fuck — which can’t, because it’s not opinionative being.

  18. says

    @18: Agreed. I’ve long felt that even saying “The universe doesn’t care about you” gives the universe entirely too much credit. It’s like saying “This rock doesn’t care about you”. “Indifference” doesn’t even begin to adequately describe the complete absence of give-a-fuck.

    We (and maybe our pets) are the only part of the universe that cares about us.

Trackbacks

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>