Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Being Good, for Goodness' Sake

I like fantasy stories in general ranging from classic Tolkien to more modern derivations thereof as well as fantasies deriving from other cultures, especially Asia.  A common theme among Asian fantasies is the individual who is trying to achieve enlightenment.  In the course of this quest, at least in Western attempts at such, there often comes a point where the paradox of this search is explained: namely that in order to achieve enlightenment, one must transcend desires, absolutely all desires, including the desire to become enlightened.

This is where you come to inherent question: how do you achieve something if you don't really have the desire to achieve it?

I started with that to lead into the discussion I wanted to get to: being good.  By this, I mean more than just behaving in a good manner, but actually being good.

As with anything else, we have two basic strategies in encouraging people to do something: positive and negative reinforcement.  AKA Bribes and threats.

"If you're good, we'll go to McDonalds."

"Clean up your room, or you can't go to the library." (yes, I was a geek even as a little kid)

After a long enough time exposed to a society, the bribes and threats become intrinsic.  We watch people around us and we see one set of behaviors rewarded and another set of behaviors is punished and we start to adapt in response to that.  The result is that most behavior comes about in response to a desire of one sort or another and entails some level of selfishness.

The desires need not be material.  It could be a desire for approval a certain individual or a desire to avoid disappointing the same or another individual.

"Jesus answered, 'I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.'"

I have only an idea what Jesus meant when he spoke the words that were later translated into this, but it at least appears clear and many believers in the Christian faith have used this statement to prove that Christianity is the only true religion.  They extrapolate further that you won't get to heaven unless you accept Jesus in your heart.

Being Christian, I have faith in the idea that there is one true God and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  However, that statement, at least as it is commonly used, is a combination of bribe and threat.  If you accept God and Jesus, then you get Eternal Life in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Conversely, if you don't accept God and Jesus, then you don't get Eternal Life with some individuals stating that you instead get Eternal Suffering.

The problem with this is that if that is your motivation for accepting God, then are you really accepting God or are you just trying to acquire something.

There is nothing wrong with a basic level of selfishness, it is needed for mental and physical health.  The aforementioned nature of society's inherent bribes and threats serves to provide a secure structure of known rules and results.  Such a structure is required for a person to be comfortable enough to consider things beyond the basic needs of survival of self and species.

However, it is only a foundational structure.  Motivations like a desire for life after death or the approval of a parent are desires.  Even if they are somewhat more elevated, by perception if nothing else, than a desire for such material things as money or physical pleasures.

Which is where we come to the enlightenment paradox mentioned above.

The desire to be good.

How can you be good, really good, if you are only acting in a manner regarded as good due to a desire to be good, then is your behavior genuine?

On the other hand, if you don't ever think about the nature of actions and whether they are good or not, then how can succeed at being good.

For example, operating under the base assumption that God wants us to be good, if your only reason for being good is because God wants you to be, then, again, you're not yet being good even if you are being benevolent.

To be good, somehow we must divorce ourselves from the desires that encourage that behavior and just do it.

Obedience to the law.  Belief in God.

Both things that I respect and agree with, but at an extreme level of perfection could be considered an obstacle to being truly good.

On the other hand, this entire rant, which is quite clearly over-thinking the situation, is also an example of the same.

So here's another thing, do you abandon completely these desires and beliefs just because they represent motivations that could color our intentions to be less than pure?

I don't think so.

I think such things make us a fuller, more complete person.  Dropping desires, material or elevated, are just further evidence that we're being motivated by those desires.  Having the desires in and of themselves are not a bar being good and they can be, in fact, tools to improve ourselves or enhance our lives and the lives of those around us.

But it still remains an interesting question.

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